Rushkoff Drops Memetic Bomb on Pivotcon

MemeHacking were the only ones to pick up on the memetics I was attempting to dish out near the end of a spanking I gave marketers at Pivotcon a couple of months ago. And I actually do have the answers to the questions he raises at the end. I just don’t have time to get them down on paper right now.

At PivotCon 2010, Douglas Rushkoff made some extremely cogent arguments about why brands cannot go viral on social networks — even when there’s plenty of activity on companies’ websites and Facebook pages — and why it’s pointless to try to push brand concepts (such as mascots) around as memes in the expectation of driving actual product sales.

This talk is exceptionally amusing both for its venue — he’s at a branding conference talking about social media — and for the fact that he opens the talk by saying, essentially, “you think you’re talking about what’s happening, but you’re not.” He managed to rankle more than a few career marketeers who oversimplified his message to mean “marketing is evil”; the mild antagonism to this particular audience inherent in his message did not go unnoticed by PivotCon organizer Chris Shipley who made no bones about the reason they decided to schedule his talk dead last.

But beyond its entertainment value, Rushkoff’s message provides historical perspective on the concept of a conversation and what is entailed — that is, the transmission of ideas — and his ontology draws increasingly, as the talk progresses, on memetics.

Memes, he says, are traded and spread for many reasons, but largely because they embody information that is useful. (One must put aside entirely the question of what is True, since, for example, many superstitions can be considered useful by many people for many years.) Rushkoff explains the social world as a non-fictional playground for the interchange of “facts” that may or may not replicate, depending on many fitness factors.

Companies often inflate their brands into elements of storytelling in an effort to engage the consumer in a dialogue about that story, rather than about the content of their product. “The Keebler elves were invented to stop people from thinking about where Keebler cookies were made and how… to protect the consumer from the reality of what it really is,” said Rushkoff.

But “on a social network, people want to share information that someone is going to actually value.” NOT, he argues, a brand image.