Get Back in the Box:Thought Virus #3: Social Currency

Here’s the next excerpt from my upcoming book, Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out. This one is an idea I had a couple of years ago, and it ended up being the inspiration for the whole book.

Thanks to the emergence of the Internet and its networked culture, a whole lot about our needs – both as consumers and as workers—has been put into perspective. Success has a variety of definitions and dimensions, and many of them are changing.

For instance, the most respected kids in the culture of computer games are not the ones who play the best; they’re the ones who program the best. For they, even more than Nintendo champions, give the rest the players something to talk about, something to play with, and something through which they can connect with others. The driving force behind all of the authorship and creative energy of the networked age is the need to create what I’ve come to call social currency.

Networks are great, but until we can move through them ourselves, we’ll need proxies in the form of ideas, images, words, and other constructs that can be exchanged through our wires and screens. Even in the real, physical world, our engagements with one another are almost always predicated on something else. A party starts with a few good jokes to break the ice. “Invite Sam,” we remind ourselves, “he tells good jokes.”

Observe yourself the next time you’re listening to a joke. You may start by listening to the joke for the humor – because you really want the belly laugh at the end. But chances are, a few sentences in, you will find yourself not only listening, but attempting to remember its whole sequence. You’ll do this tentatively at first, until you’ve decided whether or not it’s really a good joke. And if it is, you’ll commit the entire thing to memory – maybe even with a personalized variation, or a mental note to yourself to fix that racist part. This is because the joke is a gift – it’s a form of social currency that you’ll be able to take with you to the next party.

So is the great majority of the media we watch and even the products we buy. HBO understood this well enough to base an entire season’s advertising campaign on the “water cooler” effect. In a series of fake ads, the water cooler industry thanks HBO for giving workers something to talk about the next day at the water cooler. The message of these ads was clear: watch these shows to gain social currency.

In today’s commercial landscape, cluttered as it is with messages of personal gratification and consumption, the HBO campaign revealed a deeper understanding of our social needs than meets the eye. Not only did it recognize our desire for connection with other people – especially at work – but it recognized our awareness that accumulating social currency was the surest route toward achieving these connections.

I first developed these ideas in a spirited, if overly optimistic, book called Media Virus, which I wrote in those breathy days just before the emergence of the World Wide Web. I argued that all our media are connecting up to one another, forging a ‘datasphere’ in which we are all connected, too. Thanks to interactive media from phones and faxes to the early Internet, everyone was becoming capable of providing feedback – launching ideas that could spread through this new mediaspace like viruses.

Media Virus became something of a media virus itself. Many business authors, consultants, and advertisers caught on to the idea of cultural contagion and came to believe that a savvy marketer needed to find only a few key individuals who could provide the right word of mouth (or word of Internet), and a campaign would propel itself. This led to an industry of “viral marketing,” where hip advertising agencies find people they consider to be cool or trendy, and then induce them – or pay them – to hawk a particular brand of shoe, book title, or camera phone to their friends and followers.

But they’ve got the horse and the cart reversed. People don’t engage with each other in order to exchange viruses; people exchange viruses as an excuse to engage with each other. Media viruses, and their massive promotional capability, are all dependent on the newfound collective spirit of our age and the increasing need for social currency that has resulted. It’s not about convincing a few key individuals to sell products; it’s about creating products that provide everyone the currency they need to forge new social connections. Sure, if we analyze the movement of an idea across a community, we’ll be able, retroactively, to determine which individuals gave it the most word of mouth.

If we want to understand or even replicate this effect, however, we must instead learn to see people not as individuals looking for power or social status, but as parts of a group looking for cohesion. Media viruses were made possible by the emergence of a networked mediaspace. They are an emergent phenomenon – a life form, of sorts, native to this new interactive landscape. Viruses exploit what we have in common and, when we have little in common, help to create shared experience. The best products and brands in this environment do not serve to help people stand out; they have much more to do with helping people fit in.

That’s why, in spite of growing fears that we are living in a materialistic society, social currency almost always wins out over pure ownership as a motivator for buying. For the majority of consumers, their cars, electronics, and even their sneakers are ways of communicating to and connecting with other people. In an almost Darwinian competition for survival, products that serve as social currency succeed, while the ones that don’t, fail.