Mass Participation and the Propagation of Memes

As recently as twenty years ago, pop culture ideas used to last a few years: parachute pants, pet potbellied pigs, the Super Bowl Shuffle…  Over time, as communication platforms began to supersede regionality and even nationality, those lifespans began to shrink: think William Hung, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Dancing Babies…

Today, pop culture ideas have the lifespan of mayflies.  As fast as something interesting appears, it gets shared, modified, name-checked by celebrities, then tossed aside like an empty soda can.  These accelerated life cycles spring directly from the internet and how it simplifies the act of forwarding.  Just this morning, a friend of mine in Italy posted this remarkable two minute video to his Facebook page and I’ve already retweeted it from Element 79’s Twitter account.  Simply because it’s awesome.  Best as I can tell, it’s a two minute viral piece for Levi’s but that doesn’t matter–again, because it’s awesome.

Clay Shirky cites this incredible ease of sharing as the driving force behind our ability to organize without organizations.  People in one region can share local news with the whole world simply by pressing a computer key.  And so we now enjoy an endless series of unrelated comic memes like Double Rainbows and Trololo Man and Kia HamstersDennis Ryan, Chicago Advertising, Element 79

All of this is an incredibly long set up for a silly but highly-enjoyable website I tripped over this past weekend called “Motivated Photos.”  The entire site is dedicated to viewer submitted riffs on the classic “Successories” style of motivational poster: those pedantic images framed in black with atop two-sized serif font headlines set in white capital letters.  Except this site is less focused on inspirational platitudes and more inclined to smartassery like this, or this, or this.

Sure, the site features way too much political stuff and many of the posts are exceedingly puerile, but that’s what you get with user-generated content: 70% dreck, 20% good, 10%great.  You have to skim for the cream, but it’s definitely there.  And definitely funny.

Happy Tuesday.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


Happy New Decade! Here’s One Prediction for Advertising in The Teens…

Not a list or a look back of any kind; just one prediction regarding all this industry convergence and confusion about how the advertising business we knew will evolve in the decade ahead…

#1.  The Days of Strategy Are Over.

The Age of Stories Is Upon Us.


That’s not a quote from The Lord of the Rings; that’s a truth that’s become increasingly obvious as we’ve dealt with seismic changes within both our industry and the culture as a whole.  We live in times when great masses of people can organize without organizations (good point Clay Shirky).  We live in times when recommendation drives sales more than any other factor (good business plan Zocalo Group).  We live in times when the way people can experience a brand–has never been more diverse (good luck with integration there, Bub).

Today’s reality renders the notion of a centralized advertising ‘strategy’ quaint.  The conceit that any advertiser controls their message is both dated and dangerous.  Strategies assume centralized authority which no longer exists in an empowered-public forum.  Strategies come from people with a vested interest, but these days, those people are only a part of the in-market dialogue.  Today, consumers have loud voices: socially-networked, extraordinarily powerful and digitally-amplified via Web 2.0 voices.  And their voices will be heard

All of which means that if we want to learn, we will have to unlearn–it’s not about just what we advocate, it’s about what consumers accept.  To lead we will also have to listen–not just to clients but to consumers whose voices are stronger than ever.

We will have to put aside the older ways and accept that to move forward, we will have to embrace one of the most primal and fundamental assets of our humanity: storytelling.  We will not only need to tell stories on our brands’ behalf in the future, we also must shape those stories, enhance those stories, make them more pertinent, more relevant, and more impactful to the people we want to buy our brands.  Sparking stories, guiding stories, monitoring and brightening stories–that will define the advertising business in the coming decade.

And so that will become our daily work.  Identifying the story.  Shaping the story.  Refining the story.  And most of all, spreading the story in a way that others pick up our narrative and spread it themselves.

We are no longer in the advertising business.  We are now in the oldest profession known to man: no, not that–the storytelling business. And it just may be the most antediluvian business at work today–telling stories for the entertainment and edification of others.  But at least it’s honest work.

Come to think of it, the years ahead should be a really good time.  A Happy Decade Ahead to All!

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

A New Local Network:

The people over at Tribune Media just debuted  a new blog network launched two weeks ago after three months in beta as  Aggregating seventy+ blogs that loosely share a Chicago-centric theme, this site aims to attract young, digitally-savvy readers uninterested in their daily paper and fill the widening hole in the Tribune’s demographic mix.

All News (and opinion and jokes and gossip) Is Local

All News (and opinion and jokes and gossip) Is Local

I wish them well, though I’m clearly not in their demographic.  I subscribe to the Trib and until someone comes up with an elegantly-interactive digital crossword, I’ll stay analog.  Moreover, I like the illusion that my news at least postures as objective; the injection of obvious left or right bias in every item both exhausts and depresses me.

ChicagoNow appeals to its nascent audience with a pretty wide variety of News and Opinion, Life and Style, Arts and Entertainment, and Sports blogs–category headings seemingly taken right off their print mastheads.  A quick skim of their content reveals a largely newspaper-like tone, albeit with the amped up personality and opinions of the individual bloggers.  For me, the reading experience was not unlike an evening of Chicago Improv: a few remarkable moments separated by a lot of meandering development.  Then again, the analog version contains a lot of material I skim or ignore as well.

The word ‘community’ appears repeatedly throughout the site’s background pages; something that will prove simultaneously crucial as they pitch potential advertisers and challenging as their biggest potential stumbling block.  The best online communities build organically (for perspective, check out this month’s Wired magazine’s article on Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist).  As Clay Shirky writes, Web 2.0 means we no longer need organizations to organize.  Moreover, the user experience needs to come first and foremost and on that count, ChicagoNow seems to be doing it right.  You don’t need to register to access the content, but it does unlock other features like comments.  The ill-fated, arrived too early, saddled-by-regulatory redtape ultimately collapsed due to those onerous restraints as the hassles to the user outweighed the benefits of the content.

Will ChicagoNow take off and ultimately fill the expanding gap in the Tribune’s audience with new, revenue-generating readers?  It’s too early to say, but as a fan of newspapers, I hope it does.  And if nothing else, good on them for trying.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Yes, You Can Tweet a Novel! But Why?

A Portion of Scott Weaver's Huge Kinetic Toothpick Sculpture of San Francisco

A Portion of Scott Weaver's Huge Kinetic Toothpick Sculpture of San Francisco

A skillful artist can make amazing things out of toothpicks and glue.  Self-taught Wayne Kusy builds ships like the Titanic and Lusitania.  His twenty-five feet long model of the Queen Mary required 814,000 toothpicks and nineteen gallons of wood glue.  Patrick Acton’s representational work with matchsticks earned his sculpture gallery the title of “Iowa Tourism’s Attraction of the Year” in 2007 (check out his timely “Hogwarts” piece).  And UK artist David Mach uses the business end of matchsticks to create a uniquely colorful take on this art form.

Each of these artists pulls together small scraps to make a much larger united whole.  And apparently, that’s what San Francisco novelist Matt Stewart is doing as he publishes what he claims to be the first novel released 140 characters at a time through Twitter.

“The French Revolution” will require upwards of 3,700 tweets to get the entire book out, an effort that has earned him invaluable press for a writer struggling to get his work noticed.  But only the novelty of the action merits coverage; in the end, 3,700 tweets do not aggregate into one piece in the same powerful way that 814,000 toothpicks aggregate into a twenty-five foot sculpture.  There is no final product, nothing to hold, nothing to skim, nothing to quickly re-read to refresh your take on a character, at least, not without a great deal of cutting and pasting.

So the story here is not that publishers have discovered a new manner to distribute their work.  Instead, it is yet another example of Clay Shirky’s theme of amateur empowerment through reducing the traditional cost of distribution, with the web usurping the role of the printing press for little to no transactional cost to Mr. Stewart.

Remarkable?  Yes, rather.  Sustainable?  Not really.

by Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Technology Provides A Mass Channel for Opinion. And Delight As Well

As sophisticated marketers, we rarely give enough shrift to the notion of delight, perhaps because its such a dowager aunt of a word.  But people have a deeply-ingrained appetite for delight.  And as much as technology has progressed the art of communication (and perhaps more negatively, social distraction), it has powerfully advanced the widespread possibilities of delight.

To that end, here are three videos that have been spreading all over the internet of late, each one delivering a different take on delight.  


#1: Sour's Music Video

#1: Sour's Music Video

The first is a charming music video from Japanese group Sour called  ‘Hibi no Neiro’ (Tone of Everyday) from their first mini album ‘Water Flavor EP’.  Artistically, its a technologically-powered tour de force with an overlay of innovative fan engagement.  To make this, the globally-disparate members of the band engaged members of their worldwide fan base, bringing everyone together to perform in their video by using webcams on their Mac laptops to create a fiendishly clever update on the old ‘stadium crowd flashcards.’

#2: July 4th Candy Fireworks

#2: July 4th Candy Fireworks


The second is an example of simple stop-motion animation that uses pieces of candy to create a fireworks show.  Executionally, it’s nothing new but because it’s done so well with the added overlay of timeliness, the effect is magic.  


Finally a cautionary tale for corporations in this era of desktop creativity and social media.  Perfectly demonstrating Clay Shirky’s principle of organizing without organizations, the band Sons of Maxwell witnessed United Airlines baggage teams manhandling their guitar cases at O’Hare.  

#2: Sons of Maxwell Video

#3: Sons of Maxwell Video

By the time Dave Carroll collected his beautiful Taylor, it’s neck was broken, requiring $1100 in repairs.  After spending a futile year chasing compensation, the band produced a video for a simple A-E-G country ditty title “United Breaks Guitars.”  After a huge burst of internet response, United settled the grievance and the band earned the biggest hit of their careers.


Opinion has a mass channel.  Thankfully, so does delight.  Happy Friday.

by Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

On Twitter, Social Immediacy, and the Recurring Non-Death of Jeff Goldblum

We seem to have hit a rough patch for celebrity deaths this past week: Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and just yesterday, pitchman Billy Mays.  The demise of Michael Jackson in particular captured worldwide interest and led to all sorts of tributes and memorials, from BET to the cover of every major newspaper.

As is now the case with any breaking story with such magnitude of human interest, online usage spiked as people sought to learn what happened as it happened: for a short while, Twitter actually shut down and Google returned error messages for searches related to “Michael Jackson,” assuming that the volume of inquiries indicated some sort of automated attack on its servers.  For one hour last Thursday night, over one of every five tweets referenced Michael Jackson.

The interval between when TMZ announced his death and when more reputable outlets followed suit will provide fodder for journalists to debate for years; what caught my attention–courtesy of our ever aware planner Lance Hill–was the corresponding rumor that Jeff Goldblum had also died.  Oddly, Mr. Goldblum seems to be a more modern version of Abe Vigoda: rumors of his death first popped up ten years ago.  Picture 3If you check the chart at left, courtesy of the Twitter trend monitoring service  Twist, both Goldblum and Harrison Ford shared temporary obituaries late last week.  The ever-useful rumor-quashing site Snopes reports that these rumors originate via an automated prank; some ‘comedy’ websites encourage you to enter a celebrity’s name into a ‘fake news generator’ and then spread the story–similar rumors spreada few years ago about both Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks.  And apparently these fake story generators favor Hollywood deaths that involve the ‘victim’ falling off a mountain during a location shoot in New Zealand.  Go figure…

Social Media provide untold value–not only to enable us to connect more frequently in our time-starved culture, but also to provide a first person outlet for critical news as it breaks.  The recent coverage of the massive post-election protests on the streets of Iran would have been far less-comprehensive without the first-person details passed along via Twitter.  But as author and social media commentator Clay Shirky points out, having this vast distribution network accessible to everyone makes it all but impossible to define what constitutes a ‘journalist’ anymore.  Further, without being bound to the principles–and legal ramifications–of traditional journalism, false stories spread much further, much faster.  On the upside, ‘wiki’ principles hold true in these case as well; the majority of social media users want to know the truth and will quickly rise up to correct erroneous stories as they find them.

It takes a village indeed.  And online, that village is very, very large.  And loud.  And occasionally wrong.  But inevitably corrected.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Have You Friended the Pope Yet?

'His Holiness' Would Make an Epic Twitter Handle

'His Holiness' Would Make an Epic Twitter Handle


As reported in various news channels before the recent Holiday weekend, the Vatican launched last Thursday to celebrate World Communications Day, or Inter Mirifica: an outcome of the Second Vatican Council.  This year, the Pope’s message directly addresses ‘the digital generation’ through a website, e-mail outreach, and yes, a Facebook app.  No, you won’t be able to poke the pontiff or learn what his Smurf name might be, but this action represents a conscious, if occasionally unwieldy, move by this ancient organization into social media. 

The Pope’s message invites young people to become instruments for peace and promote a culture of respect built on ‘great synergies of friendship.’  Beyond the dismaying fact that the Pope himself resorted to saying ‘synergies,’ this move by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications drills home just how quickly our media environment has evolved over the past five years.  Obviously, technology has changed, but that’s not nearly as remarkable as how human behavior has changed.  The Vatican’s decision to turn to the internet as a means of spreading church gospel shows a practical awareness of where their congregation lives, plays and exchanges ideas.  With this new site, Catholics can now interact in this rich dialogue environment with a limitless supply of e-cards and banners from the Pope.  They can also follow and forward news and updates on YouTube or through a new iPhone app.  

What marketers refer to as viral messaging is merely a 21st century update of missionary work: a central organization creates a strong message, then sends out true believers with an imprimatur to take that message and spread it to people in far off lands.  The big difference is that today, you can do that simply by pressing ‘send.’ 

As Clay Shirky explains in his engaging, imminently readable book “Here Comes Everybody” (You still haven’t read it?  C’mon…), we live in a time where communications technology makes it incredibly easy to organize without organizations.  Because of this, organizations need to think beyond their own walls and self interests to consider outside communities that might share their thinking, values or interests.  These communities are not officially sanctioned extensions of the organization, because they exist solely on the strength of their members’ passion; call them ‘intramural organizations.’

Every large organization with a message to market must become aware of their own ‘intramural organizations’ and find ways to foster and encourage them.  When done deftly, large organizations can extend their marketing almost exponentially because these intramural groups excel at driving recommendation and word of mouth. 

The best way to spread any message—religious or secular—is to define your brand’s mission, and spread that.  The Pope’s doing it, why aren’t you?

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Social Networking For Social Nitwits

A Reuters news story that’s simultaneously fascinating and pathetic discusses the phenomenon of hate groups turning to social networks to spread their extremist messages.  The Simon Wiesenthal Center reports that the same sites where we send birthday wishes and take daily quizzes to determine “Which lump of coal do you most resemble?” (I got Bituminous!) are increasingly being exploited to spread propaganda and recruit members.  The Center cites a 25% increase in ‘problematic’ internet social networking groups.

Don't Expect Many Ballads From These Excitable Boys

Don't Expect Many Ballads From These Excitable Knuckleheads

This makes perfectly logical sense.  The only cost of setting up such a group is time: one racist who posts on YouTube even brags about how he’s on his sixty-fourth site; everytime administrators take him down, he creates a new persona and sets up shop a few bits of code down the block. This is a fascinating phenomenon Clay Shirky analyses at length in his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.  With such low cost of entry and such a wide net of users to recruit from, social networks provide the ideal vehicle to assemble coalitions out of far flung fringe types.

Comedian Jake Johannsen used to do a bit on gun control where he’d cop the rhetoric of advocates, saying “Guns don’t kill people…”   After a long, wide-eyed pause, he’d add “It’s those little tiny bullets…  The guns just make them go really, really, fast.”

Racism, homophobia, and religious intolerance remain deeply-seated issues within humanity.  So while it’s true that social networks provide them with a new forum to organize and spread, the appropriate response is not to curtail freedom online so much as to redouble our efforts to expose intolerant idiocy offline.

And maybe invite extremists to lighten up by taking a “Which character on Gilligan’s Island are you?” quiz on Facebook.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Technology Changes Advertising, But It Might Also Change Something (gasp!) Even Bigger

I come from a military family.  My Dad graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis and my older brother was ROTC at Penn State, eventually retiring as a Commander of a P-3 Squadron.  I am deeply grateful that America supports a strong military, given a world infested with Somali Pirates, insane tinhorn dictators, and fragile democracies. Still, the old question of “guns or butter?” always stuck in my mind, fostering my personal military industrial complex. How could reasonable people ever aggressively wage peace in a violent, selfish world?



Finally, we might have some real tools. Ammunition and weapons never provided a lasting answer, but perhaps technology can. Maybe the keys to more universal justice will prove to be literacy, laptops and broadband. Think about it: a literate populace can not be isolated from an ever-tighter global community.  A laptop allows anyone to express and share their unique thoughts, sounds and images. And broadband allows the one to instantly connect with the many all over the world. With literacy, laptops and broadband, the traditional barriers to communication fall away; genocide in Darfur can be brought to our desktops, starvation in North Korea can be felt in our homes, the world’s huddled masses can no longer be bottled up by the dictatorial few.  

“Mass amateurization” as the sociologically-insightful Clay Shirky calls it, threatens many aspects of our marketing business with devaluation and commoditization.  But if it also helps the oppressed, the abused or the marginalized gain their voices and have them magnified by the amplifying effect of a global social network, well, that mitigates my professional uncertainty somewhat.  I can live with that.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


Who Wants To Play?   




Who Wants To Play?

About a week ago, Bob Merlotti–unrepentant funnyman and founder of the innovative advertising organization Skeleton Crew–posted yet another one of his casually hysterical status updates on Facebook.  It read simply “Bob Merlotti wears the scarf of indignity.”  Now I don’t know what life event prompted this thought–if any.  And aside from the fact that as a huffy sort of adjective, ‘indignity’ falls into that wonderful linguistic subset of intrinsically funny words, little distinguished this specific update from dozens of his other witty posts.  And yet it clearly struck a chord.  Within minutes, four people had chimed in, offering absurdist sartorial builds on his initial bit, ranging from ‘the english derby of righteousness’ to ‘fez of futility’ and ‘bathing suit of exasperation.’  By days end, that simple post generated sixteen replies.

In the massive numbers of the internet, sixteen replies equals the approximate register of a single leaf falling in a thousand acre forest, but for those of us who jumped in (and you bet, I jumped in too), the experience was like a taking a few turns on a swingset–simple, silly and undeniably fun.

What was it about this particular post that made it such an irresistible invitation to play?  Why did such a relatively high number choose to add to this particular thread?

In his highly accessible and brilliantly informed book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky details how today’s widespread communication tools radically reduce the cost of participation, fueling social upheaval around how quickly and powerfully groups form and act today.  Whether a group forms to disseminate information, drive political change, or crowdsource large scale projects, reducing the cost of participation increases the likelihood of success exponentially.  In a time of more change and fewer absolutes for both the marketing industry and society as a whole, Shirky’s informed analysis helps provide a framework for adapting to this new reality and the financial repercussions it creates.

Getting back to Bob’s post, his clean, easily-imitated gag structure clearly lowers the cost of participation.  With Facebook, that cost refers not to time or money, but rather fear of extremely public failure.  Anything you post on Facebook instantly pops up on the newsfeed of hundreds and even thousands of others to see and judge, intimidating many from jumping in.  But in this instance, Bob provided an initial gag structure that was both delightfully clever and easily replicated, requiring only a silly, alliterative clothing/emotion combination.  Once you free associated say, ‘hot pants’ with ‘hussiness,’ you could play too.  And so ten people did almost immediately.

Unlike a very special episode of ‘Family Ties,’ we didn’t all learn something.  Still, it was a day-brightnening experience and an intimate lesson in community building–if you make something easy and fun, all sorts of people will want to play with you.  Thanks for that Bob.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79