The viral nature of ideas

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A day of driving around the East end seeking spare parts for my toilet cistern and doing DIY left us both feeling a bit drained so my Dad and I kicked back with a pot of tea and slice of my Mum’s soda bread and shot the breeze. I asked both of them about the pressure to emigrate from Ireland to the UK, or further afield.

Surprisingly, both of them said that leaving Ireland hadn’t initially crossed their minds. One of my Dad’s friends whom he had grown up with, Marty, read an advert in the newspaper for tradesmen to come to Birkenhead and work on the Polaris submarine project. The money on offer was about twice the take-home pay that my Dad earned at the time. All of them had worked around Ireland (my Dad was a mobile service engineer for the construction equipment division of Massey Ferguson,) so home was neither his Commer service van or the digs that he lived in whilst at company headquarters in Dublin. It was the suitcase that most of them lived out of. Taking the plunge and travelling to England was a low risk proposition.

Marty, my dad’s brother Liam and some other young men from my Dad’s social circle went ahead and he followed soon after. Over time, some of them went home or moved on to pastures new (many of them ending up in Australia looking after mining equipment). Meanwhile my Dad had put down roots with my Mum and Birkenhead became home.

I asked them about what about whether they considered other places like Canada, the US or Australia. They said no, when we talked about it further it seems that there  were clusters of people who immigrated. My Mum talked about people in a neighbouring parish: once one person went to the US, that sewed an immigration meme amongst the local community and more people wanted to go to the US. Furthermore, the barrier to immigration was reduced as they had a contact they could touch base with when they did make the big move. The church was the primary point of social interaction so the parish-level cluster made sense. Secondary attributes of the parish that made it especially effective as a conduit for memes include:

  • A common belief system and outlook
  • People like us
  • Similar socio-economic condition
  • Reputation was pretty transparent: there is no such thing as secrets in small rural communities, things may not be talked about in public but they are known. Secondly families shared collective memories of their community, these may go back to the parents, grand parents and great-grand parents of the person in question; think of it as the family equivalent of the reputation system on eBay
  • High amount of trust in social interactions: you could leave your door unlocked, people were as good as their word

The second example they came up with was a family where one member decided to go to Canada for five years and was joined by a sibling, both bought into a joint objective and held each other together. Sure enough they came back to the village after five years.

The interesting thing here for me is a clear analogues that we can see at work between some four or more decades ago in rural Ireland and social media, be it communities of blogs or social networks.

An idea can spread if it comes from within a community:

  • Communication has a power that is proportional to the trust that you place in the community where you heard the idea
  • A community is trusted more if it shares my values, my belief systems, people share a similar outlook and world view, credibility has been built up over time
  • Reputation in that community is pretty transparent, you mess up; the memory will linger, even if people are willing to forgive they won’t necessarily forget. I’ve seen this when I go back to see my folks in Birkenhead and during discussions with friends; they said they wouldn’t read a copy of The Sun even if it was left on a train or bus seat. This behavioural trait has been passed on to their friends and relatives who weren’t even born when The Sun’s famous coverage of the 96 deaths that occurred at Hillsborough Stadium originally appeared back in 1989

So why is the social web such a mystery to many PR people?