How Viral Ideas Lead the Revolution
Years later, what we remember is not so much the details, but the memes. Think of any great moment, etched in the fabric of posterity and it’s probably something not central to the story, but rather an idea or image that took hold, for whatever reason.
In 2004, I was in Kiev, Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. A lot of what I remember is probably very similar to what outsiders saw – vast seas of people waving orange, Yulia Timoshenko and her braids in better times and so on. Yet there were some other, lesser known, memes that can teach us a lot about how ideas and innovations spread.
The Long, Unending, Annoying Droll
There’s nothing more obnoxious than someone leaning on their car horn. It’s even worse when hundreds do it at once…for weeks…24 hours a day! That’s what the people in this building were subjected to.
This is the Central Election Committee of Ukraine, located about a mile from Independence Square, where the protests were centered. Even during a revolution most people are going about their daily business when they aren’t at the protests, so there was heavy traffic going past the building, which is located on Lesi Ukrainki, a major street.
No one knows how it started, but I assume that when the news of the fraudulent election came over the radio, somebody honked their horn. Others joined in and then still others until everybody passing the building was leaning on their horn. A few seconds for each car, but a long, unending droll for the people working in the building.
Eventually, the officials set up loudspeakers on the building and blasted Russian folk music to drown out the noise (not a big improvement), but to little avail. No amount of strategizing can top thousands of people synchronously acting in concert.
The No Drinking Rule
As in most of Eastern Europe, alcohol is a big part of the culture in Ukraine. Vodka, cognac, beer and champagne are present at every gathering. (Russian champagne is surprisingly good and just a few dollars a bottle). It’s not uncommon to drink beer at lunch during the workday.
In a strange way, one of the most impressive things about the revolution was that no alcohol was present at the protests. If you were carrying a beer, somebody would politely ask you to throw it away and no one (at least that I saw) refused.
Much like the horn honking, it’s not clear how this started. There was no edict nor was there any authorities enforcing it. Somehow, word got around and social pressure kept people in line. With the future of the country in the balance, everybody wanted to do their part and the no alcohol policy, although counter to cultural norms, was adhered to.
Razem Nas Bohatu, Nas Nie Podalaty
One of the most interesting viral memes during the Orange revolution was the chant, Razem Nas Bohatu, Nas Nie Podalaty (Together we are many, we won’t be overcome). Within a few days, it could be heard anywhere you went in Kiev.
Then the pop band GreenJolly set it to music and it became a the Ukraine’s entry into the Eurovision song contest the next year, which you can see below.
If anyone still believes in the myth of influentials this is a prime example of how cultural icons often merely reflect what is already passing virally through a network. GreenJolly didn’t invent the chant, nor did they make it popular. It was widely shared weeks before they recorded their song.
Much like most things in the revolution, the chant just sprung up, became contagious and quickly spread.
Lessons to Be Learned
As incredible as all these things and others were to witness during those very cold November weeks when millions took to the streets in protest, they are also instructive because, in a sense, there is nothing really that unusual about them. In fact, they are exactly what social network theory would predict.
Receptivity: Every viral chain starts of with a core group of interconnected people and the key attribute is not influence, but receptivity. In the case of the Orange Revolution, it was a student group called Pora (It’s Time), which in turn was based on similar groups in other successful revolutions.
It often seems that viral memes just appear out of nowhere, but in fact they thrive in a subculture first. The infamous meme of LOLcats, for example, had been percolating through 4chan long before it broke out into the general population.
Network Structure: Paul Revere rode through the towns of New England, not in the rural south and that’s no accident. Memes will travel faster and wider in the interconnected network of Nascar than it will through disparate orchestra fans. As I’ve written before, the value of a network lies not so much in its size but its structure.
This is an area where marketers really need to improve. Most brands focus on adding followers, when in fact doing so haphazardly can actually weaken the network.
Transmission Vectors: Whatever the contagion, it must be transmitted somehow in order to spread. In the American Revolution, through pamphlets like Common Sense, in the Civil Rights movement, churches, fax machines in the fall of the Soviet Bloc, SMS messages and Internet boards in the color revolutions and social media in the Arab spring.
Whatever vectors are chosen, successful revolutionaries learn how to use them effectively and pursue them intensely.
Instantaneousness Phase Transition: Probably the most curious thing about revolutions is they seem to burst on the scene all at once. The precursors are often around for years, even decades, then all of the sudden the network syncs and revolution breaks out.
Building an Innovation Revolution
Of course, most of us will never be involved in a real revolution (once was enough for me), but we can often gain insight into more commonplace phenomena from extreme situations. Anyone who has ever tried to get an innovation adopted in an organization understands how difficult it can be to change hearts and minds.
Here, revolutions can be more than interesting, they can be instructive. The key concepts of a receptivity, network structure, transmission vectors and instantaneous phase transition are just as important for innovation diffusion (or brand marketing, for that matter) as they are for political action.
Perhaps even more importantly is what does not play a role. Chasing haphazardly after random followers, seeking the support of influentials (they are usually more of a symptom than a cause) and other gimmicks usually do more harm than good.
Memes, after all, want to be replicated. Viral memes happen when passion and connectivity collide with opportunity.
Note: Unfortunately, Yulia Timoshenko, one of the heroes of the story, now languishes in prison due to the strange and tragic twist of fate that led to Victor Yanukovitch’s election in 2009, five years after the Orange Revolution, the purpose of which was to keep him out of power in the first place.