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Ryerson MDM Storytelling Videos

Why Do Stories Spread? Join A Conversation Or Start A Conversation?

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Last week, I attended a workshop held by the Transmedia Zone at Ryerson University. The host for the event was Douglas Rushkoff, one of the best media theorist today and author of the books “Programme or be Programmed” and “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus”. One of the many things he spoke about that was of interest to me was the issue of virality and what causes stories to spread. The topic of virality piqued my interest because it centers on rapidly and widely sharing information online which directly aligns with my Major Research project for my Master of Digital Media program.

In his presentation, Mr. Rushkoff indicated that stories go viral when the content that is being shared exists, but its story is not being told or a conversation about it is to be had. He illustrated his point with the example of Rodney King, an African-American taxi driver who was beaten by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991. According to Rushkoff, the main reason why King’s story went viral was not because it was recorded and disseminated in the media; instead, it reached the far corners of the world because his experience shed light on an unfortunate issue that existed that finally got exposed. Mr. King’s beating brought the story of police brutality and how police dealt with African Americans in the Unites States of America to the fore. It was widely known that police cruelty was a problem in the black community; however, the act was never caught on tape and publicized until then. So because someone recorded Rodney King’s beating, it was enough to spark a response from the black community. With the tape as an overwhelming piece of evidence, people were prepared to spread it to get the conversation on police brutality started.

I was reading a book called “Spreadable Media” by Henry Jenkins et al., and it is in direct contrast to Mr. Rushkoff. In his book, Jenkins mentions that content and stories spread online when people take part in a conversation that is already taking place. Interestingly, Jenkins even used the writings of Rushkoff to justify his position. Consequently, when given the chance to ask for clarity and seek Mr.Rushkoff’s stance on the matter, I pointed out the two points of view to him at which point he made it known that he does not agree with Jenkins. He stated that he does not think that content spreads when it’s part of an ongoing or existing conversation; instead, it has greater reach when it is part of a conversation that people are not currently having.

Personally, I think both men have a point, and my belief merges the two concepts. I believe virality results when non-mainstream content that many know exist is shared. Consequently, it gives people a voice to express themselves based on what their experience or what they see while evoking the feelings of others that empathize, share the same attitudes or concerns, or in some cases contradict their opinions which then lead to greater sharing or spread of information. Therefore, in the simplest sense, if at least one other person can relate to or denounce something I believe is worth sharing, the individual might share the content as a means of consciously or subconsciously showing solidarity for a common opinion or possibly as a show of opposition. Others then become exposed to the information and the cycle of sharing continues.

I hope to work with brands and communities to help them create their stories and spread them to the masses. Currently, I am doing some more research into this idea of why stories spread online. I am quite excited about this area, and once my research is concluded, I will share my findings.

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