Prediction, Staging and Hydrodynamics (Part 2): On Staging

In Part one, I looked at the correlation between bought, owned and earned media and linear, dynamic, and complex systems. Since the bought/owned/earned terminology become popular a few years back,  we have increasingly thought of media as an ecosystem, highlighting the importance of connections between nodes in building success.  However, in successful media ecosystems in the real world there is usually a linear narrative connecting non-linear effects – there are a number of Stages which each achieve an impact orders of magnitude greater than their input from the preceding stage.

A Linear Progression of Non-Linear Events
The Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 are a great example of staged media. They were seen in the West as Facebook revolutions, events that couldn’t have happened without social media. This is probably true, in the same way that the hurricane in Part 1 couldn’t have happened without the butterfly flapping its wings. But also couldn’t have happened without all the onward Stages. Ethan Zuckerman, who runs the Center for Civic Media at MIT MediaLab, summarises the linear progression of non-linear events that lead to the Tunisian Revolution in this video. It is well worth watching, but at 18 minutes long, I’ll also pick out the key Staging principles.

Catalyst 1
Mohammed Bouazizi, an unlicensed street trader in Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire to protest at the confiscation of his goods for his inability to pay police bribes. This brought protests throughout the town at his funeral. Similar localised protests happened frequently in Ben Ali’s Tunisia. Government response tended to tread a fine line by quelling with force without raising wider interest through massacring civilians. The threat of disproportionate response was maintained by the government’s tight control of the press and strict bans on international TV reporters.

Staged Amplification 1
Smartphone videos taken by protesters were put on Facebook (the only unblocked social network available to them). This DID NOT result in Tunisian citizens seeing and copying protests, as the government had phished passwords for the majority of the country’s Facebook accounts, and even slightly activist-minded Tunisians knew that viewing dissident material on Facebook would be monitored by government intelligence

Catalyst 2
The people who DID see the Facebook videos were the exiled dissident bloggers running Nawaat, who redubbed them in Arabic, French and English and passed them to Al Jazeera

Staged Amplification 2
Al Jazeera was banned from reporting in Tunisia, but was watched all over the country. The on the ground reporting distributed by Nawaat was seen throughout Tunisia

Catalyst 3
The ability to protest against the feared Ben Ali regime without being indiscriminately slaughtered inspired immediate copycat protests to spring up all over the country

Staged Amplification 3
As fear of using social networks diminished, increasing amounts of on the ground content found its way directly to Al Jazeera, who focused the eyes of global media on a significant national event

Catalyst 4
Copycat protests sprang up around the Middle East, supported by global media coverage and leading to the overthrow of dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Eygpt

The key point for thinking about complex systems in all of this, is that the individual progression from stage to stage is a linear and predictable one. Protests hadn’t previously spread out of confined towns because no media could get in or out. Smartphones and social networks change this. Social networks were of no use in spreading media internally in such a climate of fear, but could transmit information immediately to international sources. Al Jazeera were banned from reporting, so knew that something was worth reporting on. Millions of Tunisians watched Al Jazeera.

So although each stage delivered a non-linear impact in media amplification, it was also relatively predictable. Underpinning this was a huge national appetite for change, which meant that the Stages were all in place and primed.

In thinking about what this means in the world of marketing, we need to understand not just the potential non-linear impact of Stages, but also the underlying motivations at population level that will provide the speed and scale for activity. To use the old Forest Fire analogy, it isn’t enough to drop lots of matches, you also need the right conditions for fire.