The Evolution of Viral Marketing and Social Media

Change is at the very core of evolution and without it, all creatures would look alike and behave the same way.
-Martin Dansky

Communication has always been a social phenomenon, stretching back through time since before written language. But the rise of the internet has created new forms of media for memes to travel through, accelerating their spread and changing the selection pressures applied upon them. Each type of contagious media has its own criteria for success that are largely determined by the evolutionary pressures applied on it.

The first memes probably spread through humanity not as written, or likely even spoken word. Early humans were subject to the most brutal evolutionary meme pressures in that the information they learned was often a matter of life and death. One person could learn the location of a good hunting spot, or which berries were poisonous and the rest of their group would learn from them. Thus, mankind evolved to be especially adept at imitating the actions of others. If someone else was doing something, it was often a good idea to copy them, rather than try new and potentially dangerous new things.

The Homeric poems were authored hundreds of years before they were ever written down. Something about those poems, and the rest of the oral tradition kept them alive and traveling from person to person by literal “word of mouth” only. For instance, referential elements are rare in pure-oral cultures and stories are very often shaped as a David-and-Goliath-style narrative. This type of evolutionary environment demands that these poems were easy to remember and had built-in redundancy to protect vital plot elements from the contortions of purely oral transmission.

Written language allows those individuals and organizations with the tools and infrastructure for distribution to broadcast ideas to masses of people, but average people seldom had access to the same mechanisms. The only source of “authoritative” information was from the mainstream media. This means that even after written language was developed, peer-to-peer (truly social communication) occurred almost exclusively by speech.

Oral memes have propagated in a variety of forms including rumors, gossip, urban legends, slang, and proverbs. While these were sometimes also published in printed media, before the web they existed almost entirely in an oral context. These memes were still operated in a landscape where memory and retention are the most scarce resources, so those that grew and spread were very good at being remembered. Because authoritative content came only from top-down structures at this point, there were often “information gaps”, things the masses didn’t know about but wanted to. These vacuums were often quickly filled with legends, rumors and myth.

Chain letters are one form of contagious, pre-web, written, peer-to-peer media. But the postal service is a slow and limiting broadcast machine. We did not see the real power and reach chain letters were capable of until email came along. Recording a meme outside of the brain by writing it removes the selection pressure for easy to remember memes, so some of the mnemonics common in oral communication took a backseat to other features. Instead, there is a higher level of commitment and engagement (and postage investment) required before an individual will resend a letter, so the most valuable evolutionary trait for chain letters is their ability to motivate readers. Motivations come in the form of dire warnings of bad things that will happen to the reader if they “break the chain” and promises of great fortune if they continue it. In successful chain letters most of these claims are designed to be unverifiable, so they’re impossible to disprove.

The advent of the web gave average individuals the tools to quickly and easily send memes to not only those people they know personally, but also to re-broadcast them in one-to-many ways. this change allowed peer-to-peer communications take a written evolutionary path. The web allows users to spread exact duplicates of memes. Users can cut-and-paste the URL of a story and pass it on, in its original form to as many people as they like. This radically changes the selection pressures on memes by removing the need for the meme to be extremely efficient in lodging itself in its host’s memory.

The high copying-fidelity of the web makes it easier for more (even complex and referential) memes to proliferate and and the increased reach it gives the average person provides for a larger set of possible hosts. This means that the sheer number of memes (or attempted memes) has grown astronomically and their spread has accelerated, creating a new selection pressure for successful memes– they now have to cut through the clutter. Successful web memes are the ones that are most effective at quickly engaging user’s attentions and exploiting the huge reach bestowed upon users by the internet.

Email chain letters evolved from their written counterparts and exploited a powerful feature of the new medium: the forward button. When emails are forwarded, not only does the sender send an exact copy to some or all of his contacts (nearly eliminating the memory requirements found in oral memes) but the software usually attaches a list of other people who have resent or received the letter. These headers become a powerful form of social proof and are perhaps to blame for many email chain letters’ infectiousness because they play on human’s innate drive to imitate.

Instant messaging is another new media that has changed the face of social communications by allowing for two-way, real-time, written dialog. A more informal and personal method than email, memes that succeed through IM are often those that remind one person of another and will start or continue a conversation between the two people.

Social news sites have grown as a memetic watering hole for highly-influential savvy web users. Sites like Digg and Reddit are regular must-reads for an unprecedented collection of highly contagious individuals. Voting and commenting is often publicly visible on these sites which stimulates the need for an overwhelming amount of social proof before a meme “breaks through”. Social voting sites are the media that has best evolved to leverage the imitative nature of social interaction.

Blogging has its own set of more subtle social proof indicators. Readers take into account everything from the design and grammar of a site to the number of comments on each post and the number of subscribers to the blog’s feed into account when deciding if it is “authoritative” enough to spread.

Microblogging is one of the newest forms of contagious media and we don’t yet totally understand the selection pressures present for memes on sites like Twitter. The low-level of engagement required for a user to spread an idea combined with the high-speed of new content updates means that those memes which ask most directly and strongly for users to spread them tend to do very well without much motivation required.

Clearly, this is a pretty general survey of the evolution of viral marketing and social media, so I’m asking you guys to let me know what you think some of the selection pressures present in new media forms are.