Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Hopping on the Lilley Pad

Last night Anthony Lilley delivered his second of four lectures on the future of media. (Click here for my take on his first lecture.) Today I'm trying to decipher my notes.

Lilley comes from the world of the mainstream media (his company has done work for Channel 4 and the Guardian) but he is not desperately holding onto old ways. He said that as we move from a broadcast model to a network model, the mainstream media will move from a position of control to one of influence.

He then illustrated the central quality of a well-connected network and how it differs from the broadcast model: The blinking television transmission tower sending its singular product to lone audience members--ie, broadcast--has been joined by the mobile phone model that allows users to talk to one another, and, more importantly, by the near-infinite network model that allows users to coalesce and come apart in an orgiastic assortment of groups. These groups can communicate to, among and with each other. (A Reed network Lilley called it, and who am I to disagree?)

Lilley quoted from my old friend Chris Anderson's book "The Long Tail" but he resisted the urge to sketch the graph central to Anderson's argument. (I had to sit on my hands so I didn't jot it in my notebook. I sometimes think that the key to Anderson's success is how easy, and how much fun, it is to draw that long tail. It's the Nike swoosh of new media bloviating.) Anderson's argument, by the way, is that niche products--books, music, film--can be more successful now that they're easy to find, thanks to the power of search.

Then Lilley was back to memes, those building blocks of culture. What makes a meme successful, Lilley said, isn't whether it's true or good or educational. It's how well it spreads. It isn't, he said in a nice turn of phrase, a matter of people accumulating ideas but of ideas accumulating people. It's a process akin to evolution, where memes compete in the environment, the successful ones spreading their cultural DNA, the unsuccessful ones being snuffed out with all the pitiless abandonment of natural selection. Competition drives memes to become more interesting and complex over time. We go from fin to paw, from paw to opposable thumb, from opposable thumb to wrist-mounted flamethrower (well, eventually).

Lilley touched on two arguments percolating in this field, between those who see great hope in "the wisdom of the crowd" and those, such as Cass Sunstein, who believe that the way the Web helps the crowd arrange itself can have a detrimental effect on society. We reinforce our beliefs rather than challenge or broaden them, says Sunstein, building "information cocoons." (Lilley called this the tragedy of the commons but that's not how I've seen that phrase used. I thought the TotC was more a conflict over finite resources, and how big groups of people--whether they be shepherds grazing their flocks or Webheads editing Wikipedia--just muck things up.)

But even something as seemingly "democratic" and free-form as Wikipedia is actually quite structured. There are about 100 overseers for Wikipedia, Lilley said. Not all Wikipedians are created equal. He moved to a discussion of Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" and the people Gladwell calls connectors (socialites with lots of loose bonds), mavens (experts trusted by those around them to know what they're talking about) and salesmen (those good at persuading others). For a meme to spread you probably need to involve one or more of these types of people.

These are all interesting concepts, and useful when it comes to contemplating the future. It's mixing this all together and finding value (as a creator of memes) that is difficult, or at least difficult for me to grasp from Lilley. Take this slide he put up onscreen:

Reduce entropy locally
Increase entropy globally
Fit for human purpose

"Irreversibility" means, Lilley explained, that you can't put an idea out that has to be taken back. "Reducing entropy locally" means that as a user I will understand (via a network-generated or -distributed meme, I guess) more about something. But the very act of creating that meme increases entropy globally by adding to the already over-burdened world of ideas and connections (more potential connections than there are atoms in the universe! or something). And "fit for human purpose"? Well that's obvious isn't it? In fact, you could put that one first and dispose of the rest.

The notion of value in networked media is complicated, he allowed. And the tools we'll need to bring to bear are not simplistic, linear tools. In a network, the power resides in the relationships.

I think I believe all this. I suppose I do, anyway. But I'm again left hungry for some flesh on this succinctly-sketched skeleton. It's not that I want a business school case study, it's that I need some analogies to give form to these wispy notions. Nobody else may need it. He's probably doing a good job of describing the landscape as he sees it. It's just that I'm selfish.

Or maybe, and this thought just occurred to me, maybe what he's on about isn't the creation of memes at all. Perhaps Lilley feels that a meme is a meme is a meme. What's changed is how those memes are distributed. I shouldn't be expecting Meme Creation for Dummies, but Harnessing the Networked Meme. But then again, I don't think so, for I'm pretty sure Lilley is in the school that dismisses the notion that all we're seeing is the same old stuff in a new wrapper. I think he thinks it's a whole new ballgame.

By the way, Lilley promised last night that he would say some "naughty things" about the BBC and Channel 4 at his next lecture. So get there early to pile on, all you public service broadcasting haters.


Henry said...

Fascinating summary, as usual, John. Thanks for the public service!

I'm afraid it still sounds a bit overblown to me. Sure, changes in media technologies will change how the media industries operate - and there are certainly fortunes to be won or lost by the 21st century equivalents of the great press barons or the TV entrepreneurs or the whizzes.

But will any of this change anything of broader importance? In the grand scheme of things, will these changes alter how kind we are to each other? How tolerant? How likely to vote, or to go to war? Even, how well-informed we are about the world around us or our political leaders? I suspect not. Technologies change, but human nature doesn't. That's why most of the stories (?Memes?) that are popular now have been around in some form or another throughout history. Take a British example, what's "Dr Who" (aristocratic outlaw and loyal sidekick(s) travel the wilderness righting wrongs) except a sci-fi version of Robin Hood? Take the ultra-hip anime/comic/movie/DVD/computor game/action figure/ringtone/podcast "300". Is that a whole bunch of new memes, or another version of a classic story of heroic underdogs? Oh no wait, that actually IS another version of a classic story etc etc... See what I mean?

Anyway, great topic to discuss - thanks for providing a forum

Feckless Man said...

There is new evidence that is debunking the concept outlined in books such as "The Tipping Point" and "The Influencers."

Duncan Watts, a network-theory scientist, says that there is no real evidence of the effectiveness of word-of-mouth marketing using so-called influentials. Like the premise that "anyone can cook" from the movie Ratatouille, Watts says almost anyone can start a trend. His premise is definitely supported by sites such as, where anyone's post, if selected, can create a viral phenomenon on the web.

Check out the full article in Fast Company:

John Kelly said...

I'll have to check out that Fast Company article. Here's another URL, in case people have trouble finding it:

Henry, I think we may see some changes. I was struck by a passage from Yochai Benkler's "The Wealth of Networks" where he said the ability to share experiences can change the way we experience those, um, experiences. That is, in the past we might happen upon something--a fire, a plane crash, a drunk celebrity--and process it in one way. But now that there are more forums for us to share this experience, and the means to do it, we may process it in another. I don't know what the ramifications might be for democracy, but I can see, self-interestedly, that there might be some for journalism.

Henry said...

Haven't we've always had the ability to share experiences? As long, that is, as we've lived in "a wealth of networks" ie "communities" ie, "since the dawn of recorded time"?

John Kelly said...

Yes, and Lilley agrees. We're returning to the campfire, he says. (Sounds smoky.) But I do think there's a difference between taping a drunk celebrity with your cellphone, putting it on YouTube, blogging about it, then sending a link to the BBC, and just telling your wife, "You'll never guess who I saw drunk in a gutter today: Helen Mirren!"

mark from alexandria said...

Gosh this makes me weep. So, we completely throw out the concept of privacy or even, to some extent, human decency. Nobody is allowed to have a private inappropriate moment or temporary feet of clay. Where once, we might have said to our partner that we saw a drunken actress in the gutter, we might, out of a sense of decency, not sought to share it with the world, thus, possibly destroying a career and crushing another human...I am put in mind of the rise and fall of the first generation of tabloid papers and magazines in the US which I understand were put out of business when some of the stars sued and won. Is there even that possibility in the ether of the net, cell phone, and youtube?

John Kelly said...

I was being a bit extreme, as I sometimes am. I could have used the example of a police officer beating a motorist, or rescuing a victim, or a jet landing short on the runway. I don't just mean celebrities slip-ups. But notions of privacy are already changing. Talk to a teenager about how much personal information he allows to float through cyberspace.

Rob Morgan said...

I agree with Mark in one sense, in that the sheer power conferred on individuals to be story-breakers might seem to take the issue of a 'decent' approach to privacy out of the question. If something is out there, then it is going to end up on the internet, you could be forgiven for thinking. So it might as well be you that puts it up.

That said, the meme-makers are often as not faceless, when it's just some cultural tchotchke that's been uploaded: the 'star wars kid' became the victim of mass publicity, but no-one remembers the person who first uploaded it. Bad flames are often started not over who first came up with a thing but who 'recovered' it and, by putting it on the internet, made it meme-art. Feeling like a power-broker like that is the closest people will get to internet celebrity without actually being creatives- just look at how seriously 4chan has to take its status as 'the internet's sink trap', compared to something creative but unassuming like Homestarrunner.
Not that there isn't something to be said for an art in which the medium is networked public consciousness: just look at Snakes on a Plane.

The thing is that no matter hhow much information (particularly young) people put out online, their online spaces are still 'private' in a very real sense which has to be moderated by a sense of decency: I'm thinking of the news groups which formed in real-time into support groups for people affected by the VT shootings. A couple of journalists were tasteless enough to go on and ask if anyone wanted to talk or swap phone footage, and they were shouted out of there.