Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Catalytic Marketing

I like this term "Catalytic". I like it better than "viral" which has been used to describe the way that Youtube videos make their way around the Internet. I've watched it in action, when, say, college kids find a really engaging video and pretty soon it's all over campus. Pretty much like a virus.

It quickly becomes necessary to have seen the videos that everyone else has seen, almost reminiscent of the old days when there were only a few networks on TV and everyone had basic familiarity with the lineups. And then they become quaint and impossible to appreciate, because they made the next thing possible.

Of course, I never did have that basic familiarity with TV lineups say, so I don't feel so left out now either. I never did quite engage with popular culture, and even now, when people are getting their flu shots, or when they urge me to take some over the counter drug, I get that huh?? look in my mind, wondering what they're talking about or why they would say such things to me.

I pretty much assume those messages are for other people. I do watch the advertisements, but I guess as a subcategory of my lousy memory, they never stick with me. Although it does seem as though it's yet another case of the permanent memory of learning. I taught myself some ages ago that propaganda is all lies and that only stupid people pay attention to it.

If or when I get the flu and die, you can mock me out (we talk like that in Buffalo) about it, after the fact for certain.

At that school for gifted kids which I headed for a brief time, we expended a lot of effort to bring the kids up to a level of reading which would immunize them to all sorts of tricks of writing. As good readers, they were all able to catch the tricks which would push them toward unsubstantiated conclusions. It was always a little bit alarming to realize how many, if not most, of the naively-schooled kids when they started were utterly defenseless against such things. It took a lot of work to expose shoddy arguments. And then it would become second nature.

I think that Twitter is a case of viral marketing. Somehow it became a thing that everyone just had to do if they were going to be paid attention. And, yes of course, I still don't get it. I have a Twitter account, but I don't have very many followers. I guess I have a few, and I was supposed to return the favor and follow them back on the assumption that we all want exposure.

But I still really really don't get how it works. It seems as though it's a rapidly flowing stream of little messages, from among which how the hell would you pull the ones you're interested in? It's just another way for those at the top to rise further still, as far as I can tell, which makes it a part of that same vicious feedback loop which keeps the spammers spamming.

Well, someday someone will explain all this to me. Meantime, I'll just keep trying to get attention by making sense. Which, of course, I do realize I'm pretty clueless about also.

I think I must be missing some big chunk of feedback loop myself. When I write, I know perfectly well that I can't sense how someone else might read me. But it's not that easy to fix it up. At least it's not for me.

I think we all look with curiosity in mirrors as we pass them, to check out how we might look to the world. But I never really do get a clue. My curiosity is never satisfied. I look to myself like some Cubist construction which can't possibly make any sense.

No sense of style, a geek's sense of clash, I remember once - I still cringe at the memory - going out to the theater in really old clothes I'd found in a relative's attic. This was an elderly gent who needed help getting around, and I was a student who needed a cheap place to live. And somehow he still had in his closet his old finery from days long gone by.

Among old things in his attic, were some really well tailored clothes from another era, which fit me perfectly. He'd said I could, of course, take them, and I thought they looked really cool.

Now, given my sense that all advertisements are meant for other people, you can easily imagine how I thought I didn't look any more silly than people who sport wildly colored and striped running shoes, no matter what else they're wearing. Or sports clothes in general, for that matter, which I would plainly be too embarrassed to wear. It's funny how loud colors and bold racing stripes can make you disappear. They make me feel conspicuous. Go figure!

But I knew then, but was bullishly obtuse about it, that I was raising eyebrows with what must have looked like a theatrical costume. The waist was high, there were buttons instead of a zipper, elaborate cuffs and pleats, and a broadcloth wool flannel shirt.

As it happened, I actually think that look came into style a little later, but I was just a plain ass and cringe to think about it still. I think that's the way I write too. I can be so far inside the words sometimes that I have absolutely no sense of how someone else might read them. Only much later, or as the result of someone's offhand comment, can I be jarred into seeing it like it is. Like when you overhear or oversee someone caricaturing you, and you suddenly realize some little thing. Ouch.

It's all moderately painful. But also, maybe, related to what I'm trying to call "catalytic marketing" as differentiated or opposed, maybe, from "viral marketing".

Someone has to be a trendsetter. In the world of ideas, or the world of science, there is often a race to be the one out front. And if the discovery can be trued, then very quickly everyone's sense of style begins to quicken in that direction.

This is a catalytic process, and its results are fairly permanent. Unlike viruses, which kill off a bunch of hosts and then fall in to the background themselves once the population has made its adjustments.

I'm reading this book now, written by the former Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang, who ran afoul of party orthodoxy upon the events at Tiananmen square back in 1989. He was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life, but still managed to secrete and smuggle out his thoughts by overtaping childrens' cassettes. It's a fascinating look inside the pinnacles of power.

He likens the corruption which China so famously unleashed during the time of first opening of their economy, to a kind of inevitable virus against which there were no institutional defenses. There was simply too much power in the hands of the government officials who had been in control of state run industries, and too much money in the hands of newly liberated businesspeople. Across that disconnect was a kind of undeniable voltage, which would inevitably lead to corruption.

If you can buy at state controlled prices and then sell on the market, of course you will, because there's too much money to be made. Zhao was confident that the institutional structures would catch up. But the rest of the cabal in power could not abide his speaking out of step against their absolute authority, and so he was silenced almost completely and almost permanently.

You have to assume that one day pretty soon, a kind of catalysis will take place in China. Where certain kinds of information will make it through the censors, and power structures will start to break up in their brittleness.

Or maybe not, since the intellectuals there now have so thoroughly internalized a kind of patriotism which is for all the world reminiscent of Confucian quasi-religious honor toward their Center.

The patriotism of Chinese intellectuals is an almost perfect analog to our own intellectuals' commitment to "democracy" as an ideal which is almost perfectly tarnished inside the intellectuals' academies themselves. Where everything is rank-order and politically correct. Honor in the breach, I guess. There would be no place at all in any academy for people who talk and think the way they do around where I live. I'm not saying there should be. I'm just pointing out the obvious. And scholarship is not just a matter of the cultivation of taste and style. There are much more serious things at stake than that.

And so we ourselves, in these United States, as lots of smart people understand perfectly well, have perfected state control by a kind of drowning out by the noise of commerce, the dangerous thoughts of anyone who would rail against our system. It's almost as if the more clearly you are able to state you case, the more marginalized you become, to any political party. Think Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader. Speaking straight will get you alienated from all strategists, no matter which side they're on.

However poorly our economic system does to provide for equitable distribution of wealth, it surely does a better job, for us inside our borders, than most systems which have been imagined. It would be crazy now to undermine the basics of free markets. Except at the extremes of size and power, there is no more rational way to line up supply with demand.

Which leaves us only to consider the optimal political arrangements for generating agreement about how to resolve the really big problems so that we can keep the market magic working.

Almost no-one on this continent would favor the Chinese methods. We celebrate free thought far too much, even while we throw sticks and stones at it. But as Tom Friedman and many others point out very effectively, we don't show any real promise about getting our act together to resolve the really really big issues, like global warming, or energy effectiveness, or healthcare.

Our political arrangements tend almost inevitably toward do-nothing compromises such as the one we're about to get with healthcare. We attempt to prevent harm to the bulk of the major franchises, to the point where no real forward motion is possible, and we end up with the same old same old, still tending toward catastrophe.

But a kind of catalysis can still occur. It happens all the time with marketing. Someone sees an actual use for something new, and it just catches on. I'm thinking of the really big things like telephones, and railroads, and automobiles, each of which was an abomination for many, or extremely improbable, but each of which very quickly became a fundamental necessity.

It's almost unbelievable to me, walking the streets of New York, how many people have Walkmans - whoops, I meant iPods - stuffed into their ears. I can't tell if it's a matter of style now, or if it really makes these people happy. Very few of them look happy, I must say, Perhaps they're getting the daily news.

This is the way our thinking will change too. And it will change, because it must. You really don't own your own mind, no matter how much you value free-thinking. Your mind is and will always be a function of commerce in so-called ideas. Your certainties can always be upset by someone more expert than you. If you're open minded, they must be.

Does "catalytic marketing" fit better than "viral marketing"?

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