The Inconvenient Truth About Why Stuff Spreads And What If Anything You Can Do About It

Accelerated spread

Last year Susan Boyle became an unlikely global internet star. Within one week over 200 unique videos related to her performance on Britain’s Got Talent had generated more than 47.7 million views . The most popular YouTube video submission of her audition received nearly 2.5 million views in the first 72 hours. On the day following the performance, the YouTube video was the most popular article on Digg. The same video was judged so popular on Reddit that it was put on the site’s main page. Within a week, the audition performance had been viewed more than 66 million times, setting an online record, while on Wikipedia her biographical article attracted nearly half a million page views. A total of 103 million video views on 20 different Web sites was reached within nine days. (Source: Visible Measures)

Clearly we live in an environment where - thanks to the web - stuff can spread faster than ever before. And in one in which local phenomena can very quickly become global phenomena. Within the week following her performance on Britain’s Got Talent, Boyle was was interviewed via satellite on CBS’s Early Show, Good Morning America, NBC’s Today and on FOX’s America’s Newsroom. and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Via satellite on Larry King Live, Boyle performed an a cappella verse of “My Heart Will Go On”.

There’s much interest in what’s been called ‘propagation planning’. As first articulated by Ivan Pollard, propagation planning asks that we consider three things:

“Firstly, the power of a particular channel to engage people. Secondly, the number of influential people that the channel reaches. And thirdly, the number of people they go on to reach in turn.”

So understanding how and why phenomena like Susan Boyle happen feels both important and urgent. And we might also acquire a better understanding of why the vuvuzela went from a local feature of South African football, to a global accessory (overseas sales are up 70% according to Bloomberg) of football fans the world over.

Looking beyond the obvious

Two rather obvious but not particularly helpful explanations are often given of why stuff spreads. It’s About Technology and It’s About The Content.
Citing connective technology as the reason explains why sharing stuff is easy. But it does nothing to explain exactly why stuff spreads, and why some stuff spreads faster and wider than other stuff.

There much talk about making our content ‘sticky or ‘contagious’’, though the advice on what this actually entails is so broad as to be almost entirely unhelpful - make it distinctive, disruptive, entertaining, etc. It’s the same advice one would give whatever one’s choice of form and medium.

We are, I suspect, starting at the wrong end. We need to start with people, rather than with what we make.

Why do people share? versus Why does it spread?

The language of dissemination, propagation and spread is that of push. The rhetoric of viral marketing (and it is just that, rhetoric) suggests that ideas can infect people. In other words ideas do something to people. And it encourages us to examine our ideas and dissect what characteristics they must have it they are to spread. The notion of an idea spreading suggests that the engine of dissemination lies within the idea.

We’ve been focused - again - on ourselves. We're focused on examining what makes our content sticky, viral and thinking about the characteristics of our stuff as being the key to why people choose to share it or not.

The notion of creative content being ‘viral’ is abject nonsense. The triumph of a vivid metaphor over reality. A virus is a biological agent that reproduces inside the cells of living hosts. The whole point of the virus is to spread its genetic information. When it comes into contact with a host cell, a virus inserts its genetic material into its host, taking over the host's functions. An infected cell produces more viral protein and genetic material instead of its usual products.

Ideas don't take us over and use us as hosts. We disparage those who would treat people as 'passive consumers'. The notion of 'viral' content takes that assumption to new levels.

Moreover, the real problem with this perspective is that it forgets that spreading is a phenomenon that happens between people. The mechanics of dissemination is not through ideas spreading, but through the mechanics of interpersonal relationships.

The author Douglas Rushkoff provides us with much-needed insight and perspective:

“People don’t engage with each other in order to exchange viruses; people exchange viruses as an excuse to engage with each other."

And herein lies a clue. We share not because of the content itself, but because of what the content enables. Content gives us an excuse to say hello. To share. To laugh about the same thing. To declare and renew our allegiances.

Robin Dunbar has argued that grooming amongst primates has very little to do with hygiene maintenance and everything to do with establishing bonds of kinship and trust. It takes a degree of trust after all, to turn your back and let someone pick their way through your hair. As many will know, Dunbar’s thesis is that language grew out of this behaviour, and in response to the increasing size of our social groups that made physical grooming difficult. Language was first and foremost for Dunbar, a method of maintaining those bonds.

It strikes me that much of the chatter and exchange in the digital space is effectively a form of digital grooming. It’s much less about the content, and much more about signalling:

“I’m here”
“Are you like me?”
“I’m just like you”
“I’m have the inside track on stuff”
“I’m like this”
“I know what you like so have a look at this”

The imitative and social nature of humans

Mark Earls continues to do much valuable work to remind us marketers and agency folk of some crucial core truths about being human:

We're an innately social and co-operative species
We’re predisposed to copy the behaviours of others
We’re not inclined to independent thinking and behaviour

Humans acquire much of their behaviour from other humans via social learning, and the evidence suggests that we don’t simply copy parents or random individuals. People employ two copying strategies. We copy the successful - a strategy referred to as pay-off biased or prestige-biased transmission. And we copy the majority - what’s known as conformist transmission.

There is survival value in these copying behaviours. They allow us to cut corners. Rather than spend time and effort on individual learning and experimentation, copying lets us leapfrog directly to behaviours than benefit us.

Copying appears too in the mating habits of other species in which a male becomes more appealing as a mating prospect if other females have already selected him as a mate. Copying offers females a short cut to identifying a mate of high quality.

This strategy works because Professor Laland of St. Andrews University puts it:

“The individuals we copy typically perform the most effective behaviour in their repertoire. In doing so, they inadvertently filter behaviour, making adaptive information available for others. Even if an individual copies at random, they still do better than someone learning through trial and error because the behaviour available to copy is amongst the best around.”

Creating and participating in common knowledge

Our social, conformist instinct - what Earls calls our ‘herd’ nature - leads us to want to participate (and signal our participation to others) in the common knowledge that constitutes culture.

This is vividly played out in the FIFA World Cup. Those who haven’t watched a football match prior, who wouldn’t know the offside rule from their left elbow find themselves standing in packed bars cheering on players whose names they don’t know to a victory they don’t know the precise consequence of (“So if we beat Germany...?”). We - I include myself in this group - participate because we don’t want to be left out from the collective emotion and conversation, because everybody else is participating.

According to the political scientist Michael Suk-Young Chwe while our interpretations of cultural practices (of which brand purchases are but one) tend to focus on the content meaning of what is communicated, we should also understand more precisely the mechanics of common knowledge generation:

“Simply receiving a message, however, is not enough to make an individual participate. Because each individual wants to participate only if others do, each person must also know that others received a message. For that matter, because each person knows that other people need to be confident that others will participate, each person must know that other people know that other people have received a message, and so forth. In other words, knowledge of the message is not enough; what is also required is knowledge of others' knowledge, knowledge of others' knowledge of others' knowledge, and so on that is, 'common knowledge’.''

But we’ve got so wrapped up in the misleading notion that we’re autonomous individuals, and the belief that the purpose of communication is purely information transmission, that we overlook the more ritualistic roles of communications in creating participation, association, and bonds of belonging.

Contagious demand, not contagious ideas

We’ve been accustomed to thinking about what makes our ideas and content contagious. We need to flip this perspective.

The model of demand that Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker puts forward reflects our conformist, copying nature. Becker proposes that “the pleasure from a good is greater when many people want to consume it.” Or, in other words, '”the demand for a good by a person depends on the aggregate quantity demanded of the good.”

Looking at demand amongst populations as the contagious element gives a very different perspective indeed on what’s happening out there in the real world. It’s not ideas that are contagious, but demand. As Earls puts it:

“Copying among a population with frequent interactions creates a pull mechanism by which things – visible behaviours, opinions, skills, fashions and so on – spread through populations. This is the opposite to conventional marketing wisdom, where 'influence' is a 'push' idea, in being about what we do to people, rather than them choosing to do themselves, without us”

The mechanics of dissemination lie not so much in ideas being contagious, but in our conformist, copying nature.

The influence of others in action

Salganik, Dodds and Watts created an experiment in which 14,000 participants were recruited to take part in an artificial music market.

Participants were presented with a web page displaying 48 songs by completely unknown bands and were asked to choose songs to listen to and download. On arriving at the web page participants were randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions.

Independent, in which the only information they had was the name of the band and song, and Social Influence in which they could also see the number of times each song had been downloaded by previous respondents.

Where there was social influence, the popular songs were even more popular, and the unpopular songs were even more unpopular. The greater the salience of the social information provided, the more this inequality increased.
Interestingly, one striking feature of YouTube - which also allows for social influence in displaying views, comments, and ratings - is that 10% of all videos account for 80% of all views. YouTube is highly skewed towards popular videos.

In the experiment conducted by Salganik, Dodds and Watts, not only did social influence encourage herding behaviour amongst participants, but it also worked to increase the unpredictability of the results. Thus song quality (as measured by its market share and ranking in the Independent scenario) was positively related to success. However, songs of any given quality experienced a wide range of outcomes.

Making choice and preference visible

Since people copy from other people - and that as Michael Chwe puts it what is required is knowledge of others' knowledge, knowledge of others' knowledge of others' knowledge, and so on - it seems essential that brands give people visibility of what other people are doing, thinking, and feeling. Whether that is off- or online.

So to build on the advice of Mark Earls, it’s important that if we’re seeking to leverage social influence for our brands, that we make accessible popularity data. Contagious demand can only happen if people can see what others are choosing, can quickly see how popular it is.

Equally - and of course risk comes with that - brands needs to provide people with public forums where they can share their thoughts and opinions and see those of others.

It’s all about knowledge of others' knowledge, knowledge of others' knowledge of others' knowledge... Both Amazon and Youtube are examples of cultural marketplaces that are adept at enabling social influence to take place and thus contagious demand.

If we’re to allow social influence and contagious demand to take place, we also need to think about creating opportunities for collective interaction and experience - where people can see others choosing and enjoying the brand. We need to create environments where people see other people copying and conforming. As the German playwright Goethe wrote of the collective experience of the ancient festival of carnival in Europe:

“Crowded together, its members are astonished at themselves. They are accustomed at other times to seeing each other running hither and thither in confusion, bustling about without order or discipline. Now this many-headed, many-minded, fickle, blundering monster suddenly sees itself as one noble assembly, welded into one mass, a single body animated by a single spirit.”

Lighting many fires

It’s easy - in the light of an avalanche of global media exposure - to believe that the almost overnight ascent of Susan Boyle to global celebrity status was an inevitability. Susan Boyle is a reasonably good singer. But she is no Maria Callas. Her singing was not destined for greatness. Nor truth be told, necessarily deserving of greatness. And - in contrast to the world of pop - the world of opera certainly is full of sublime beauty emanating from the mouths of those who one might struggle to deem appropriate to grace the covers of Vogue.

Such is our pattern-seeking nature as human beings that we naturally tend to interpret random events and assign them meaning, causality and significance when none actually exists.

The truth of the matter is that Boyle’s success was not inevitable but unpredictable.

The work of Salganik, Dodds and Watts suggests that the more we enable social influence to impact people’s decision-making, the more unpredictable the results become.

If we want to have an active part in the social influence game we are going to have to get used to a degree of risk that the traditional industries of risk-reduction (research and pre-testing) cannot contend with.

Furthermore, given the risk and unpredictability, we would do well to spread the risk, and start thinking about creating many smaller things, be sensible abount the level of investment, monitor which ones are taking off, and then fan those flames.

You can propagate but you can’t predict.


Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 1965, trans. Hélène Iswolsky, 1984

Dr. Alex Bentley and Mark Earls, ‘Forget influentials, herd-like copying is how brands spread’, Admap, November 2008, Issue 499

James Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society

Meeyoung Cha, Haewoon Kwak, Pablo Rodriguez, Yong-Yeol Ahn, Suye Moon, ‘Analyzing the video popularity characteristics of large-scale user generated content systems’, IEE/ACM Transactions on networking Vol. 17 No. 5, October 2009

Meeyoung Cha, Haewoon Kwak, Pablo Rodriguez, Yong-Yeol Ahn, Suye Moon, ‘I Tube, You Tube, Everybody Tubes: Analyzing the World’s Largest User Generated Content Video System’

Michael Suk-Young Chwe, Rational Ritual Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge

Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language

Mark Earls, Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature

Mark Earls, 'Forget Influentials, Herd-Like Copying Is How Brands Spread', Admap, November 2008

Joseph Henrich and Robery Boyd, ‘Why people punish defectors: weak conformist transmission can stabilize costly enforcement of norms in cooperative dilemmas’

Matt Ridley, The Red Queen

Matthew J Salganik, Peter S Dodds and Duncan J Watts, ‘Experimental study of inequality and unpredictability in an artificial cultural market’