Don’t Throw Anything Out

Elihu Katz

First, a disclaimer. I am too old to review this book. It aims to address media scholars, communication professionals, as well as active and curious members of the new participatory culture. I belong in the first category, but I hardly qualify as part of the third. I decided to continue nevertheless, because the book proposes that old dogs can learn new tricks; even better, it implies that the stuff we store in our basements (or libraries) may become valuable again. They are among the raw materials of participation. I suggest that the motto of this book might be “Don’t throw anything out.”

The book deals with two main themes. One is “diffusion.” The other is “engagement.” Diffusion—though this word is altogether absent from the book—is one of the mainstays of communications research, and is a process that connects the study of communication to many other sciences. Communications research can claim expertise in how things and ideas travel, whether the subject is the epidemiology of AIDS, the spread of Christianity, the Arab spring, or Coca-Cola.

The problem of “engagement” deals with how active we are in shaping our lives, and in joining with others in the conduct of the government, the economy, or the production of culture. We are no longer merely “audiences,” the book assures us; we are now co-producers. All of us, potentially, can be active partners in the extended networks of our new participatory culture, and benefit from full—if not always remunerative—employment and full enjoyment.

Allow me, then, in the narrow capacity of a media scholar, to comment on this book in terms of “diffusion” and “engagement.” I want to ask where and how the authors situate their work in the field of communication, and more broadly, in the social sciences. In a sense, I want to apply its motto to the book itself, and to ask not only what resources the book retains, but also what is discarded.

“Council of 300,” xkcd.com

With respect to “diffusion,” the book draws inspiration from Harold Innis, who argued that media technologies affect how cultures spread, as well as the extent to which spread can be centrally controlled. For Innis, “space bias” refers to the overcoming of distance as a function of the portability of a medium and its message; papyrus and the alphabet are among his favorite examples. “Time bias” meanwhile, refers to technologies that withstand change, allowing for transmission across generations; think Gothic cathedrals, for example. In this sense, the book falls into the mainstream of communications research, asking us to consider the workings of these processes in the era of social media, in a world that has become—or so we are told—tightly knit.

Yet, in my opinion, the book shows little awareness of the grand tradition of research in which it is situated. While it draws usefully on the media theories of Raymond Williams, Jürgen Habermas, Dallas Smythe, and Arjun Appadurai (as well as, to a lesser extent, those of Daniel Dayan, Sonia Livingstone, Duncan Watts, and William Uricchio), it shows no recognition of the names that I would consider most relevant to its central concern. I am thinking of Gabriel Tarde, Paul Lazarsfeld, Everett Rogers, James Coleman, and many current students of the part played by social networks in the process of diffusion. Even if patterns of diffusion have altogether changed since the first century CE, I would not so readily overlook the relevance of word of mouth, such as in Rodney Stark’s study of the spread of early Christianity. Apart from accenting (implicitly) what Innis would likely see as the space bias of social media—their portability and the fleetingness of their messages—, the book omits those aspects of the diffusion paradigm that are interested in the configurations of social networks and the flow of influence across geographic, social, and demographic boundaries.

That ordinary people produce, reproduce, and refashion ideas is the second—and more controversial—theme of the book. It argues that communication and diffusion, like all interactions, involve the creation and exchange of value. Here, the authors draw on theories of gift-giving (Mauss) and exchange (Blau) that describe how ideas and practices may take on new values in the process of transmission and feedback: old things become collectibles; fan clubs create new subcultures; consumers propose product improvement; Facebook friends are mobilized for rallies. The raw material for these forms of creativity and engagement, whether cultural or political or economic, often originates in the mainstream media. But Lazarsfeld’s “two-step flow”—his contention that ideas move from the media to opinion leaders, and from such leaders to the others in their social networks—remains unmentioned. The authors are explicit in their belief that the relationship between creators and consumers—producers and audiences, marketers and their customers, governments and citizens—can be made more equal, more participatory, more creative. Each side, they argue, has valuable things to offer the other. They cite objections to their thesis, especially that of van Dijk and Nieborg, who warn that passivity still reigns and that what looks like engagement may be a disguise for exploitation. The authors make room for resistance, citing John Fiske and others, but the book seems biased toward a new potential for mutuality.

Given the book’s emphasis on the idea that diffusion transforms things as they travel, it is surprising to find the book then prescribing formulae for a successful “spread.”

Spreadable Media is replete with case studies, many of them about “communities,” real and imagined, of fans, co-creators of products, customers who feel betrayed (leading to a consumer protest against Comcast, for example), and political activists whose efforts are typically short-lived, as were the Los Angeles riots, the revolutions in the Middle East, and the Occupy movements. While some of these collectivities have proved successful, I have the impression that the selection of cases, knowingly or not, is biased toward “success.” This echoes a similar problem in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, which also talks more about success than about failure. In my opinion, this is not only a problem associated with qualitative research, but also with popularizations of social science, or maybe with science reporting in general.

Every fashionable label for the new gadgets of our time is reexamined in the book—and then ceremonially ousted as unbefitting the process of “spreadability.” Thus we are asked to avoid the use of “Web 2.0” (too exploitative), Gladwell’s “stickable” (too narrowly focused), “viral” (too unthinking), “influencers” (too overblown), “crowdsourcing” (too mechanistic). “Spreadable,” sometimes combined with “stickable” (“like peanut butter”), is the word of choice. “Drillable”—when “forensic fans” probe for deeper meanings in their favorite shows—is also acceptable. “Piracy” is treated seriously and interestingly as both a moral challenge and a functional bridge between commercial and noncommercial systems. “Poaching,” borrowed from de Certeau, is also appreciated. The authors apologize for, but also defend, their lexical drilling. The search for a more precise vocabulary may be laudable, but “spreadable media” hardly does the job. I can understand spreadable texts, and a full chapter, “Designing for Spreadability,” considers some candidates, disregarding the book’s own warning that beholders may see things differently. Given the book’s emphasis on the idea that diffusion transforms things as they travel, it is surprising to find the book then prescribing formulae for a successful “spread.” Besides, media that spread sounds like an oxymoron.

This book, we are regularly reminded, is the byproduct of a long series of conversations and workshops among academics, marketers, and technologists who gathered to further explore ideas that emerged from Jenkins’s earlier work. And true to the spirit of “don’t throw anything out,” we are referred to the “enhanced volume” (published online) in which these original contributions are gathered. Like the monks in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, one suspects that there may be some treasures hidden there, especially in applied areas.

But absent are the founders of the field, who date to long before the new technology moved in. “As early as 1964,” the authors note, Cordwainer Smith suggested that “a bad idea can spread like a mutated germ.” But how about Gabriel Tarde in the 1890s, whose two-volume Laws of Imitation mapped a future for communication research as the study of “spread?” Or Everett Rogers, whose Diffusion of Innovation added the communications process to modernization theory and, ultimately, raised the moral question of whether ostensible campaigns for “development” might be doing more harm than good. The authors of Spreadable Media are to be congratulated for seeking out some of their ostensible forbears but, as in soap opera, they might have done a little more drilling to discover their true parentage. So let’s not throw anything out, not yet.