Ideas don't spread like viruses - Technical.ly Philly

Creative

Aug. 3, 2017 12:52 pm

Ideas don’t spread like viruses

Actually, ecosystems are a more accurate analogy. Marc Hummel shares some findings from his Penn master's thesis.

Not pictured: content.

(Photo by Flickr user Sanofi Pasteur, used under a Creative Commons license)

Every writer, artist and politician wants the same thing: To get their ideas to spread to other people.

Writers want more people to read their work, and to be affected by what they read. Artists want more people to see their work, and to be inspired by what they see. Politicians want more people to hear their ideas, and to be inspired to vote based on those ideas.

As a writer interested in media and communication processes, the concept that ideas spread like viruses has fascinated me for more than 15 years. I devoured books about this topic, like Seth Godin’s Unleashing the Ideavirus (2000) and Jonah Berger’s Contagious (2013). The argument that ideas spread like viruses seems intuitive to the point of being almost too obvious to even point out. It’s also an analogy seemingly destined to rise along with the popularity of social media, which ushered in a new era of regular people sharing content with others.

A more comprehensive way of thinking about the spread of messages and ideas is to consider the process in terms of an ecosystem.

But while the books listed above present compelling arguments, they don’t help creators learn how to reach more people. Plus, the more I thought about the analogy, the less convinced of its veracity I became. Yes, it’s a clear, simple and elegant proposition. But isn’t simplicity a liability when talking about something as complex as the spread of an idea through a society comprised of millions of different people, each with their own motivations and desires? What if ideas don’t spread like viruses at all, I wondered.

This question became the topic of my master’s thesis for the University of Pennsylvania’s Masters of Liberal Arts program. I interviewed ten (mostly Philly-based) professionals and academics from the realms of fashion design, linguistics, political science, medicine and other disciplines. I asked them how ideas spread in their respective industries. Then, I wrote a summary of my findings, created long-form narratives from three of the individual interviews and created an interactive website based on what I learned.

See the site

I now think that a more comprehensive way of thinking about the spread of messages and ideas in a culture is to consider the process in terms of an ecosystem. An ecosystem is a system of diverse objects, forces and living organisms whose actions affect one another both positively and negatively. More practically, the ecosystem analogy better describes the spread of messages and ideas in the realms of fashion, linguistics and other real-world phenomena.

Advertisement

The ecosystem analogy allows for a more dynamic understanding of the spread of messages and ideas.

First, we can think of the spread of ideas as part of an environment in which individuals interact with an idea, accept or reject the content contained within and are changed or inspired to act accordingly. We’re not stuck with the binary mode of the viral analogy.

Second, the ecosystem analogy allows us to focus on whichever part of the system is most useful for the question we want to answer. It doesn’t tie us to a preconceived conclusion: we can examine the spread of messages and ideas from the holistic system-wide perspective, from the perspective of the individual, or that of the message or idea itself.

The most compelling aspect of the ecosystem analogy regarding the spread of ideas and messages in terms of an ecosystem is the possibilities for which it allows. By focussing on the process between two individuals, the analogy between the viral spread of messages and ideas and that of diseases is conceptually limiting. What happens to the message or idea after it “infects” an individual? The ecosystem analogy encourages exploration, and implores one to consider the complex, iterative and often surprising origin stories and actual routes that ideas and messages in a population take to spread through a culture.

You can read the interviews and get my full argument here.

I welcome your feedback, suggestions, and counter-arguments.

-30-
VIEW COMMENTS

Advertisement

Head to this #PTW18 panel to finally understand why blockchain, IoT and VR matter

Twitter adds Curalate to official partner program

Why Phorum 2018 is better than ever

SPONSORED

Philly

Vistar Media’s tech stack is not for the faint-of-heart

Philadelphia

Practice

Director of Sales

Apply Now
Philadelphia, PA

Linode

Senior Cloud Client Executive

Apply Now
Philadelphia

Practice (Instructure)

Senior Software Engineer

Apply Now

Big goals for Year 3 of Temple’s What IF Innovation Festival

Artists and scientists look for common ground, thanks to this Knight Foundation grant

3 things this Penn hardware startup learned about working in China

SPONSORED

Philly

Grow your small business with Salesforce at this Jan. 10 event

Philadelphia

Practice (Instructure)

Senior Software Engineer in Test

Apply Now
Philadelphia

Practice (Instructure)

Software Engineer in Test

Apply Now
Center City, Philadelphia

IntegriChain

Senior Business Analyst

Apply Now

Sign-up for regular updates from Technical.ly

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!