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BOOK REVIEW: The biology behind social media

Jul 20 2017 06:01
Ian Mann*

The Social Organism: A Radical Understanding of Social Media to Transform Your Business and Life, by Oliver Luckett and Michael J Casey

SOCIAL media is reshaping major parts of peoples’ lives. Through hashtags, photos, and shared cartoons and videos, social media is making human culture more dynamic, unpredictable, and fast-changing. It has also introduced new ways to bully others, waste time on celebrity gossip, and has provided ISIS and other hate-mongers with a new weapon.

“Social media can feel like a giant ocean of unpredictable swells, tidal shifts, and hurricanes that surge out of nowhere. It is time we figure out how this mass complexity actually functions,” Oliver Luckett writes, and that is the purpose of this book.

To achieve this understanding, Luckett employs the metaphor of cellular biology, an insight that is as compelling as it is useful. He cites seven essential characteristics that distinguish living things from inanimate objects. A consideration of these characteristics is enough to show the power of the metaphor to explain, and also to facilitate operating within the arena of social media.

Living things are organised around cells that require nourishment and purge themselves of waste. As long as living things produce more cellular matter than organic waste, they grow over time and become more complex.

Living things respond to changes in their external environment, and alter their makeup or behaviour to protect themselves. The cells of our Social Organism are made up of billions of emotion-driven people with biological characteristics.

The vast mesh of social media is a structured and responsive biological organism. Instead of genes, there are “memes” a word introduced by Richard Dawkins, the zoologist, to describe packets of information that, like the cells of an organism, facilitate an evolutionary information process, much like the transfer of genetic information in living things.

The biological word “viral” now describes how online content is widely shared or viewed. Once inside the human ‘cell’ on the social network, appealing memes start to alter the memetic code that shapes our thinking. The cells of the social organism form a holarchy – independent entities that are at the same time part of a wider whole -  similar to the cells of one’s body.

How these memes form and mutate can be seen from this example: what is the meaning of ‘The Watergate’? Older people would likely reference the site of the break-in that opened the political scandal that forced Richard Nixon from office in 1974.

“The Watergate” meme mutated into “The Watergate scandal” and lodged itself in the minds of reporters, editors, and readers. The ‘-gate’ suffix is a good example of how a meme can detach from its source and convey an idea which can then be mimicked, copied, and replicated in new ways. In South Africa, we have ‘Nenegate’.

Memes aren’t limited to words and language, they can be pictures, photos, songs or even parts of songs, forms of dress, inventions for new products, or work processes. The 1939 pre-war motivational poster “Keep Calm and Carry On” is today the basis of countless jokes.

Basic building blocks of our culture

These conceptual packets are the basic building blocks of our culture, our social DNA. What happens to a particular piece of content or cellular node depends on whether the Social Organism regards it as healthy nourishment or waste. This decision is taken by the hundreds of millions of actors that make up the Social Organism.

For thousands of years before the advent of the computer and internet, information was delivered via a top-down model, controlled by powerful, centralised organisations, whether it was the church, a broadcaster, or a newspaper. The chain of command was initiated by a person in a position of authority who issued instructions for distribution as a newspaper or a broadcast news report.

Today’s mass media infrastructure is a loose network of unconstrained devices connected via a decentralised, less predictable and far more organic structure. Collectively, these autonomous units determine which messages the crowd gets to hear and which get buried.  If they resonate emotionally, they are shared, re-shared, altered, and reproduced across ever-wider circles of influence.

The Social Organism’s structure can be broken down to influencers and followers, and the roles change.

As a function of the Organism’s rapid, evolutionary state, the roles and status of influencers are always changing. The media elites are no longer glamourised film stars who endorse bath soaps, but are also and as likely to be any of a host of Generation Z-ers and Millennials who produce short voyeuristic glimpses into their lives, in short-form Vines or short-lived Snapchat messages.

“Any brand or institution that wants to properly reach a major audience must come to grips with this new architecture and the powerful intermediation of these new, independent stars,” the authors assert.

A meme need not be a good idea or even practical, to catch on and the authors cite as examples bacon doughnuts, stilettos and fascism. Similarly, many good, useful memes never make it.

The authors have worked with and studied many types of marketing, viral sensations, and publicity efforts. “I have learned what types of content nourish a social media network - getting absorbed and replicated - and which do not… I was convinced the seven rules apply almost as readily to social media as to biology,” Luckett explains.

I think this book is essential for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the role and power of social media.

Readability:     Light ----+ Serious
Insights:         High +---- Low
Practical:         High ----+ Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

ian mann  |  social media  |  opinion  |  book reviews
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