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Monday, 4 April 2011

Trust filters and viral messaging antibodies in social networks: part one - vapour shields, and a brief history of comms

Are social networks just a return to the communications norm pre 1450?

I'm fascinated by the concept of viral messaging, and not just since the advent of social networks. Chain letters intrigue me, as does the relationship between messaging and group behaviours.

Although such concepts now have value due to the interest of marketeers, my interest is as a lay sociologist. I can't help but ponder how the step change in how we communicate arising out of the digital revolution will affect society.

But is the social web just a restoration of a natural order that's taken 550 years to achieve?

Before the advent of printing, human-to-human messaging relied on basic social structures.  Important messages, and I mean "we might all die if we don't take certain action" important, not "save 25% on all electricals" important, were passed-down from leaders (emperors, councilmen, elders, preachers, etc) to congregations.

Messages came down through governance and social hierarchies, and spread out from person to person.  Important messages spread through either self-interest, or a subconscious* recognition that the message should be passed-on.  Trivial messages floundered, whereas tips on e.g. raising a child or dealing with medical ailments are still passed down through family and social ties today.

(* I place great faith in subconscious behaviours as  important drivers in social development.  Pretty much as ants self-organise to conquer seemingly impossible challenges - see Google image results for Ant Bridge)

The advent of first printing and later electronic broadcast media served as a short cut to the human network previously required to deliver a message to a wide audience.  Each participant in the delivery mechanism didn't have to be persuaded to pass-on a message.  They could be coerced.  Coerced into delivering pamphlets.  Coerced into broadcasting their advertising message. (Nb. coercion can be through monetary reward, not necessarily threats!)

New social structures formed around these powerful new technologies.  Government controls of printing presses through censors and copyright controlled what messages were broadcast, and to whom.

Electronic broadcast media shortened the delivery chain further.  Now, a direct link was possible between state and a mass audience of subjects.

Until the advent of cheap home printing, print publication was easily controlled by governments as they relied on physical media and centralised printing presses.  Electronic broadcast media was equally controllable; first due to cost and scarcity of broadcast equipment and later due to regulation of radio spectrum.

In summary, the press and broadcast media provided a short cut between source and destination.  Several autocratic governments have attempted to harness these technologies to their advantage.  Most, eventually, have fallen, whereas countries advocating freedom of press and free speech are today looking relatively stable.

In countries where press freedom prevailed, a multitude of governmental and non-governmental interests now attempt to control the agenda in a relatively free market.  Bombarded by messages from advertisers to political parties, consumers have developed what Scott Seaborne from Ogilvy described as a vapour shield when he talked at Digital Surrey last year.

Our lives today are characterised by a single layer of filtering: ourselves.  It's up to each of us to develop our own vapour shield to block-out irrelevant messages delivered at an alarming rate via mass-market print and broadcast media.

If we let too much vapour through, we risk buying stuff we don't need. We also risk having our political views swayed by people with money to invest in influencing us.  Conversely, if we blank out too much we risk becoming overly cynical, and missing out on important opportunities.

I'm starting to realise that online social networks offer a sanctuary, since we choose who we listen to.  They bring the best of both worlds: the immediacy of broadcast media and the human filtering of traditional word-of-mouth.

It's easy to block mass-messaging, by not connecting with the mass messengers, but important messages still propagate through the mesh.

Does the new technology bring new problems? Could it be colonised by subversives and used to instigate destructive mob behaviour, or is it simply a return to the social norm prior to the advent of the printing press?

In part 2 I'm going to look at an exception to the rule, worthless viral trends; and how the social filter has already learned and adapted to prevent a repeat, pretty much as antibodies develop in biology to prevent a repeat inefection of a pathogen.


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