I met with Doug Rushkoff at the NY Tech Meetup earlier this month (see this post for my wrap of the event)..
For those who may be unfamiliar with his work, Doug has written extensively about the media, communications and impact on society. I read his book Media Virus right around the time that the Web was starting to take off and at about the same time that I got into the PR field as a full time gig.
It was an important infliuence for me, and that is why I was thrilled to meet Doug at the event and have the chance to conduct an ermail interview, which is presented in full below.
Enjoy, and I encourage you to visit the links and load up on Doug's books.
I read your book Media Virus years ago, when it came out in the mid-90s. It pre-dated the rapid growth of the Internet and seemed prescient with its talk of a “datasphere” media soup and user-generated content ("around the world, it is the media of the street – not of the respected news bureaus or ivory towers – that effects the greatest social and cultural change"). Do you feel that the ideas, which present a dark view of media manipulation, are still relevant?
I don't think Media Virus presents a dark view of media manipulation. When I put the words viral and media together, I definitely wanted to shock people a bit – in the neuro-linguistic sort of way – but I ultimately saw viral media as positive. I meant the book as an unashamed view of the ways that cultural agendas naturally express themselves in a connected data-driven society.
Ideas spread as viruses. The idea was that we are all connected, exchanging memes, mutating them, and creating new shells around them for their successful spread. And this was back in the days of OJ Simpson, Rodney King, Woody and Soon Yi. Pre-internet. Just cable TV and call-in radio. Jerry Springer. That's when it hit critical mass for our society to become a mediated organism.
It was a pretty specific concept, though, that got picked up by marketers and turned into "viral marketing" which is really just another way of saying word-of-mouth. They didn't get it, and they still don't.
A media virus has two components: a sticky outer shell, and potent memes – ideas – inside. The shell is just a form of media (a videotape, a YouTube movie, a voicemail message); the memes are the potent cultural code. That code infiltrates our own confused social code in order to interpolate and replicate. It says "make me, make me."
That's why only the memes that successfully challenge our weak social immune system end up surviving and replicating. They force us to look at our unexpressed agendas.
So yes, I think we are now – as much as ever – connected by media and capable of launching ideas through it. I think media viruses are alive and well. And I think that marketers still have a very poor understanding of the memetics underlying successful viral media, which is why they have such unpredictable results with it.
Media Viruses sound a lot like memes, and indeed you make the connection in the book between the two – can the ideas behind memetics be mastered to make content go viral?
Well, if you want content to go viral, you may be missing the point. It's easy to make Paris Hilton's breasts go viral. That's the content of the famous Hardee's viral campaign of a couple of summers ago. The message – that people should eat or like Hardees – was utterly lost. So making a virus spread and understanding memetics are related but different. Understanding memetics has more to do with knowing *which* ideas, which memes you want to spread.
I've seen campaigns that have been extraordinarily successful at transmitting memes. It just so happens those memes were actually antagonistic to the memes of the actual offering. Oops.
"Go viral" is really a misnomer, anyway. I get what they mean, but just because something spreads doesn't mean it's viral. It could just be a tag.
I write for a PR audience – you seem to take a dim view of the profession and equate it with media manipulation – and you say that the tactics of PR (circa when the book was written) are no longer as effective:"In fact each of the methods of public relations have been undermined by their very implementation in the media. Americans have either stopped believing what their media tells them, or stopped caring."
I don't dislike PR, per se. In my book Coercion, the PR people are the only ones who get away unscathed. That's because good PR people aren't about manipulated perception of a company – they are about actually changing the story. This means not just changing the way the story is being told, but going into the company or the nation or whatever it is, and saying "people hate you because you kill slaves, dump crap in the ocean, or sell shitty products. Stop it!" Great PR is really just helping great companies tell the world what's great about them.
Take someone like Craigslist. Great great guy and great great company. Terrible terrible PR. I don't even know if he has a PR firm, but they're public relations isn't good, because the world associates them with the bad things that have happened to a few isolated cases. If a good PR firm helped Craig show the world what a great thing he's doing, that's not manipulation.
Now it's definitely true that the awful and evil PR firms – the Hill and Knowltons of the world that go and help countries go to war on false grounds – they're still alive and kicking. Or Ed Vigery and his fake letters to right wingers, getting them to believe that Obama is a terrorist or that Kerry burns Bibles. They're still around. But many of the techniques they use to manipulate people don't work so well anymore.
So they need to up their game. It's like fighting cockroaches with crack and crevice spray. We grow immune to one set of scare tactics, so they have to develop new ones. And now we get to a total fatigue on both sides. Where PR people of this sort and the public they mean to manipulate both just stop caring. Cynicism rules. We are unrousable. And that's the objective for some of these folks.
Since then profession has not gone away but has grown. What is your view of the field today?
Depends. It's a big field. It's like asking "what's your view of the medical field?" or "what's your view of politicians?" There's good and bad. I think PR will be the successor to advertising. I truly believe advertising is almost over. I've been saying this for a couple of decades. It's a dead art. Like opera at best. There's just no need for it. It's all communications and positioning now. And that's the realm of PR.
I told hundreds of people to leave advertising and go into PR. But the PR people have become a bit too obsessed with social media like Twitter. They think it's just so neat. And they Tweet back and forth to other PR people about Tweeting and PR. I mean, they can't see they are in a closed loop, touching antennae with their own colleagues, and thinking the excitement about all this means they should be spending everyone's money on this.
The communication will take care of itself if the story is urgent, relevant, compelling, and valuable to people. It doesn't matter how people tell your story. Let the people take care of the modes of transmission. Just find your client's story and help him tell it. Often they don't know the value in what they are doing. They're so wrapped up in it, they can't see what's so cool about their enterprise.
Please share a few words about your latest book, Program or be Programmed. What can people involved with PR and social media strategies learn from it?
The main point is that all of these digital tools work a lot better if you know what they are for. It sounds simple, but most of us don't. So if you don't really know what Facebook is for, how it works, how it is biased, you're going to get unpredictable results at best.
My book explains the ten main biases of digital media, so that it can be used to increase our agency, express our intentions, and promote our agendas. If you don't know the biases, you end up much more like a passenger in the car than the driver. And that's not where you want to be.
So, for instance, if your folks just read my one chapter and social media – two thousand words – they'd understand how it works, and how digital media has been biased from the start toward social relationships.
They'd see the problem with getting people to sell their friends, they'd see why all these "social influencer" startup firms have it ass-backwards, and they'd come to understand how everybody online is really just looking for social currency with which to make friends. Your people should be providing that social currency. That's what a fact-based digital mediaspace is about.
The myths of the advertising era are naturally deconstructed in a digital mediaspace. They dont' work anymore. But the facts of the public relations industry become extremely valuable. They are the new content.
You guys are so in the driver's seat, it's not funny. But most of you don't quite get that because you don't see how social media works.
So please, just read the one chapter. Maybe that two thousand words, and half the chapter on how digital media is fact-based. It should take all of twenty minutes, and you will be an utterly transformed public relations professional. And then you'll even get attention and respect from your peers just for suggesting they read the new Rushkoff book, too.
And so on. Get it?