February 21, 2008
Viral Media--Hows and Whys

Tonight, we hosted an event in conjunction with our parent academic program, the Program in Comparative Media Studies, here at MIT, dealing with viral media. For those of you who follow the blog regularly, you know that we're doing a fair bit of research within the Consortium right now about this concept of "viral," and some anecdotes from that research have made their way here on the blog. This CMS colloquium event also flowed out of that work.

The event was hosted by C3 Consulting Researcher Shenja van der Graaf (see her bio here), who is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society here in Cambridge at Harvard Law School and who works with the London School of Economics, moderating a discussion between two practitioners working in the digital space who incorporate tactics that are often labeled as "viral."

The discussion, entitled Viral Media: Hows and Whys, featured Mike Rubenstein from The Barbarian Group here in Boston. Rubenstein was a member of our MIT Futures of Entertainment 2 panel entitled Advertising and Convergence Culture (see our team's live blogging of the event here) and has worked on a variety of web campaign and video shorts, including projects for our partner Turner Broadcasting for their Super Deluxe site (see here and here).

The event also featured Natalie Lent, a Harvard alum who until recently worked with Fanscape and now works with Fanista. See my writing on Fanscape and Natalie here, and see my post on Fanista here.

The event was recorded for podcast and should be available soon on the CMS site and eventually on the C3 site as well. Since we have some mild-mannered speakers, I hope the microphone picked up all the audio well. But the ideas are well worth listening to, if you're interested in the pragmatics and execution of campaigns that have a viral element, as Mike Rubenstein discusses, or if they are questions of community relations, as Natalie deals with more prevalently.

The discussion dealt with a wide range of issues surrounding "viral," including word-of-mouth marketing, the institutional forces which shape how "viral" campaigns are executed, the ways in which social networking sites and message boards play a role in the distribution of this content, and appropriate and inappropriate ways companies can push their products along to encourage this "viral" spread.

The discussion also tied into the recent debate over the validity of "The Tipping Point" concept from Malcolm Gladwell. In a subsequent post, I'm going to write a little more in depth about our discussion of two particular points of interest for me surrounding the viral concept when it comes to marketing, buzzwords that I personally feel are essential to the current discussion: transparency and authenticity.

C3 Research Manager Joshua Green specifically posed the question about what an offline event like the Cartoon Network/Boston fiasco last February should be understood as an example of "buzz marketing" and "viral marketing, both in the effects it had on trying to create these types of campaigns, as well as whether it would have been a good idea had it not created a public outrage. The link above is to a piece I initially wrote in response to the local controversy once a "viral" or "buzz" campaign was misunderstood as a public safety hazard.

We had a range of other questions from the CMS community for the panel dealing with politics, journalism, and a variety of other issues. Be sure to listen to the podcast if you weren't able to join us.