Book review: Tell Everyone: Why We Share & Why It Matters
Earlier this month, Toronto mayoral candidate Doug Ford attempted to respond to racial slurs made by his brother Rob by listing the Jewish professionals in his life. News stories of his comments—and the resulting chorus of boos at the mayoral debate sponsored by two Jewish organizations—received pretty good traction in social media.
Were the people sharing these stories outraged by Doug Ford’s use of an ethnic stereotype? Joyfully amused at the ongoing campaign gaffes? Or saddened by the state of public discourse at a democratic forum? All of these emotions likely played a part in driving social shares. But a growing body of research suggests some emotions are more influential than others.
Alfred Hermida’s new book, Tell Everyone: Why We Share & Why It Matters, takes us through that research—and a pile more, from Pew Center data on the makeup of our friends lists to a Yahoo! study on the nature of social influencers. One of Hermida’s accomplishments is to have woven that research into a breezy narrative crammed with examples from recent headlines.
Not up on the concept of cognitive dissonance? Homophily? Pluralistic ignorance? Or situational awareness? Not a deal breaker. Just in time for Halloween, Tell Everyone (Doubleday Canada) is a social science literature review masquerading as light bedside reading from the business management section. Hermida has tucked the academic sourcing into 21 pages of endnotes and offered a highly readable 217-page tour of social movements, revolutions, journalistic gaffes and corporate PR disasters.
The UBC journalism professor moves easily from chronicling the activities of Boston Marathon Redditors to Tahrir Square YouTubers to Japanese earthquake tweeters. He dips frequently into the past for context, highlighting the roles of French Revolution-era salon “bloggers,” 18th-century Portuguese earthquake pamphleteers and First World War German pilots.
Indeed, this book is only marginally about journalism, made clear by the absence of a reference to “news” in its title. It is at least as much about sociology and marketing.
Mathew Ingram argued recently that journalism’s biggest competitors don’t look like journalism. Hermida would no doubt agree. The Daily Show’s blurring of comedy and journalism is now a familiar ingredient in people’s information diet, he writes. And with nearly every news event, “the reporting by journalists sits alongside the accounts, experiences, opinions and hopes of millions of others.” Journalistic accounts didn’t define Mitt Romney’s 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, he notes; thousands of users did, with their “binders full of women” meme.
Hermida devotes a chapter to chronicling the ways in which consumers are asserting themselves in the marketplace—and the ways in which brands are reacting. The communications team at Domino’s Pizza failed to engage YouTube users over a gross gag video made by two of its employees in 2009. But Lionsgate films effectively incorporated user-generated content into its promotions for the 2012 Hunger Games movie. Some of the examples are well known but their value lies in the considerable context Hermida provides.
Other chapters highlight the role of social media in the wake of natural disasters and how users—and researchers—are working to identify hoaxes.
Tell Everyone is the latest in a small but growing number of mass-market books aiming to distill social media research from the ivory tower. The most notable is Wharton School professor Jonah Berger’s 2013 book Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Hermida discusses the influential 2009 research conducted by Berger and his colleague Katherine Milkman into stories on the New York Times most-emailed list. Those conclusions now greatly influence the work of social media editors.
But, in this instance at least, the lively pacing of the book sacrifices some valuable detail.
Hermida explores the studies’ main conclusion: positive content is more viral than negative content, but the key is the presence of activating emotions in the user, such as joy or anger. However, the chapter gives only a cursory mention to a finding Berger discusses at length in Contagious—the surprisingly frequent presence of science stories in the list of most-emailed articles. The emotion at play is awe—what Berger characterizes as not quite joy, but a complex sense of surprise, unexpectedness or mystery. It’s an important aspect of our still-evolving understanding of how we use social media.
Similarly, I was left wanting a bit more from the book’s conclusion, given the wealth of insights in previous chapters. The final chapter is a discussion of the concept of situational awareness—understanding your surroundings so you can take meaningful action in the future. The main observation contained in the final pages is that “a novice mistake is to try to be on top of it all.” Instead, the way forward involves “being peripherally aware of information as it flows in the background, paying attention when something important and relevant, or pleasing and entertaining, pops up.”
But overall this a remarkable book characterized by smart insights, a lively narrative and impressive research. If I’d had the Kindle version I would have shared many parts of it.
Tim Currie teaches online journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. His Master’s-level course, Audience and Content Strategies, looks at how journalists and news organizations use social media.