[Audio for the first few min­utes was very rough; there may be some errors.]

It’s been now twen­ty years since 1994 [inaudi­ble] quite sur­pris­ing­ly. But twen­ty years ago the jour­nal­ist and media crit­ic Douglas Rushkoff released the book Media Virus!, which became one of the most influ­en­tial and most crit­i­cized ear­ly works of web the­o­ry. While the book went on to inspire a gen­er­a­tion of com­mer­cial mar­keters to craft pro­mo­tion­al mes­sages that spread and repli­cate across dig­i­tal net­works, Rushkoff’s focus was in fact the use of viral dis­sem­i­na­tion tech­niques for rad­i­cal and pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal activism. Five years lat­er, Kalle Lasn the founder of Adbusters mag­a­zine advanced a sim­i­lar mod­el of the new media activism in a book called Culture Jam, call­ing for his fol­low­ers to kick off the next pro­gres­sive rev­o­lu­tion by act­ing as meme war­riors.” Both of these books put forth a postmodernist-influenced the­o­riza­tion of polit­i­cal pow­er as the equiv­a­lent of net­worked com­mu­nica­tive pow­er in a ful­ly sat­u­rat­ed media world. 

Now on the 15th and 20th anniver­saries of these sem­i­nal works respec­tive­ly, I want to re-examine their con­tro­ver­sial claims and con­sid­er how their the­o­ries of media con­ta­gion as polit­i­cal pow­er inform our con­tem­po­rary debates about slack­tivism and the val­ue of sym­bol­ic polit­i­cal expres­sion on the web. My argu­ment is that these pop­u­lar works of media crit­i­cism can be viewed in ret­ro­spect as form­ing the foun­da­tion for a per­sua­sion mod­el of polit­i­cal inter­net use that has since appeared in a hand­ful of schol­ar­ly works. I’m think­ing of peo­ple like Manuel Castells’ notion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and pow­er work­ing in the net­work soci­ety, as well as Ethan Zuckerman, who was men­tioned before, his notion of dig­i­tal civics as sup­port­ing a cul­tur­al the­o­ry of change as opposed to a leg­isla­tive the­o­ry of change, sim­i­lar to what we were just hear­ing about.

This mod­el of change has yet to be real­ly sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly test­ed in terms of its effi­ca­cy if it real­ly could ever be test­ed, con­sid­er­ing the dif­fuse long term and indi­rect cul­tur­al effects that it sug­gests. Yet in con­trast to more-established aca­d­e­m­ic mod­els (and I’m think­ing of things like dig­i­tal delib­er­a­tive democ­ra­cy and a more ratio­nal­ist pub­lic sphere as well as civic cul­tures) I don’t have time to real­ly go into these mod­els. But this per­sua­sion mod­el that I’m talk­ing about advanced by Rushkoff and Lasn is par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful I think for think­ing crit­i­cal­ly through a vari­ety of recent politically-oriented web phe­nom­e­na like pro­file pic­ture chang­ing cam­paigns, polit­i­cal viral videos, hash­tag activism and the like. 

Both authors I think can be cred­it­ed with help­ing to pop­u­lar­ize the notion that in order to effec­tive­ly make a dif­fer­ence in a media-drenched soci­ety, cit­i­zens must focus much of their ener­gy on pro­mot­ing and mar­ket­ing their inter­ests via par­tic­i­pa­to­ry media plat­forms. In my forth­com­ing book project, I call this the citizen-marketer approach.” The citizen-marketer can be defined as a per­son who con­scious­ly uses her pro­mo­tion­al pow­er as a micro-level peer-to-peer agent in the broad­er infor­ma­tion econ­o­my to advance a polit­i­cal agen­da. They essen­tial­ly act as the polit­i­cal equiv­a­lent of com­mer­cial brand advo­cates or brand evan­ge­lists or viral mar­ket­ing agents, in a sim­i­lar way that I’m now pro­mot­ing David Lynch movies on my t-shirt. And this is going on in a medi­at­ed mar­ket­place of ideas dis­sem­i­nat­ing per­sua­sive con­tent in a peer-to-peer fash­ion as a means of con­tribut­ing to the shap­ing of the pub­lic mind.

So Lasn’s Culture Jam, released in 1999, reads in hind­sight as a man­i­festo of sorts for this citizen-marketer approach that I’m iden­ti­fy­ing here. Lasn lays out a vision of con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal strug­gle as tak­ing place entire­ly with­in the cir­cu­la­tion of per­sua­sive media mes­sages. This echoes the­o­rists of so-called post-modern pol­i­tics,” for instance Stephen Best and Douglass Kellner who argue that in an era in which social life is fil­tered through the media, pol­i­tics becomes a bat­tle of images.” So in a sim­i­lar sense, Lasn writes 

The next rev­o­lu­tion, World War III, will be as Marshall McLuhan pre­dict­ed a gueril­la infor­ma­tion war fought not in the sky or on the streets but in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, on radio and TV, and in cyber­space.’ It will be a dirty no-holds-barred pro­pa­gan­da war of com­pet­ing world­views and alter­na­tive visions of the future.
Kalle Lasn, A Toolkit for Culture Jammers,” Adbusters, July-August 1999

Now else­where he writes:

Activists can stage sit-ins, orga­nize mas­sive protests and stage mighty bat­tles with riot police. But these events will at best flick­er briefly on the evening news and be gone with no demon­stra­ble change in the world. They are spec­ta­cles with radi­um half-lives. The real riots,
the impor­tant ones that shift alliances, shake gov­ern­ments, win (or lose) elec­tions and force cor­po­ra­tions and indus­tries to rethink their agen­das, now take place inside your head.
Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam

So sort of tak­ing pol­i­tics from the streets into the sort of per­sua­sion of the mind. 

Now for those who crit­i­cize so-called slack­tivism or click­tivism as threat­en­ing to replace hard-fought pol­i­tics on the ground with more facile pol­i­tics on the screen, Lasn’s log­ic here might sound quite dan­ger­ous. In fact I would argue that much of the cur­rent slack­tivism debate hinges upon whether one buys into this post-modernist vision of a medi­a­tized pol­i­tics that Lasn cel­e­brates and pros­e­ly­tizes in Culture Jam, and Rushkoff does as well, which I’ll get to in a moment.

The fact that Lasn is the same per­son who’s real­ly respon­si­ble for launch­ing Occupy Wall Street in 2011 through his Adbusters out­fit may seem to con­tra­dict this empha­sis that he has here on meme war­fare over face-to-face protests in the streets. However, Lasn’s state­ments in Culture Jam back in ’99 offer a way of inter­pret­ing the true strate­gic pur­pose and inten­tion of Occupy Wall Street, at least in its ini­tial con­cep­tion on his end. Of course oth­ers took it in oth­er direc­tions after­wards. But for Lasn I real­ly believe Occupy Wall Street was a meme, a media event, a skir­mish in this pro­pa­gan­da war that he is imag­in­ing, designed more to cre­ate a col­lec­tive mind-shift as he would call it rather than cre­ate direct mate­r­i­al change on the ground.

Extending this mil­i­tary methaphor of a pro­pa­gan­da or infor­ma­tion war, Lasn calls for a new gen­er­a­tion of polit­i­cal activists to serve as meme war­riors,” active par­tic­i­pants in the per­sua­sion game of a ful­ly medi­a­tized pol­i­tics, whose weapons con­sist of videos, graph­ics, image macros, adver­tis­ing slo­gans, for­ward­ed arti­cles and the like. Although this use of the term meme that he’s using is some­what dif­fer­ent from our con­tem­po­rary usage…I mean he’s real­ly refer­ring to Richard Dawkins’ orig­i­nal notion of infec­tious ideas that take hold through­out soci­eties as opposed to our more nar­row sense of socially-shared dig­i­tal con­tent. But I think that Lasn’s for­mu­la­tion here, meme war­rriors,” is rather prophet­ic. Recognizing pri­or to our social media age that the Internet is one of the most potent meme-replicating medi­ums ever invent­ed,” Lasn more or less pre­dicts the direc­tion that what I’m call­ing cit­i­zen mar­ket­ing, or real­ly activism in gen­er­al online, has tak­en in the era of Facebook and Twitter. His strong belief that com­mu­nica­tive pow­er is the pri­ma­ry locus of all con­tem­po­rary pow­er even leads him to pro­claim that meme war­riors will even­tu­al­ly emerge as the cen­tral actors on the stage of world pol­i­tics. So here’s anoth­er quote.

Potent memes can change minds, alter behav­ior, cat­alyze col­lec­tive mind­shifts and trans­form cul­tures. Which is why meme war­fare has become the geopo­lit­i­cal bat­tle of our infor­ma­tion age. Whoever has the memes has the pow­er.
Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam

While Lasn’s faith in the absolute polit­i­cal effi­ca­cy of meme war­fare may be rea­son­ably ques­tioned, and I think it should be, his vision has undoubt­ed­ly rever­ber­at­ed through­out the cul­ture and influ­enced the devel­op­ment of activism strate­gies to no small degree. Indeed polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions from across the spec­trum now increas­ing­ly func­tion as what Lasn dubbed in his book meme fac­to­ries,” churn­ing out short bits of per­sua­sive media con­tent (or pro­pa­gan­da, in his terms) and sum­mon­ing sup­port­ers to spread them across a swath of dig­i­tal net­works and through­out oth­er pub­lic venues. So I’m think­ing of exam­ples like the red equals sign image of the Human Rights Campaign that was on Facebook, the Kony 2012 video of the group Invisible Children, real­ly most of the stuff we saw in the pre­vi­ous Vietnam exam­ples I might include. Well, that was sort of infor­mal, but I’m talk­ing about orga­ni­za­tions who pro­duce these kind of memes as a tool of activism.

Whether or not these cam­paigns of course are suc­cess­ful in cre­at­ing any polit­i­cal change through this peer-to-peer meme war­fare is a whole oth­er ques­tion, but either way I think Lasn can be cred­it­ed or blamed with pop­u­lar­iz­ing this approach to activism. 

But released five years before Culture Jam in 1994, Douglas Rushkoff’s book Media Virus! offers a quite sim­i­lar vision of how polit­i­cal activism must adapt to a ful­ly media-centric soci­ety. His ideas are pred­i­cat­ed upon a belief shared by Lasn, and the post-moderists more broad­ly, that pol­i­tics has become an entire­ly medi­a­tized phe­nom­e­non. So as he puts it

Power today has lit­tle to do with how much prop­er­ty a per­son owns or com­mands. It is instead deter­mined by how many min­utes of prime-time TV or pages of news media atten­tion she can access or occu­py. The ever-expanding media has become a true region…
Douglas Rushkoff, Media Virus!

The data­s­phere” he calls it, which he sit­u­ates as the pri­ma­ry ter­rain of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics. He goes on to describe a new gen­er­a­tion of media activists who inher­ent­ly under­stand this post-modern social real­i­ty and thus seek to hack the data net­work” as a means of reshap­ing the world. And now here’s anoth­er quote from Rushkoff.

People who lack tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal pow­er but still seek to influ­ence the direc­tion of our cul­ture do so by infus­ing new ideas into this ever-expanding data­s­phere. These infor­ma­tion bombs spread through­out the entire infor­ma­tion net in a mat­ter of sec­onds.
Douglas Rushkoff, Media Virus!

He wrote this twen­ty years ago. Rushkoff does sug­gest a net­worked mod­el of influ­ence that tru­ly fore­shad­ows the viral mar­ket­ing mod­el of the Web 2.0 era in which mes­sages are spread in a peer-to-peer fash­ion with a goal of cap­tur­ing the atten­tion and ulti­mate­ly the hearts and minds of the pub­lic.

So indeed Media Virus! has played a sig­nif­i­cant role in pop­u­lar­iz­ing the con­cept of viral media more broad­ly since its release in the mid-1990s, influ­enc­ing both com­mer­cial mar­ket­ing strate­gies as well as polit­i­cal ones. However it is the lat­ter again that is Rushkoff’s pri­ma­ry focus as he claims that the growth of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry feed­back media like the Internet have per­mit­ted our cit­i­zen­ry to grad­u­ate from pas­sive, igno­rant spec­ta­tors to active, informed par­tic­i­pants” (We hear a lot about this.) and pro­vides the abil­i­ty to mount real grass­roots counter-cultural cam­paigns.”

So mir­ror­ing Lasn’s opti­mistic view of the per­sua­sive pow­er of meme war­fare, Rushkoff describes how mem­bers of these grass­roots cam­paigns depend on a world­view that accepts that a tiny virus launched cre­ative­ly and dis­trib­uted wide­ly can top­ple sys­tems of thought as estab­lished as orga­nized reli­gion, and insti­tu­tions as well-rooted as say the Republican par­ty or even the two-party sys­tem alto­geth­er.” In oth­er words the media virus is imag­ined to not only allow new par­tic­i­pants to enter this mar­ket­place of ideas, but also to pro­vide them with an oppor­tu­ni­ty to emerge as vic­to­ri­ous by win­ning over one cit­i­zen at a time.

The key assump­tion under­ly­ing these bio­log­i­cal metaphors, viral media, memes and so forth, is that we’re talk­ing about uncon­trol­lable forces of cul­tur­al con­ta­gion spread­ing from per­son to per­son through mere con­tact and ulti­mate­ly over­tak­ing the pub­lic mind as a kind of ide­o­log­i­cal pan­dem­ic. Understandably Media Virus! has been round­ly crit­i­cized for propos­ing such an over­ly mech­a­nis­tic mod­el of social influ­ence. For instance Henry Jenkins holds off this book by Rushkoff as a prime exam­ple of what he calls a flawed way to think about dis­trib­ut­ing con­tent through infor­ma­tion or ad hoc net­works.” So for Henry Jenkins reduc­ing peo­ple to invol­un­tary hosts of media virus­es under­mines the role of human agency in the peer-to-peer spread of media mes­sages, lead­ing him to sug­gest that the term viral media” be retired alto­geth­er in favor of his less-deterministic sound­ing spread­able media.” That’s the title of his most recent book.

However, as much as this viral metaphor of invol­un­tary con­ta­gion may be far from the real­i­ty, it is impor­tant to acknowl­edge how it has impact­ed the way in which polit­i­cal pow­er is con­ceived in an era in which going viral” has become a key cul­tur­al catch­phrase. While the notion of viral infec­tion paints a pic­ture of weak and vul­ner­a­ble audi­ences that are sus­cep­ti­ble to out­side con­trol, it also makes this con­trol appear equal­ly as acces­si­ble to any­one who wish­es to seize it for his or her own pur­pos­es. In oth­er words the viral media metaphor can be simul­ta­ne­ous­ly empow­er­ing and disempow­er­ing for indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens, depend­ing upon whether one sees him or her­self as an active agent of dis­sem­i­na­tion or as mere­ly a host. Or in Lasn’s terms maybe a meme war­rior” or a con­quered sub­ject.”

This double-edged sword of the viral mod­el of influ­ence places an impo­si­tion of sorts upon those who hope to see their polit­i­cal inter­ests suc­ceed in this sort of hyper-reality mar­ket­place of ideas. Either infect the media or the media will infect you. I think that sort of impo­si­tion is on a lot of us. Presented with this choice, it is under­stand­able that many cit­i­zens would try their hand at the media con­ta­gion game in the ser­vice of fur­ther­ing their own polit­i­cal agen­das.

Thus while we cer­tain­ly can uphold that the process of spread­ing media mes­sages across peer-to-peer net­works is rich with human agency at every stage— Of course peo­ple have to decide if they’re going to for­ward some­thing, retweet some­thing, share a link, like con­tent, etc. so there’s a lot of human agency here, it’s not con­ta­gion.” But we can also rec­og­nize how this viral notion of con­ta­gion may be act­ing as a dri­ving force in the pop­u­lar uptake of this kind of approach to activism. In oth­er words, imag­in­ing those around you as poten­tial tar­gets for your infec­tious mes­sage or meme pro­vides an encour­ag­ing sense that you might just be able to make an impact on them and thus con­tribute to this broad­er shap­ing of the pub­lic mind. Although the viral mod­el is far too sim­plis­tic and mechan­i­cal to actu­al­ly work as auto­mat­i­cal­ly as it sug­gests, it appears to serve as a use­ful fic­tion for many who wish to assert some small degree of con­trol or influ­ence over this fully-mediatized polit­i­cal world which is often com­ing down from above, top-down.

This is the point that I real­ly want to close with. While notions of memet­ics and viral con­ta­gion on the web are cer­tain­ly bor­rowed from bio­log­i­cal sci­ence, I believe they’re fun­da­men­tal­ly metaphor­i­cal as opposed to sci­en­tif­ic. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not with­out mean­ing or val­ue, rather they pro­vide seduc­tive ways of con­ceiv­ing of the web and its pow­er to influ­ence the polit­i­cal and social world. And these metaphors have impor­tant con­se­quences. I’m think­ing here of the work of George Lakoff, Metaphors We Live By. Metaphors have a lot of social con­se­quences. Depending upon one’s rel­a­tive opti­mism or pes­simism about the true abil­i­ty to effect change through par­tic­i­pa­to­ry mar­ket­ing or pro­pa­gan­da tac­tics, these metaphors and their prog­en­i­tors, Rushkoff and Lasn, may alter­nate­ly be seen as inspir­ing or enner­vat­ing.

Thank you.

Further Reference

Joel writes on several of these topics at his site, Viral Politics


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