C3 Weekly Update

Editor's Note

Welcome to another edition of the C3 Weekly Update. I apologize for the unanticipated break in service. While we had intended to go down to a bi-weekly format over the summer, some unanticipated circumstances cut us off entirely for a few weeks. Never to fear, however, as we are back on our feet and getting ready for the coming semester.

This newsletter marks my first as interim editor of the MIT C3 Weekly Update and the first to come out after the hire of our new C3 Research Manager Daniel Pereira. Daniel joins us from the private sector and we're looking forward to the focus and perspective he'll bring to the Consortium. We'll introduce Daniel formally in the next newsletter and no doubt he'll be in touch with many of you in the coming weeks.

Over the following few newsletters we'll be featuring excerpts from the forthcoming white papers we have been working to finalize over the summer. These materials will be rolled out progressively over the next few weeks, along with materials from the May C3 Retreat. We are trying something new this time, releasing the white papers first as precisely that -- simply designed white papers -- via the back-end of the C3 website which we will follow up with more permanent versions for your archives. The content will be the same in both copy. This is partly as we have changed designers, and so are taking the opportunity to refresh the format of the reports, and also because we are aware that many of you access this work primarily through the C3 website, so we wanted to make available a copy that was a little more user-friendly.

This week's Weekly Update features an excerpt from the executive summary of the forthcoming white paper If It Doesn’t Spread It’s Dead: Creating Value in a Spreadable Marketplace by C3's Principal Investigator Henry Jenkins, and Graduate Researchers Xiaochang Li, and Ana Domb Krauskopf. This piece draws together and expands upon the arguments they presented at the C3 Retreat about the need to shift our thinking about how to approach the media landscape. The piece makes an argument for approaching the landscape as one that rewards content that spreads about, and provides some key thinking for ways to move away from the emphasis on stickiness that no longer seems altogether appropriate. The idea of a spreadable media landscape underpins the work the Consortium will be completing over the next academic year.

Our Closing Note features the work of C3 Graduate Researcher Xiaochang Li (getting a double-dip this week). Xiaochang provides some reflection on some of the difficulties of understanding 'viral' media, based on the work she has been doing this semester and published in the forthcoming Spreadable media white paper.

If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the Update, direct them to Joshua Green, interim editor of the C3 Weekly Update, at


In This Issue

Editor's Note

Opening Note: Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li and Ana Domb on Spreadable Media

Glancing at the C3 Blog

Closing Note: Xiaochang Li on Viral Videos

Opening Note

If It Doesn’t Spread It’s Dead: Creating Value in a Spreadable Marketplace

Use of the terms “viral” and “memes” may be creating more confusion than clarity. Both these terms rely on a biological metaphor to explain the way media content moves through cultures, a metaphor that confuses the actual power relations between producers, texts, brands, and consumers. Both terms seek to explain the process of cultural transmission but do so in such a way they strip aside the social and cultural contexts in which ideas circulate, and the human choices which determine which ideas get replicated. Talking about memes and viral media places an emphasis on the replication of the original idea, which fails to consider the everyday reality of communication -- that ideas get transformed, repurposed, or distorted as they pass from hand to hand, a process which has been accelerated as we move into network culture.

Arguably, those ideas which survive are those which can be most easily appropriated and reworked by a range of different communities. In focusing on the involuntary transmission of ideas by unaware consumers, these models allow advertisers and media producers to hold onto an inflated sense of their own power to shape the communication process, even as unruly behavior by consumers becomes a source of great anxiety within the media industry. A close look at particular examples of Internet "memes" or "viruses" highlight the ways they have mutated as they have traveled through an increasingly participatory culture.

Given these limitations, we are proposing an alternative model which we think better accounts for how and why media content circulates at the present time, the idea of spreadable media. A spreadable model emphasizes the activity of consumers -- or what Grant McCracken calls “multipliers” -- in shaping the circulation of media content, often expanding potential meanings and opening up brands to unanticipated new markets.

This notion of spreadability is intended as a contrast to older models of stickiness which emphasize centralized control over distribution and attempts to maintain ‘purity’ of message. We can map the two models through the following schema:

  • Stickiness seeks to attract and hold the attention of site visitors; Spreadability seeks to motivate and facilitate the efforts of fans and enthusiasts to “spread” the word.
  • Stickiness depends on concentrating the attention of all interested parties on a specific site or through a specific channel; spreadability seeks to expand consumer awareness by dispersing the content across many potential points of contact.
  • Stickiness depends on creating a unified consumer experience as consumers enter into branded spaces; spreadability depends on creating a diversified experience as brands enter into the spaces where people already live and interact.
  • Stickiness depends on pre-structured interactivity to shape visitor experiences; spreadability relies on open-ended participation as diversely motivated but deeply engaged consumers retrofit content to the contours of different niche communities.
  • Stickiness typically tracks the migrations of individual consumers within a site; Spreadability maps the flow of ideas through social networks.
  • Under stickiness, a sales force markets to consumers; under spreadability, grassroots intermediaries become advocates for brands.
  • Stickiness is a logical outgrowth of the shift from broadcasting’s push model to the web’s pull model; spreadability restores some aspects of the push model through relying on consumers to circulate the content within their own communities.
  • Under stickiness, producers, marketers, and consumers are separate and distinct roles; spreadability depends on increased collaboration across and even a blurring of the distinction between these roles.
  • Stickiness depends on a finite number of channels for communicating with consumers; spreadability takes for granted an almost infinite number of often localized and many times temporary networks through which media content circulates.

The focus on spreadable media requires greater attention be paid to the social relations between media producers and consumers. There are significant differences between what motivates consumers to spread content and what motivates producers to seek the circulation of their brands. These differences can be understood in terms of the contrast between commodity culture and the gift economy.

For media properties to move from the commodity culture in which it is produced to the gift economy through which it circulates and has value, it must pass through a point where "value" gets transformed into "worth", where what has a price becomes priceless, where economic investment gives way to sentimental investment. Recognizing this takes place, and understanding how this occurs is crucial to understanding what motivates consumers to "spread" advertising and other media content within their social networks. When people pass along content, they are not doing so as paid employees motivated by economic gain; they are doing so as members of social communities involved in activities which are meaningful to them on either an individual or social level.

Those texts which spread the furthest and most rapidly show signs of what John Fiske calls the "producerly": their structures are open ended enough to allow diverse communities to appropriate them and deploy them to express local meanings and interpretations. For this to occur, the producers have to give up a certain degree of control over their messages as well as over the contexts in which they circulate. Under this model, cultural materials, such as advertisements, become the raw materials which community members use to express shared meanings or to reaffirm social ties with each other. It is their openness to such reworking which allows these cultural goods to function as "gifts" and thus to acquire "worth" within particular social contexts.

The role of the consumer or audience is in flux in this era of spreadable media. Consumers help to produce meaning around advertisements; they help to spread messages. Sometimes they are fans, sometimes critics. We are struggling to come up with a meaningful vocabulary to talk about these new sets of relationships. At the same time, we need to adopt a range of different models for describing the new kinds of communities which are emerging within a networked culture. Media spreads in different ways through Pools (organized around a shared goal or interest), Webs (organized through interlocking social ties), and Hubs (organized around a dominant personality); the spread of media is also impacted through different kinds of barriers of entry into communities which can encourage stronger or weaker social ties, greater or less participation, or more or less opportunities to exchange media with others.

We need to develop a better understanding of how the circulation of information enhances people's sense of affiliation within communities. Researchers have found, for example, that the circulation of rumors serve symbolic or expressive functions far beyond the credibility of the information they contain. The exchange of such rumors may allow community members:

  • To bolster camaraderie and articulate the (presumably shared) experiences and values that identify oneself as belong to a particular community (“bolstering their identity”)
  • To gather information and explain difficult to understand events or circumstances.
  • To establish the boundaries of an “in-group”.

There are four basic factors which help to account for many examples of spreadable content:

  • they contain absurd humor or parody; 
  • they pose puzzles or enigmas which encourage us to seek out other information
  • they are incomplete without our active participation
  • they express themes of community and nostalgia which are central themes of the gift economy.

We are still in a transitional moment as the era of stickiness gives way to the age of spreadability, making it difficult to make broad recommendations for how specific companies should respond to the potentials and risks involved in this more decentralized model for delivering branded content. In the near future, many companies are going to be reluctant to give up the perceived ability to lock down content and control consumer's attention as represented in the old stickiness model. Other companies companies will embrace spreadability as a way of getting their brands in front of new consumers and lowering the cost of advertising campaigns.

  • Spreadability may help to expand and intensify consumer awareness of a new and emerging brand or transform their perceptions of an existing brand, re-affirming its central place in their lives. 
  • Spreadability may expand the range of potential markets for a brand by introducing it, at low costs and low risks, to niches that previously were not part of it market. 
  • Spreadability may intensify consumer loyalty by increasing emotional attachment to the brand or media franchise. 
  • Spreadability may expand the shelf life of existing media content by creating new ways of interacting with it  and it may even rebuild or reshape the market for a dormant brand.

In the short run, companies need to be clear on which model they are using and why. Where companies want to distribute messages which are targeted at the general population and which are time sensitive in nature, broadcast-based models of distribution are difficult to beat. Business models are still emerging around the distribution of spreadable media content, with the primary ones currently involving ad support, subscriptions, or direct payment. In the short run, companies are apt to embrace hybrid strategies, relying on broadcast and stickiness models for some purposes, experimenting with spreadable media for specific purposes or audiences. Those companies which remain completely locked down will increasingly find it difficult to reach digitally-connected younger consumers who want to be able to take the media they want where they want it. 

Henry Jenkins Henry Jenkins is the chief faculty investigator for the Convergence Culture Consortium and is Director of the Comparative Media Studies program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities at MIT. His blog is available here. Xiaochang Li is a graduate student investigator with the Convergence Culture Consortium and a member of the Program in Comparative Media Studies' Class of 2009 here at MIT. Her work includes a focus on emerging narrative forms in the digital landscape and production and community-building in fandom. Ana Domb is a graduate student investigator with the Convergence Culture Consortium and a member of the Program in Comparative Media Studies' Class of 2009 here at MIT. Ana's research interests include alternative distribution and consumption of creative goods and how they relate to the production process.

Glancing at the C3 Blog

Looking at the Convergence Culture Consortium with a Critical Eye: Sam Ford engages with a helpful critique of the Consortium, commenting on the diversity of topics covered by the program.

More on Cultural Bias and Soaps. The cultural bias against soap opera - which regularly use soap operas as a touchstone for poor storytelling - willfully neglects the sophistication and popularity of the genre.


Around the Consortium: Personalization, Emotion in Politics, Soaps, and Digital. Sam Ford points to a recent post by Illya Vedrashko about websites adapting to their visitors, Grant McCracken's post about the priority given to emotion in current US politics and a round up of posts about marketing, brand promotion and politics from his new blog PepperDigital.

Nancy Baym: The Biggest Online Fans are Sports Fans. C3 Consulting Researcher Nancy Baym points to recent interesting figures on the size of sports fandom and speculates on the particular mode of engagement sports-watching invites.

Follow the Blog

Don't forget – you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog.

Closing Note

Why Viral Media Isn't: Death of a Faulty Biological Metaphor

In recent years, everyone seems to be obsessed with "viral media." C3 is certainly no exception, as we're elbows deep in an extensive "viral" project ourselves. But with everyone scrambling after the elusive concept, the term has come to encompass a large array of related, but ultimately different practices, and as we began putting together our own viral definitions, we began to realize that the limitations were not necessarily in the vast and varied interpretations, but in the term itself. As advertisers and academics alike know, language is important and comes strapped with baggage. Words not only expresses the paradigms of power and control from within which they circulates, but enables them as well. So, other than the numerous wordplays on "fever" used press headlines about so-called "viral" media, what are the implications of our reliance on this biological metaphor? What does it mean to think of media as viral?

The concept of "viral" in relation to media came into popular use in 1994, long before Youtube, blogs, social networks, and ARGs, when Douglas Rushkoff wrote a book called Media Virus. In it, he proposed that messages could be encoded into compelling media content that people would pass and share, allowing the imbedded meanings, buried inside like DNA, to infect and spread, like a pathogen. Fast forward roughly a decade and the idea of "viral" media has itself become something like one of Rushkoff's metaphorical contagions, shaping the way we think about content-sharing online. Armed with technologies that allow us to pass content faster, to an increasing number of people, and with seemingly little effort, the spread of a popular video does, certainly, begin to resemble an epidemic. But Rushkoff's work, and much of how "viral" is conceptualized, draws heavily on memetics, a theory of scientific gene transmission as applied to culture. According to Richard Dawkins, the spawned the concept, described the phenomenon as a process by which ideas, in the form of memes, "propogate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain," in short creating a system in which ideas essentially passed themselves, free from human agency.

In light of its application to marketing, all of this sounds like one of those soviet reversal jokes: in corporate America, viral media spreads you.

Rather than illuminating the mechanics of how media spreads online, the origins of "viral" media rather points to the inadequacy, the figurative laziness, of employing an aging biological metaphor to describe a complex system of social behaviors. People choose to click on links, go to blogs, watch videos. People choose to embed content, spread content, frame and reframe it in different ways. Between going live and going "viral," every step of the spread is governed by active participation and engagement.

Thus, the fundamental limitation of the biological metaphor is the removal of human agency from the chain of command. By re-imagining the user-driven circulation of content as a wildly spreading contagion, companies can position themselves as purposeful patient zeros, unleashing a message that infects and takes over by its own volition. With the instructions for replication imbedded in the DNA of the campaign, they give up control over little more than the specific flow of dissemination, leaving consumers as unsuspecting hosts. As in Douglas Rushkoff's heavily influential double-metaphor of the media virus as trojan horse, all the work of the media consumers in circulating and distributing content has little effect on the message encoded within.

But while compelling content might stick people's memories and engage their imaginations, telling someone else or posting it online requires an active choice. A video does not go viral by virtue of being on Youtube — it goes viral because people discuss, blog about, and share it, a process that has been facilitated by sites like Youtube. As a result, much of the industry rhetoric around viral marketing talks about engagement, interactivity and, as Asa Bailey, the head of the Viral Marketing Association told Wired magazine in 2005, having "a connection to the consumer".

What we are looking at, then, is not a contagious infection by proximity, but a radically participatory engagement in the making of meaning and the circulation of content. It is a process that is symptomatic of cultural and technological shifts within the evolving media landscape, one potentially destabilizes the existing models of advertising as a means of communication by blurring the boundaries between producer and consumer, upsetting the distribution of power and control over mediated content. And to begin understanding its impact and its value, we have to rethink the term that has for too long inadequately defined it, and move from a model of pathogen to pass-along. Viral Media is dead, long live Spreadable Media.

Xiaochang Li is a graduate student investigator with the Convergence Culture Consortium and a member of the Program in Comparative Media Studies' Class of 2009 here at MIT. Her work includes a focus on emerging narrative forms in the digital landscape and production and community-building in fandom.

The Fine Print

Compiled and Edited by Joshua Green ( for the Convergence Culture Consortium.


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