February 23, 2009
If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Six): Spreadable Content

This is part six of an eight part series. The report was written by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, Ana Domb Krauskopf With Joshua Green. Our research was funded by the members of the Convergence Culture Consortium, including GSDM Advertising, MTV Networks, and Turner Broadcasting.

Spreadable Content

Thus far, we have examined some of the technological and social conditions that allow for media to spread, but it remains clear that not all media content and materials are equally spreadable. Nor it is simply a matter of "good" or "interesting" content -- we do not pass on every bit of interesting information or every clever video. Content is spread based not on an individual evaluation of worth, but on a perceived social value within community or group.

Not all good content is good for sharing. In a gift economy, the gifts we share say something about our perceptions of the person we are passing them to as much as they express our own tastes and interests. Most importantly, the exchange of gifts serves to reinforce relations within the community and a badly chosen or ill-considered gift can cause hard feelings. Above all, we don't circulate gifts because advertisers ask us to do so -- and ideally, we'd like to minimize the hard sell contained in such gifts. We might well give someone a shirt with a designer label or even a T-Shirt which promoted a favorite film, but we are unlikely to stuff a catalog in the gift box in hopes that our friend will go back and buy more from the same company.

So, if we want to predict what content will "spread," we have to develop a fuller understanding of the ways that the circulation of information may strengthen or damage social relations. We must first come to understand what function the circulation of content and information serves within a social network -- that is, what is the relationship of the community to the materials that it circulates? From there, we can determine the necessary characteristics that advertising content must exhibit in order to have potential for use within a gift economy. We can then begin to draw out aesthetic and structural forms that lend themselves particularly well to this process.

What makes content worth spreading

There's a lot we can learn about how content circulates online by examining the existing literature on how rumors spread in face-to-face communities. Patricia A Turner (1994) has studied the circulation of rumors within the African American community. Turner makes the distinction between rumors, which are informal and temporary constellations of information, and contemporary legends, which are "more solidified rumors" (Turner 1994, p. 5) and maintain a reasonable consistency in narrative content as they are passed. Her description of such rumors bear a striking resemblance to what we've come to think of as Word of Mouth advertising -- testimonial accounts about a product or service -- and the circulation of advertising content itself that now most often characterizes "viral" media.

Many of Turner's cases center upon commercial products and corporations. In particular, the rumor that a number of different companies were owned by the Ku Klux Klan remained one of the most persistent and widespread in the African-American community during the period of her research. Various companies were implicated in such rumors, ranging from food and consumable products (Church's Chicken, Marlboro cigarettes) to clothing companies (Troop). Some were private enterprises and others public and none had any explicitly racist policies outside of marketing predominantly to African American populations. Church's chicken, for instance, managed to rally the support of the NAACP president at the time (Turner, 1994, p.96).

These rumors inflicted serious damage on these brands, resulting in "severe financial losses": Church's was forced to sell and Troop went bankrupt. (Turner, 1994, p.96). No sooner did one company collapse under the weight of the community's suspicions than new rumors of KKK associations were directed against other, similar companies. Though such claims may not have had much basis in fact, the accusations, Turner tells us, were far from random. In fact, the companies were linked by:

certain key elements . . . Namely, white-owned firms (with) . . . advertising directed solely at black consumers, that established nationwide franchises selling popular but nonessential commodities in primarily black neighborhoods (Turner, 1994, p.97).

Thus, what perpetuated the circulation of rumors about these companies had to do with what their products represented for their consumers. As Turner explains later in describing an instance in which the Church's Chicken rumor was successfully passed:

By sharing (the story) with my informant, (the person telling the story) was solidifying the bonds between them and, in a sense, bolstering their identity as potential victims of racist activity; in addition, a spotlight was trained on the potential aggressors, for one must never forget who the enemy is. My informant accepted the rumor because it functioned as a metaphor for the struggle he was facing in his attempt to establish himself as a man in American society (Turner, 1994, p.106-107)

By circulating the story, community members are able affirm their commonality and draw clear lines of who is friend and who is foe, express the shared concerns of that group (racism and discriminatory treatment) and bring their anxieties under control by responding to a symbolic embodiment of their concerns. These rumors reflect the reality of a world where racism often no longer takes the direct form of a KKK rally but may be implicit, tacit, and thus hard to locate or overcome. They are responding to what other social critics have called "enlightened racism" -- that is, racism which is recognized by its affects but not by its goals. Though clearly specific to this particular community, the example here offers valuable insight into the social factors that motivate sharing information and content within communities in general:

  1. To bolster camaraderie and articulate the (presumably shared) experiences and values that identify oneself as belong to a particular community ("bolstering their identity")

  2. To gather information and explain difficult to understand events or circumstances.

  3. To establish the boundaries of an "in-group".

These same factors may come into play when fans advocate for a franchise or consumers promote a brand.

  • They are doing so because the brand express something about themselves or their community.

  • They are doing so because the brand message serves some valued social function.
  • They are doing so because the entertainment content gives expressive form to some deeply held perception or feeling about the world.

  • They are doing so because individual responses to such content helps them determine who does or does not belong in their community.

If the same content is passed between multiple communities, it is because that content serves relevant functions for each of those communities, not because it serves some lowest common denominator or universal function. Consider, for example, the campaign commercials produced by Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Starting as a dark horse with limited cash on hand, Huckabee sought to insure his content would spread to multiple communities of potential supporters. One such spot featured action star Chuck Norris. After an initially limited television buy, this spot spread through YouTube and ultimately became the focus for news coverage as a consequence.

What made Norris an inspired choice for such a spot was that his name recognition worked well in several radically different social networks. On the one hand, Norris had increasingly become a recurring reference point for jokes on late night comedy shows and had become a camp icon, inspiring sites such as Chuck Norris Facts. Here, deploying Chuck Norris showed that Huckabee was cool, that he understood and embraced some aspects of contemporary popular culture, and as a consequence, the spot helped to defer anxieties which might surround his status as a Baptist Minister, allowing him to escape the cultural war discourse that surrounded previous evangelical candidates.

On the other hand, Norris himself had a solid base of support among evangelical Christians. He writes a weekly column for the conservative news service WorldNetDaily on which he announced that were he to be president he would "Tattoo an American flag with the words, 'In God we trust,' on the forehead of every atheist." Norris is an outspoken Christian and has actually written several books on the subject. The Norris/Huckabee spots, thus, managed to speak to two very different communities, religious conservatives and an internet savvy young audience. Both saw something that spoke to them and many decided that it was content worth spreading.

To give a more immediate example, we might think of the way the VW Polo spoof ad was circulated. The spot itself featured a man of in determinant but Arabic descent pulling up alongside a cafe in a VW Polo. After muttering a few indistinguishable words, he presses his thumb down on a detonator, at which point we cut to an exterior shot that shows the Polo containing the entire explosion. The spot was never intended as a legitimate advert for VW, but rather part of a show reel that was leaked onto the web.

First, the spot was commented upon and passed among a number of different niche groups online, used as a way to express a number of different sentiments, but all with the purpose of articulating some form of value system or viewpoint. There were a number of blogs that posted the video in the spirit in which it was probably intended, citing its strength as an advertisement for being memorable and one discussion board post framed it with the saying that "anything worth taking seriously is worth making fun of," aligning the video with the humor tactics of popular media like The Daily Show.

But a quick look at the trackbacks to one of the early posts on the blog Whizbang, which range from "disgusting" to "humor to the rescue," suggest that as the video spread more widely, it generated a wider range of interpretations of its message. Some blogs used it as a sort of war rally, with comments such as "perhaps we should start issuing (the Polo) to British forces" and "If only we could ship an entire fleet of these things to the Islamofascists world-wide." On the other side, it was framed as offensive and tasteless; It was pointed out on the Snopes.com article that the man in the commercial not only had a "distinctive middle eastern appearance," but was also wearing a checkered keffiyeh that was reminiscent of Yasser Arafat, suggesting a pointed political message at work.

One blog that specializes in media surrounding the Middle East juxtaposed a description of the video against an article about a poll which "highlights anti-Israeli feeling in Germany", while another site listed the video as the number one most racist commercial, even beating out ads from white supremacy organizations. The commercial was spread through a number of different interest communities with a range of opinions, but what they all have in common was that each used the ad to articulate specific values and agendas. The blog about racist commercials, for instance, was able to express anxiety over a long-standing pattern of negative stereotyping of various minorities. Other blogs that took a pro-war stance were able to use their attitude towards the situation portrayed in the video to create us/them distinctions on both a national level ("we" versus the "Islamofascists") and an ideological one, implicitly drawing a line between those who support the message and those who find the message offensive.

As we have seen, not all of these communities are as clearly defined as the African-American community Turner studied. Some communities may be pools, organized around shared interests, ranging from politics to pet care. Some may be webs, organized through the crisscrossing social affiliations of them members. And some may be hubs, structured around a central personality and their friends and followers. In some cases, the motives which shape the groups activities are clearly articulated and there is an ongoing conversation about what it means to be a member of such a community. They may be very aware of their shared agenda and have a critical perspective on what kinds of values shape their transactions. They may also have a vivid conception of the borders of their community and may aggressively police them against those who do not share their views.

They may have ambivalent or even hostile feelings about the circulation of meaningful content beyond the borders of their own community. Heather Hendershot (2004), for example, has documented the complex set of social negotiations which occur around the production and distribution of Christian music. She finds that this music is perceived as serving two very different goals -- reaffirming the shared values within Christian communities and serving as a vehicle for "witnessing" to those who have not yet accept Christ. Yet, as artists sought to insure their spread beyond the borders of the self-defined Christian community and thus reach potential new members, they often had to downplay those messages which signaled their membership, a process which often provoked ire from their most hardcore fans. The strategies which insured their circulation in the cultural mainstream might cause them to lose the support of their initial niche market.

Hendershot documents how different artists reconcile these contradictory pushes and pulls on their performance, making peace with the decision to remain within or move beyond their initial base of support. In each of these cases, though, the same core principle holds: the sharing of content with others is fundamentally an act of communication within and beyond cultural communities. When advertising spreads, it is because the community has embraced it as a resource for expressing its shared beliefs or pursuing its mutual interests. Community members have embraced the content because it allows them to say something that matters to them, often something about their relations to other community members. In that sense, it has acquired worth. But the worth of an advertisement may and often does differ from one community to another.

Spreadable Texts

As this circulation occurs, the original producer no longer is able to determine what a particular piece of content means because they are no longer able to control the context within which it is seen. Meanings proliferate as people pass the video on, inserting it into a variety of different conversations. Like an elaborate game of telephone, the message morphs and mutates as each successive viewer sees not the original intent, but the interpretations just prior to their own.

This kind of intervention, however, is not only the product of circulation, it is also the required precondition: content will spread only when it can serve the particular communicative purposes of a given community or group, and only community members can determine what those might be. Corporations cannot artificially build communities around their brands and products, but rather must allow their brands to be taken up by pre-existing communities by creating content that supports and sustains this kind of expressive appropriation. In other words, in the spreadable media landscape, companies must find ways not simply to motivate consumers to talk about their brands but also enable them to talk through their brands.

This is, of course, not a novel concept. Advertising, as Grant McCracken (1998) notes, has always been a tool for mapping generalized cultural meanings onto specific brands and those brands must be meaningfully inserted into the life-world of their consumers. Advertising may convince us that particular products may become good gifts because they convey shared values. Yet, in the spreadable media content, the advertisement may itself become a gift which we pass along to others we care about. As they do so, they remake the advertisement -- sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively -- to reflect their perceptions of themselves and of the people to whom they are giving it.

Right now, many companies fear this loss of centralized control over the circulation and interpretation of their brand messages. They want to hold onto the idea that a brand may carry a highly restricted range of meanings. But in doing so, they run the risk of removing the value of the brand as a vehicle for social and personal expression. They produce commodities which we can not consume and in the long run, they will become products we will not buy. So, the challenge is how to rethink advertising strategies to generate brand messages that support these processes of personalization and localization.

How to Make Content "Spreadable"

If sharing and spreading content is a sign of its popularity, then to understand what makes videos spread, we must first figure it out what it means for media to be "popular." In Understanding Popular Culture, media and communications scholar John Fiske (1989), draws a distinction between mass culture, that is culture which is mass produced and distributed, and popular culture, that is culture which has been meaningfully integrated into the everyday lives of consumers. This act of turning mass media into popular media involves "the active process of generating and circulating meanings and pleasures" (Fiske, 1989, p.23).

We must be careful here not to confuse messages with meanings. For the purposes of this discussion, messages refer to specific ideas that can be encoded into a media text by its creators, while meanings are the active interpretations of the audience, which may or may not align with the intended message. To return again to our previous example, in the VW Polo ad spoof, the intended message was that the creators were witty, creative, and irreverent. The meanings that were drawn from it were varied, ranging from patriotic to racist. Messages are encoded into a text; meanings are decoded from the text.

Fiske argues we produce culture when we integrate products and texts into our everyday life. When we hear a song in a music video, it is part of mass culture. When we sing it in the shower, we turn it into popular culture. When it is under the control of its producers, it is mass culture. When it is under the control of its consumers, it is popular culture. Fiske, thus, puts strong emphasis on the act of interpretation which occurs as a text gets embraced by consumers. He argues a text becomes part of popular culture when consumers recognize and embrace its potential as a vehicle for expressing their own meanings. To read this through the lens of the gift economy, it is at that moment when the commodity becomes a gift and when its worth gets recognized.

Cultural products or commodities, like videos, are simply what Fiske calls the "raw material" for the production of popular culture. What makes culture popular, both widely accepted by and belonging to the public, is the ability of people to use it to express, define, and understand their social and cultural relationships. To bring this to "viral video", the video itself can be seen as a cultural commodity, but its user-controlled circulation transforms it into a cultural resource. In other words, we cannot think of popular culture as a top-down process of mass marketing, but a bottom-up process of creative interaction with cultural commodities, a relationship with media that is neither simply consumption nor production, but an active negotiation between the two.

Producerly Texts: Cultural Commodities that become Cultural Resources

To imagine this simply, a video will become popular if it allows to consumers to participate in the production of meaning and is transformed into a cultural resource through which they communicate something that matters to other members of their community. This sharing of texts and meanings becomes the basis for social affiliations and often re-articulates or reconfirms the group's shared values. Fiske argues that some texts are more apt to produce new meanings than others. He calls such texts producerly, arguing that a producerly text:

offers itself up to popular production . . . it has loose ends that escape its control, its meanings exceed its own power to discipline them, its gaps are wide enough for whole new texts to be produced in them -- it is, in a very real sense, beyond its own control" (Fiske, 1989, p.104).

In other words, a media product doesn't have to give up having a clearly defined message, but in so far as it limits its potential meanings, it also limits its potential circulation. Propaganda is not producerly because it sets too rigid a set of limits over its interpretation. A text which articulated an overly confusing or completely incomprehensible message might also not be producerly because it would not offer sufficient resources for consumers. The VW Polo ad, on the other hand, was highly producerly; It had an intent and a set of preferred meanings, but in the end it was left ambiguous enough, with enough open-ended details, that it could be interpreted in a number of ways, depending on the contexts into which it was spread and the ways it was deployed by consumers within localized conversations. A producerly video then is one that can be enjoyed and accessed on multiple levels. It can be taken at face value, but also leaves openings for deeper, more active interpretation.

Fiske's notion of the "producerly" introduces the general guiding principle for transforming cultural commodities into cultural resources: open, loose ends and gaps that allow the viewer to introduce their own background and experiences. Such openness allows them to convey something of themselves as they pass the content along, transforming the video into a resource for self-expression. While the media industries cannot themselves produce cultural resources, they can produce cultural commodities that are primed to be used as cultural resources. Such materials only become gifts when we choose to give them to someone else.

Advertising as "Producerly" Cultural Commodities

Such texts must be producerly, must be open to multiple interpretations and use, before they are spread. The tight control over the message doesn't just break down through the video's circulation. The loss of the producer's control over meaning is a precondition for the video's circulation. When people feel that they can have a stake in the content, when it can be used to represent themselves and their views somehow, they are inclined to share a video with others. We must keep in mind, however, that a commercial is not just any type of video. More so that general art or entertainment, commercials have an explicit functional purpose -- to help position material goods within a cultural context.

Publicity and advertising is used, for instance, to ensure that a particular brand of designer sunglasses evokes a sense of "coolness" within a particular niche of consumers. Historically, this has required much tighter control over their potential messages and thus the idea that consumers may appropriate and rework brand messages may generate a high degree of anxiety. Media producers worry about losing control. The reality is that they have already lost control; consumers can take their brands and do with them whatever they want. And the more producers do to reign in this grassroots creativity, the more they will take away the "worth" of their goods and devalue their content in the eyes of those consumers.

Therefore, in order to become cultural commodities that can be made "producerly," ads must sacrifice some of their functional purpose. We don't post and share clips just because of what we have to say about the ad, but also because of what it might have to say about us, so the ad must be capable of users express something beyond their affinity for the product it promotes. Only when commercials have enough ambiguity in meaning that they give up control of their promotional function can they develop the gaps and spaces to becomes producerly. When that happens, instead of giving meaning to a pair of sunglasses, the ad itself becomes a cultural commodity not unlike a pair of designer sunglasses that we can "wear."

We can post the video or the widget on our social network sites, say, and in so doing, signal something about ourselves. But in such a context, the brand messages does not entirely disappear. Each new viewer encounters it afresh and is reminded of the brand and its potential meanings for them. Users remain aware of the advertisement's sources and goals and thus they become part of the process by which meaning transfer occurs. We might consider, for example, what happens when the template created by the PC vs. Mac advertising campaign gets used as the basis for parody videos which apply its images to distinguish between other kinds of products, say, between Nintendo and Sony Playstation, between DC and Marvel, or between Republicans and Democrats. When we see these other uses of the template, we still recall, on some level, its original function as a way of promoting Apple. The repurposing allows the brand iconography to spread to new contexts, even as it offers us a way back to its original source.


Fiske, John. (1989) Understanding Popular Culture. London: Routledge.

Hendershot, Heather (2004). Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McCracken, Grant (1988) Culture and Consumption. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Norris, Chuck (2007). "If I am elected president," World Net Daily.

Turner, Patricia Ann. (1994) I Heard it on the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.