How We Help Spread Political Messages...

Today's entry is being cross-posted to our new website for the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, a joint venture between the Comparative Media Studies and the Media Lab. The website will regularly receive blog posts from all of us involved in the center, will showcase new projects developed by our researchers, and will otherwise offer a guide to the ways people are using new media technologies to strengthen civic engagement at the local level. Check it out and tell us what you think.

I'm scarcely "General Betray-us" yet has declared war on me!

Or so it seemed when I opened my e-mail the other day and discovered that a former student (actually, now multiple former students) had sent me this customized video from the leftward leaning political organization, suggesting what would happen if I didn't vote for Obama. Of course, the jokes on them! -- I voted early since I will be speaking in Eugene, Oregon early next week and then racing back to Boston to watch the returns. If you are depending on my vote to put the guy over, it's already in the bag. Trust me, America, I'm not nearly as bad as this attack ad would seem to suggest.

Of course, what I'm doing right now -- sharing this video with you -- is precisely what the organization was hoping would happen. This is a beautiful example of how spreadable media is contributing to this campaign season. In Convergence Culture, I described the efforts of True Majority, a political organization founded around the principle of "serious fun," and how they had built playful campaign videos (like one where Donald Trump fires W.) in the hopes that people would pass them along to their friends and family members. Research suggests that political messages are far more effective if they are delivered by someone you know and so the challenge is to get average citizens excited enough about political media that they will help to circulate it.

Four years ago, the activists were using the term, "viral media," and I suppose they still are. If I had my way, the term and "memes" along with it would be retired from our vocabulary of talking about how media circulates. There's something sick and unhealthy about the concept of viral media. The term, "viral" operates off a metaphor of infection, assuming that the public are unwilling carriers of messages -- yet I doubt very much that the students who sent me this video were in any sense unwilling or unknowing about what they were doing. The concept of "viral media" strips aside the agency of the participants who are sending along this video for their own reasons -- in this case, a mixture of political zeal and personal affection and probably some sense that I would find the video intellectually interesting. The term, "meme," implies that culture is "self-replicating" rather than actively reshaped by the choices made by individual consumers and subcultural communities.

So, the folks at MoveOn probably thought they had created "viral media." In fact, they created a powerful example of "spreadable media." What makes it powerful is that they made it easy for individuals to customize the content of the video to make it more personally meaningful or more important, to make it meaningful in specific social contexts, to make it meaningful in relation to their social networks. The content is playful and fun; there's a certain fascination with the mechanisms which imprint personally significant names over the repurposed video content; there's some delight in seeing myself praised by conservative pundits and even by George W.

As we pass this content along, it facilitates conversations among friends and it allows us to signify to each other our mutual recognition and respect for the civic rituals which surround the political process. When people send me this video, they intend it as a gift -- which is to say, they intend it to reaffirm the social ties we feel towards each other. Its circulation is certainly meaningful on Moveon's terms -- they hope that I will not only affirm its message but pass it along to someone else -- but it is also meaningful on our terms which may be quite different. I could, for example, construct and send one to my socially conservative brother (as a friendly ribbing from Blue America to Red America) and he might pass it along to his friends at work (expressing outrage against what left-wing organizations are saying about that closet socialist and Moslem). And so the process continues.

We've been spending a fair amount of time through the Convergence Culture Consortium reflecting on the properties of spreadable media over the past year. One CMS graduate student, Sheila Seldes, applies this concept to the free circulation of Michael Moore's Slacker Uprising over at the Convergence Culture Consortium's blog and we will be discussing the concept of "spreadability" at the Futures of Entertainment III conference Nov. 21-22.

The political use of spreadability is particularly interesting: while media companies are clearly ambivalent about our ability to take their content and spread it among our friends, political campaigns actively solicit our help in moving their message throughout our social networks. Indeed, much of the emerging literature on civic engagement suggests that such social networks may be replacing the kinds of social organizations which Robert Putnam saw as at the center of American civic life. Most political organizations rely on us to relay meaningful content to others in our friendship circle because they lack the money to launch an all-out media blitz around their message (Obama's "shock and awe" advertising strategies for the final weeks of the campaign is a notable exception.) I believe that if we study the circulation of political content, we may develop a better understanding of the mechanisms which encourage spreadability and the kinds of choices consumer/citizens make when they decide to pass a video along to their friends.

So, here's another fascinating example of spreadable media content. While it lacks the built-in capacity for customization, it has the added feature of a certain kind of "remember when" nostalgia. This video specifically reminds us of the original Whazzup Budweisser Beer commercial from 2000. I'm sure that it's still stuck in your head if you were at all conscious in 2000 but here's a copy if you want to go back and compare notes.

The original spot has a special place in the literature on "viral media." Aired during the Super Bowl, the spot became an instant classic, one that people spoke about, but more importantly, one which was widely parodied across a range of digital communities. And each time we saw the soundtrack of the video applied in a new context -- members of the Clinton Administration, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Superfriends, and so forth -- the core branding message got repeated. Bud certainly spent a lot of money for the initial exposure but then many people furthered their promotional aims by sending a succession of pastiche videos along to their friends.

So, part of the power of the new video is that it reminds us of our own role in spreading the original video. it helps that the original video came out during the 2000 campaign which George W. Bush in the White House and thus represents an ideal marker of the passing of time and of what has happened to America over those eight years. The soundtrack implicitly asks us whether we are better off now than we were eight years ago and demands to know what we are going to do about it. The frat boy humor of the original video evokes a more carefree time (suggesting "goofing off" with college friends) as a contrast to the adult responsibilities and dire consequences which confront these same characters today. Even our annoyance over being reminded of the "Whazzup" campaign also can be directed towards a president who famously uses fraternity style nicknames for the members of his administration, as Oliver Stone's W has brought back to everyone's attention. Nostalgia is often a spur for the circulation of spreadable media content but in this case, memories of the past are designed to provoke a particular kind of historical consciousness.

Or let's tackle a final set of videos which have been spreading over the final weeks of the campaign. The first is a video where someone re-purposed footage of John McCain for comic effect: in this case, the video draws a parallel between McCain's mannerisms and those of a particular super-villain much beloved by comic book fans. The analogy between McCain and the Penguin is one that I've seen surface many different ways in recent weeks, but never more effectively than in this video. And the video works because it gives us a new comic frame through which to interpret McCain's mannerisms.The video doesn't offer us a deep political analysis: at best it allows us to put a name on something which might have been unnerving us all along. Whatever meaning it carries comes, however, from the social transactions which occur around us, through the ways that circulating the video to others reaffirms our own political commitments and links them to deeper social ties.

The Penguin analogy, however, may also allow us to make sense of this other video which has been circulating without much explicit commentary -- an excerpt from the 1966 Adam West Batman series featuring a debate between Batman and the Penquin. For people of my generation, this video carries enormous nostalgic value. This is a much valued segment of our childhood imaginary. Yet, the repurposing of this footage right now forces us to read the scene through a totally different lens and in turn, the content of the video gives us layer upon layer of satirical commentary on the recent Presidential debates. Once again, this is content I've felt compelled to share with my students, my friends, my family, and now, my blog readers for a variety of different reasons. I am not an unwilling or unknowing participant in this process; this is not "self-replicating" culture; there is simply a powerful alignment between my social goals and the political agendas of those who have excerpted and recirculated this content.

Thanks to John Campbell, Kelly Whitney, and Joshua Diaz for calling these examples to my attention.