With the rise of social media, myths can spread “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” That can be good, but it can also be dangerous. (More)

Mithellaneous, Part II: Social Media and Myth Olympics

This week Morning Feature considers the role mythology in contemporary culture. Yesterday we looked at the controversy surrounding Kwanzaa, an African-American midwinter celebration. Today we consider how social media influence the growth of contemporary mythology. Saturday we conclude with the mythology of New Year’s celebrations.

“Occupy Wall Street is….”

Even before it began, the Occupy Wall Street movement was spawning myths. Among the early myths was that the gathering was merely a flash mob, so the media saw no reason to cover it at all. Ironically, that was quickly followed by a myth of media failure. As the days passed, the myths multiplied. Occupy Wall Street became:

Indeed, any story that begins “Occupy Wall Street is …” is very likely a myth. The story may include kernels of fact, as many myths do, or it may be complete fiction. Regardless of its factual accuracy, such stories attempt some or all of the functions of myth: exploring the as-yet unexplained, proposing models of behavior, encouraging cultural coherence, and positioning our individual experiences within broader narratives. In that sense, while many writers have called journalism “the first draft of history,” journalism had also been first draft of contemporary mythology.

Citius, Altius …

Those are the first two words of the Olympic Motto. They translate to “Faster, Higher,” and in that respect social media are making contemporary mythology an Olympic event. As the Canadian media research firm MediaBadger reports, social media play a growing role in shaping our cultural stories:

As a story or issue evolves, it will take on a life of its own in social media channels. Before long, people from all over the world or other cities are expressing their views and opinions. In large volumes of discussion on an issue, we’ve found that a meme or mythology forms within 24-48 hours of the inception of the crisis or issue breaking into mainstream media from social media. Once an issue gains uptake in mainstream media, on average (of the 24 crises we examined) a story will develop a mythology or meme 87% of the time. Other times it will fizzle out and come to nothing. These mythologies or memes are vital because they play a key role in how online discussion results in real-world actions.

These myths – and remember, many include at least kernels of fact – can exert profound influence. Think Progress credited the Occupy Wall Street movement with changing the political narrative from the federal debt and deficit to economic inequality. MediaBadger researched how social media influenced the discussion of the Keystone XL project, and discussed why business and government leaders ignore social media at their peril.

… Fortius?

Social media-driven myths may be faster than traditional journalism and other storytelling media, and can reach at least as high in terms of gaining leaders’ attention. But are they “Stronger?”

The evidence is still mixed. MediaBadger discusses social media in terms of of “soft power,” with the potential to influence perceptions, characterize positions, and amplify the voices of individuals and groups who might not otherwise be heard.

Yet potential is not always realized, and many social media-borne myths fade as quickly as they arise. Some of that is by intent. Consider another Occupy Wall Street myth: that Twitter was intentionally blocking Occupy-related hashtags from its trending list:

On at least two occasions, Saturday September 17th and again on Thursday night, Twitter blocked #OccupyWallStreet from being featured as a top trending topic on their homepage. On both occasions, #OccupyWallStreet tweets were coming in more frequently than other top trending topics that they were featuring on their homepage.

This is blatant political censorship on the part of a company that has recently received a $400 million investment from JP Morgan Chase.

There was no such censorship. By Twitter’s algorithm, Occupy Wall Street had become a stale topic within hours of its inception. Such a short algorithmic attention span makes it harder for longer-term projects to gain traction. And businesses and organizations who understand that algorithm can also try to manipulate it:

Getting a spot on the trending list has become so important that television programs hire consultants to help them get there.

Jason Pollock, a social media consultant, says the singing competition The Voice set the tone for Twitter interaction. On the show, teams of young singers get coached by stars like Christina Aguilera. The Voice became one of the most popular singing competitions on TV this year with the help of Twitter.

Pollock says that as competitors are training for the competition, they tweet with some help from paid staff. They put pound signs in front of catchy phrases to create hashtags, like #TeamNakia. “They had them really operating fast. … They had hashtags going and they were asking questions and doing polls and really engaging stuff,” Pollock says.

When those hashtags hit the trending topics list on Twitter, more people started to watch The Voice on TV.

And while social media can help propagate myths, the MediaBadger research emphasizes that such myths only gain influence when they translate into offline activism. Tweets and blog posts about the Occupy movement and the Keystone XL project became influential – in the traditional media and in shaping decisions – when people gathered in the streets and/or contacted political leaders.

Still, social media help shape which stories of contemporary events will become cultural standards, and how widely those stories will be repeated and acted upon. Welcome to the Myth Olympics.

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Happy Friday!