Wired for Life

The Internet works as a kind of pyramid scheme of cascading communication

By Rob Breeding

The other day I received an email from a group that opposes the transfer of federal lands to the states. I won’t wade back into the debate as I’ve already covered that ground. Instead, what interested me about the message was that it prompted me to click on a link to an online petition. We were to add our names to the list, the message instructed, and then share the link in hopes that the petition would “go viral.”

For now at least, assuming the Ebola epidemic doesn’t get terribly worse (and it’s already really bad in West Africa), to “go viral” will remain a desirable outcome. It’s one of the ways communication works in the digital age: we tell a friend, who tells a friend, who tells a friend, and voilà. Your message spreads across the Internet at a pace approaching the speed of light, or at least the speed of a nasty virus infecting your fellow humans.

The Internet works as a kind of pyramid scheme of cascading communication. Outdoor advocacy groups are constantly trying to get their messages to go viral, and sometimes that happens. Still, I’m convinced the best way to spread your message on the Internet is to make a large sign that announces your cause, and then place it behind a feline doing something silly.

There’s no better clickbait than video of a dopey cat.

Marketing types have been forcing messages on us since that dude first painted images of his favorite game animals on cave walls in prehistoric Europe. We are used to it by now, though the speed and sophistication of the modern mass media bombardment requires us to be smarter and more savvy than previous generations. Our elders lived in an environment where there were clear lines drawn between news and advocacy such as public relations or advertising. That line was once sacrosanct, but no longer.

The college students who now fill my classrooms came of age in a media environment where those lines aren’t just blurred, they’ve been demolished. When they hear a message they just assume the messenger intends to manipulate. This condition may in part explain why many outdoor advocacy organizations have such trouble recruiting younger members: this generation is naturally skeptical. They have to be.

I got a lesson in these blurred lines recently. I’m thinking of selling a fly rod on eBay, so I visited the site to check out the competition. I found a rod that was similar to mine, so I clicked on the link to get a few more details and take a look at the photos the seller posted.

The next day when I checked my news feed on Facebook, guess what popped up between links to news stories about Ebola and videos of silly cats posted by old high school chums I haven’t seen in 30 years? That’s right, the same photos of the fly rod I’d checked out on eBay the day before. Later, while I was on a different website that focuses on sports team’s uniform design, I read a short blurb about a prototype jersey the Indiana Pacers had rejected a decade ago. I clicked on a link and it took me to eBay where someone was trying to sell one of these old NBA castoffs.

A day later that image appeared in my news feed as well. Someone is always watching on the Internet.

The news feed has become today’s front page. Old school newspaper types such as myself lament the likely demise of the daily newspaper. And I grew up reading newspapers before I made a career of producing them.

News, however, especially breaking news, is more efficiently delivered in a digital format. But it is also often delivered without the organization and clear distinctions between what is meant to inform, and what is meant to manipulate. It’s too late to fret about whether that’s a good thing. The change is already upon us.

If we want to shape public opinion about hunting, fishing, conservation and access in this brave, new future, we need to master how this new media works.

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