Monday, June 11, 2012

Is Buzz Dead?

In the digital world, you are never very far from the masses turning on you. Anything that gets popular seems guaranteed to spark a backlash. (For a good example, consider Stop Kony.) But could the legions of skeptics and critics out there actually overwhelm the initial benefit of publicity and viral popularity? That's the entertaining thesis of this post, arguing that buzz is dead. The author, Richard Rushfield, extends the theory from the obvious realm of pop culture (where backlashes against emerging trends are as old as disco) to politics. Rushfield observes: 

A poll today revealed that Mitt Romney’s favorable ratings have risen over the past few weeks, during a time when he’s largely been off center stage.   There’s been the Bain brouhaha, but Romney himself has mostly let others take on the fight, with Pres. Obama and Romney surrogates occupying the foreground, while he’s taken a step or two back. Compared to the primary battles when he was standing in the floodlights every day. 
Likewise, I’ve seen it demonstrated before that Obama’s approval rating tends to go up when he was out of the limelight, during the Republican primaries or when he’s been on vacation for instance.   
Looking at this it seems very clear that there is no such thing as positive attention in the Twitter age; that anyone who sticks their head up is going to just have it picked apart by 100,000,000 gnats.  The internet has largely become a roving lynch mob and you can’t stop a lynch mob with comedy GIF’s.

Rushfield then goes on to suggest a few antidotes to getting caught up in an anti-buzz backlash, including appealing to a group that isn't interested in broader societal acceptance (what he calls the "Game of Thrones model"), being intentionally ironic in gaining buzz in the first place, or just being really, really good. I'd note that none of these models seems particularly applicable to politics, the last in particular.
But why should we be so quick to turn on the hot trends of the moment? Why, I'm so happy you asked! It just so happens I have a theory:

1) Social media elevates people (or, in the case of politics, sound bytes) too quickly: There have always been one-hit wonders. But now social media amplifies the effect even further, as videos go viral and people want to share the latest thing. But the problem is there is no deep loyalty to these artists, and so when the backlash of criticism comes no one has much reason to defend them. That's why I would guess Gotye isn't going to be selling out arenas in three years, while the Black Keys will. The latter have been building a fan base for a long time, and those people will sustain them even when the snark inevitably starts building up. (A quick aside on how this works in politics: a campaign puts out a "talking point" that tested well in a focus group. In the real world, it gets promoted by that side's partisans, but the opposition attacks it for being artificial and the vast majority of America either doesn't care or else agrees that the point is phony. Talking point goes away, partisans complain that their campaign doesn't know how to communicate.)

2) Attention is a zero sum game: People only have 24 hours in a day. Every time you watch a stupid video because it is popular, you get annoyed: someone stole that time from you! Even worse, other people are now going to watch this "popular" thing when they could be watching some much better and underappreciated thing that you like. So, before you move on, you attack that awful thing that wasted your time. 

3) People don't always want to like what you like: Sure, if you post that your mom just got out of the hospital or put up some amusing meme, people will probably "like" it without concern about their digital self-image. But a lot of your friends probably think the bands you like, the politicians you like, the clothes you like and the celebrities you like are boring, stupid or worse. So, through a combination of wanting to assert their originality and wanting to passive aggressively criticize your taste, they post a snarky comment. Of course, not on your page (because that's how friendships end) but on the video's page.

That combination is deadly to marketers and promoters trying to build buzz on social networks. The interesting thing, when you're in a marketing brainstorm meeting that flits on to social media, is that most marketers ascribe to "consumers" behavior that they would never imagine themselves doing. Would you "like" Weight Watchers on Facebook out of solidarity with your dieting friend? Aren't you at least a little skeptical of any post that includes, "Everybody make this your status today to show the world..."? How often do you check out an artist that your friend likes, versus the number of times you roll your eyes and congratulate yourself on your superior taste? (Well, that last one might be mostly me, as my wife says I'm a music snob...)

Bottom line: you can, if you understand social media and the Internet well enough, manufacture a surge in attention for a brand, a cause, or a piece of content. What you cannot do is trick people into liking it once they see it, and you might, by pushing it too hard and too fast, alienate someone who might have eventually come around if they hadn't felt it was overhyped. Buzz isn't dead, but it is dangerous.

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