Wave v Particle Model of Messages

Hugh McLeod is a genius. After an exchange with Doc Searls that I disagreed with, Hugh shares a seemingly disconnected thought that is so spot on the whole message thing, it’s scary.

What is an Object of Sociability [OoS, or “Ooze” for short]? “Ooze” is simply something that allows you to engage with another person. It could be anything. It could a party. It could be a bottle of wine. It could be a hyperlink. It could be a social gesture. It could be social currency. It could be doodling a cartoon on the back of a business card at a bar and giving it to the cute barmaid. You tell me….

Funny, but this ties in to a conversation I had with Juri about two years ago at a London geek dinner. We were talking about the switch in marketing away from “The Message”, towards something that one has no control over i.e. The Ooze.

The metaphor I used at the time was “wave vs particle”. At the subatomic level, things are interchangably waves or particles, depending on what instruments you are using to observe them [somebody far more scientific than me, please correct me if I’m wrong]. It might look like a wave one day, a particle the next.

A traditional marketing “message” acts like a wave. In the future, I believe marketing messages will behave more like particles [that is, if they want to succeed]. A wave stays connected to its source, a particle does not. Once the particle leaves you, it is no longer yours. You no longer control it, anymore than a dandelion spore controls the wind.

An excellent metaphor. The traditional view of a message, as a wave, suggests centralized control and the ability to modulate it at any time. Particle messages, however, live a life of their own. Once released into the wild, the source doesn’t have much more to do, except perchance to spew additional particles in hopes of redirecting attention, correcting, or augmenting prior messages.

You might call this the “bathroom deodorizor” method of message management.

You see, the human nose responds to particles in the air, unlike the eyes and ears which respond to waves. So, when you have the unfortunate experience of smelling something you don’t like, a common response is to spray a deodorizer which overpowers the unpleasant smell with more favorably smelling particles. Ahhh… much better.

Isn’t this a lot like what happens with catastrophically bad PR nightmares? When a company gets into a public crisis, it smells bad, as countless negative message particles flow into the public nostril.

Companies fixated on the wave model have been known to simply put out a press release denying the stink. Think Intel and the 1994 Pentium floating point bug. Treating messages as waves fails to address the real problem, leaving the public to stew in its own smelly frustration. In Intel’s case, they not only let the aroma waft around on its own, they left the source of the bad smell out there on the living room carpet!

More progressive companies acknowledge the problem and engage the world to fix it. They remove the source (when possible) and put out credible response particles on a massive scale, overpowering and ameliorating the stench of the offense. Think about Johnson & Johnson’s response to the  1982 Tylenol Cyanide Poisoning.

The particle view of messages makes sense in our post-mass-media world where communications are dominated by one-to-one exchanges rather than broadcast blasts from centralized sources.

Particles demonstrate four critical aspects of messages:

  1. Once a message is in the medium, the source relinquishes control.
  2. It doesn’t necessarily matter what causes a message. If its out there, it affects the environment.
  3. The only way to mitigate an unwanted message in the environment is to seed new, credible replacement messages with such potency and saturation that it displaces the previous. (Preferably, one does this without offending the environment.)
  4. It pays to shape your messages effectively. Make them smell good. Make them believable and understandable. Make them effective tools at helping your organization. Because once they are out there, they are out of your hands.

Number 4 is the real point of my post about the Demand for Messages.

People need messages to discern opportunities, make good choices, and take action. Modern communicators should craft messages that make the most of the particle model and stand on their own, sufficiently clear and valuable so that users understand, appreciate and propagate them.

The particle-virus addendum:

When users spontaneously propagate messages on their own, message-particles act more like viruses, which makes them even more powerful. They still act like particles, just more effective in saturating the environment. It also makes them more outside the control of the originator, just like good Ooze.

Thanks, Hugh.

Have a great New Year’s everyone! See you in 2007.

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