Ideas don’t spread like viruses

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

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.

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