The Real Paul Jones

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Meme, Virus, Bzz, Loose Ties?

Today’s New York Times Magazine cover story, “The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders,” by Rob Walker is mostly about the Boston-based BzzAgent, a company that organizes the word-of-mouth marketing equal to astroturf. Although Everett Rogers’ diffusion of innovation is mentioned and described, this article and the company seem to owe more to Douglass Ruskoff’s “Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture” and the concept of meme than to Rogers. If nothing else, the success of BzzAgent, if this article is more than just bzz itself, is to show that early adaptors need not be ‘cool people’ or ‘trend setters’ or even successful models. They just need to get the bzz or, as Doug would say, meme out and get it out to a lot of people. This is more Mark Granovetter than Rogers, if you asked me (and since I’m writing this I asked myself).
Both Rushkoff’s media virus/meme and Granovetter’s strength of weak ties [Granovetter, M. (1973), “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology, 78 (6): 1360-1380.] speak more directly to the way memes make their way through a culture or, dare I say it, a market.

I am also trying to see how the various parts of Ronald Burt‘s work on Structural Holes and creativity and information dissimination fit in here. It looks like Burt’s new book [downloadable at least in part in pdf] “Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction of Social Capital” might contain the answer and/or his paper, “Bandwidth and Echo: Trust, Information, and Gossip in Social Networks [pdf],” [Pre-print of a chapter in Networks and Markets, edited by Alessandra Casella and James E. Rauch. Russell Sage Foundation, 2001].


  1. Hey, thanks for the props. I’ve been reading that media/culture column in the NYTimes Mag for a couple of months, now, and seeing so much of my stuff – even lifted titles. I was wondering when people would begin to notice.

    Still, like I said in Media Virus, media viruses tend to travel without ‘credit’ intact. So if the Times gives credit for “media contagion” and “media viruses” to the people who read my books rather than to me, it makes no difference to the memes – or, ultimately, to me. It’s infecting cultural code that matters.

    The only caveat, of course, is that the people who did get rich off this stuff are the writers who applied these ideas directly to business and marketing – while the most interesting applications of media viruses are actually much more important to our collective future than word-of-mouth advertising.

  2. That’s just it! Advertising *is* and has been a field where media virus and meme theory have been applied. Yes, there are applications more important to our collective future, but for now the “mainstream” applications would seem to be in the literal market, serving perhaps as inoculant to cultural code… Just a thought.

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