Co-worker Aaron Coleman recently loaned me Bill Wasik’s And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. It’s relevant, really, to anyone in the information industry –from reporters to editors to communications specialists at, say, a major Midwestern research university.
For those who might not know, Wasik was the inventor of Flash Mobs — those trendy, semi-spontaneous, digitally-driven gatherings that got some head-scratching attention in the middle of the last decade. And Then There’s This uses the story of Flash Mobs to launch his examination of the rapidly shrinking half-life of stories in our culture as they weave their way through intermingled networks of websites, e-mail, blogs and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
In short, the web has created an epidemic of Information Glut coupled with a side order of Short Attention Span. This creates a problem for those of us in the content generation (and more importantly, content sharing) business — even if it’s really, really good, it stands a good chance of getting buried by new distractions after its fleeting 15 minutes of fame. And it’s among an increasing body of work pointing out the irony that, despite an ever-expanding library of news and opinion sources now available, we don’t take advantage of it. Instead, we box ourselves and our information consumption into smaller and smaller silos of people who agree with us.
Makes sense, then, why social media sites have become the new RSS feeds. In a way, they keep the mind-blowing amount of information available to us in perspective. Instead of going to the home pages of local newspaper Web sites, they’re turning to Facebook and Twitter as their most trusted filters — interacting only with the news and information that is shared by friends or acquaintances. Think about it: You check your Facebook page one morning. Your friend Steve has sent you a link to a story about a group of girls at a Massachusetts high school who formed a pregnancy pact, and you click through unhesitatingly. Because you know your friend Steve wouldn’t send you any junk. By sending it along, your friend Steve has stamped the link with his informal, digital seal of approval.
This explains why some stories take off, circulating throughout the blogosphere, forwarded endlessly via e-mail, shared via social media — and in some lucky cases for those of us in public relations, bubbling over into the mainstream media. It also explains why some stories get stopped in their tracks before they even get started. The trick is in deducing what your friend Steve (or John, or Bob, or Natalie …) might be likely to share with you.
And Then There’s This is a quick, easy read that defines the social theory of viral culture that now dominates how information is spread: Essentially, people get news from those they trust, and will pass it along to like-minded people who in all likelihood will trust them. It’s relevant to our communications strategy at UNL, in that when considering what stories to write, to release and to promote, the old tenets of news judgment aren’t adequate any more.
If we’re not asking What are the viral possibilities for this story? as we roll out a release, then we’re not asking the right questions.