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