Category Archives: Media

The Only Way is Essex meets bell hooks. Yes, really. #TOWIE


The Essex girl and her commercial manifestation in the ‘structured reality’ show The Only Way is Essex, subverts notions of subcultures as ‘cool’. Rather, her middle class comfort and extravagantly ‘bad’ taste, represents a new kind of “semantic disorder” (Hebdige 1979, 90). Boundaries of money, class and taste are transgressed by the Essex girl; The Only Way is Essex serves to redraw these old distinctions. This essay establishes the Essex girl as a subcultural category, evidencing the markers of subcultural status: bricolage, identification, and perceived deviance. The Essex girl will be shown to have been incorporated by the dominant culture in two ways: the commodity form (The Only Way is Essex as a cultural product), and the ideological form (the situation of the show’s ‘characters’ within traditional family structures, and the sexual naturalization). Parallels will be drawn between bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other” (1992), and the gender and class issues raised by the cultural incorporation of the Essex girl.

Germaine Greer offers a floral analogy for the outward appearance of the Essex girl, saying “the poppy is a real Essex girl of a flower, too loud, too bright, with too much eye-make-up “ (Greer 2006). But Chris Irvine of The Telegraph describes ‘Essex girl’ as a pejorative term, saying that the group can be identified by “significant amounts of fake tan”, giving them an orange appearance (2010). De Certeau may have attributed off-label use of a cultural product to the process of bricolage, a form of cultural subversion. He states that “users make (bricolent) innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules” (De Certeau 1998, xiv). The Essex girl’s bodily manipulation (Botox, implants), and the Bindi-like phenomenon of ‘Vajazzling’, could be considered forms of “sociocultural production” (De Certeau 1998, xiv) and as such, empowering acts of resistance (Hall 1981, 228-9).

Dick Hebdige describes subculture “not only as a metaphor for potential anarchy ‘out there’ but as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation” (Hebdige 1979, 90). Irvine’s article “What is an Essex girl?” summarises the many derisive conceptions of the Essex girl as a threat to good taste. He describes her as wearing “low-cut tops and a short skirt, complemented with white stilettos, and can often be seeing (sic) dancing round a handbag at a club with their friends, usually enjoying alcohol”, as though their transgression of sartorial codes” and deviant behaviours are semantically linked (Hebdige 1979, 93). While bell hooks’ essay is concerned mainly with the concerns of Black America, her arguments can be applied to the incorporation of the Essex-girl-as-‘Other’.

Hebdige describes two strategies for dealing with the ideological “threat” of the subculture. He says

First, the Other can be trivialized, naturalized, domesticated. Here, the difference is simply denied (‘Other- ness is reduced to sameness’). Alternatively, the Other can be transformed into meaningless exotica, a ‘pure object, a spectacle, a clown’ (Barthes, 1972) (Hebdige 1979, 97).

The Only Way is Essex provides much evidence of normalization by way of situating the Essex girl in the family; The show features numerous appearances of an accepting and approving ‘Nanny Pat’, recurring inclusions of mothers in protective roles as various dramas unfold, and cousin ‘Chloe’ in an educational and protective role in relation to young and naive ‘Joey’). This normalization removes the group’s subversive power, presenting the girls as ‘one of us’. However, hooks’ essay provides a structure for addressing the trivialization of the Essex girl. Their TV representation, with its focus on cosmetic procedures and beauty, reduces Essex girls to sexual objects. The ostensible intimacy of the ‘reality’ TV format, the in-home access to intimate conversations enables a kind of vicarious sexual relationship, such as that described by hooks. She says

the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, (and here I would include ‘classes’) sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other (hooks 1992, 25).

hooks’s views on sexual and symbolic incorporation cross in an interesting way with the consumption of the Essex girl as a mediated product. hooks describes sexual naturalization and incorporation as placing an “emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other” (1992, 25). While hooks is speaking about race tourism, the proximity of the Essex girl in the viewer’s living space allows the consumer to temporarily transgress both geography and class, stripping the Essex girl of that which gives her subcultural uniqueness.

At first the show seems to be a fairy tale come true for the Essex girl. Appearing to go from insignificance to fame and fortune, she provides ideological support for the capitalist dream (hooks 1992, 26).  However, the cast have voiced similar annoyances regarding exploitation, to those voiced by Greg Tate in his denunciation of the appropriation of Black culture, ‘Nigs R Us, or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objects’ (2003). The ‘TOWIE’ cast received no payment for the first series, and were hit with a ‘tax’ payable to the show’s producers, for subsequent endorsement deals (Gould 2012). Again, hooks points out the ideological ‘cost’ of this kind of commercial recognition:

whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization (hooks 1992, 31).

Germaine Greer published a celebration of the Essex girl in The Observer, denouncing essentialism and acknowledging the socio-cultural geography which unites the group. She states

Essex girls, who turn middle-class notions of distinction on their heads, are anti-celebrities. No matter how much cash might be sloshing through her household, she is working-class and means to stay that way. She is not only not interested in social climbing, she doesn’t know there’s anywhere to climb to. Essex isn’t full of country clubs that she can’t join (Greer 2006).

The Only Way is Essex gives consumers a product edited to reflect their ideologies, and serves as a barrier, erected to protect the ‘hip’ from the new middle class. hooks says that “by eating the Other . . . one asserts power and privilege” (hooks 1992, 36) and this product certainly aims to demonstrate that ‘taste’ is not one of the guarantees of capitalism. Vicarious sexual consumption, and the incorporation of an ‘essential’ Essex girl into mainstream culture is an attempt to disable her transgressive power and independence. However, the fighting words of Essex girl Greer indicate that the place and its subculture will remain, for now, a site of struggle, resistance and transformation (Hall 1981, 228).


De Certeau, Michel. 1988. “General introduction” in Practice of Everyday Life translated by Steven Rendall. xi-xxiv. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gould, Lara. 2012. “TOWIE stars in tax revolt: TV bosses tell stars to hand over 15 per cent of earnings … and Shuttup!”. Daily Mail Online. Accessed March 17.—Shuttup.html

Greer, Germaine. 2006. “Essex girls” We’re the best”. The Observer. Accessed March 17.

Hall, Stuart. 1981. “Notes on deconstructing the popular” in People’s History and Socialist Theory edited by Raphael Samuel. 227-240. Boston: Routledge.

Hebdige, Dick. 1979. “Subculture: The unnatural break” in Subculture: The Meaning of Style. 90-99. New York: Methuen.

hooks, bell. 1992. “Eating the other: Desire and resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation. 21-39. Boston: South End Press.

Irvine, Chris. 2010. “What is an Essex Girl?” The Telegraph. Accessed March 17.

Lime Pictures. 2010. The Only Way is Essex. Accessed March 17.

Tate, Greg. 2003. “Nigs r us, or how blackfolk become fetish objects” in Everything But The Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture. 1-14. New York: Broadway Books.


How feminism is killing (the enjoyment of) Pinterest


There’s been a bit of online chatter lately about how Pinterest is killing feminism (Odell 2012). I don’t want to critically berate women about how they spend their leisure time – God knows they berate themselves enough. But it is worth framing Pinterest in terms of ideology, and giving the debate some balance “in the absence of reflective, conscious thought” (Scannell 2007 p. 201). Scannell provides a panorama of ideology, its beginnings, theories, and analytical frameworks. I will be using Hall’s ‘Encoding/Decoding’ model to throw a new voice into the critical ‘Melrose Place’ ep that is the Pinners vs Feminists debate.

Firstly, what is ideology? Scannell says that the concept “serves to account for how the real (material, economic) conditions are hidden from us in ordinary, everyday experience” (2007 p. 201). A critically enlightened feminist might cry, ‘Look at those femme-dolts, blithely repinning recipes, diet tips, and deceptively complex craft – they have no idea they’re reinforcing repressive hegemony!’ And while there is free will in editing and publishing online, and even an implied, democratic “ownership of . . . production”, the images available for selection are created by the dominant media (Scannell 2007, p. 203). As such Pinterest does facilitate the reproduction of domestic, aspirational ideology.

Freudian psychoanalysis opens up other decoding possibilities. Scannell cites Habermas saying that “If the texts of popular culture are like dreams ‘that express in “disguised” form the repressed content of a culture”, then isn’t it possible that to a large extent, Pinterest represents the ways contemporary women want to see themselves? (in Scannell 2007, p. 208). I would argue that denunciations of Pinterest as undermining feminism are excessively linear and are asking for a post-structuralist bitch-slap. Meanings are not “firmly embedded in the text” (Scannell 2007, p. 210): cake porn does not signify subjugation; cute homes do not unequivocally equate to performative, gendered materialism.

No, women are much more multidimensional than our feminist sisters give us credit for. Parkin’s typology of value systems reinforces my deduction that women don’t fit into neat theoretical boxes (in Scannell 2007, p. 211). Parkin firstly identifies the dominant value system, which is aligned with many of the media professionals injecting images into Pinterest. Ok feminists, I will give you that one – users are guilty, for the most part, of ‘repinning’ this ideology. The second value system he identifies is the subordinate value system, which contains “a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements” (Scannell 2007, p. 211); Pinterest users are in general a pretty good fit for this description – and note the word ‘mixture’! Lastly, he lists the radical/oppositional code; the beautiful thing about women is that we’re often unique, a little contrary, and sometimes unpredictable: we can as easily be seen protesting about equal rights, bra-less on the streets, as ‘pinning’ our dissent.

“There are some things you apologize for because you don’t like watching them . . . and some things you apologize for because you do like watching them” (Scannell 2007, p. 226). ‘Womens’ entertainment’, until recently, has been characterized by this apologism, as though “pleasure and enjoyment” (Scannell 2007, p. 227) are trivial, or worse, symptomatic. New media enables us to challenge, resist, and decode in our own ways. Even more radically, we can refuse to justify why we delight in being an organised SAHM, drool over recipes we’ll never cook, or, God forbid, aspire to having a bangin’ beach bod.


Odell, A 2012, How Pinterest Is Killing Feminism’, Buzzfeed, viewed 11 January 2012, <>.

Scannell, P 2007. Media and Communication, Sage, London, pp. 198-232.

Image: I am a recovering Cakespy addict.

Technological determinism – a grey area


50 Shades of Grey (James 2011) is the fastest selling book of all time, selling six times the amount of digital copies as paper copies (Acuna 2012). ‘High art’ pundits have almost universally panned the literary skills of EL James, but most concede that there’s a guilty pleasure in reading it, with one critic saying “If this is the future of publishing, things could be a lot worse” (Colgan 2012) The phenomenon has commonly been rationalized as having been enabled by the fairly recent advent of digital self-publishing, as though this technological determinism is the only possible way to explain the uptake of James’ “unequivocally dreadful prose” (O’Toole 2012). To help the critics sleep at night once again, I will create some support for the theory of the success of 50 Shades of Grey as being technologically determined. But then, unfortunately, I have to temper that with some social and cultural factors that have, let’s face it, equally driven its production and sales.

The case for technological determinism and “50SoG”
Maxwell describes technological determinism in fairly ‘lay’ terms, saying “Technological determinism suggests that technological development has a logic of its own . . . that progress is inevitable, that technology gets better (cheaper, faster and more mobile) over time” (Maxwell 2012). He cites the example of music going almost completely digital with the arrival of the iPod, and says that the technologically deterministic assumption was that books would go ‘e’ or ‘i’ too. The scale, speed and volume of sales of 50 Shades of Grey has been enabled by digital publishing, the price and convenience permitting readers to exercise less purchasing discretion. The novel was initially self-published online as ‘fan fiction’; The internet gives would-be ‘amateurs’ democratic access to the publishing world. Finally, critics have cited the Kindle as reducing the social stigma attached to reading ‘trash’ in public places like the subway (Slate 2012). In all of these instances the technology is framed as having “(set) the conditions for social change” (Williams 2003, p. 5).

The case against technological determinism for 50SoG
Undermining the argument for technologically enabled success, is the fact that large scale sharing of fan-fiction is an off-label, socially and culturally constructed use of the internet. The form has actually been around since the 40s; As such, technology is not in fact “central” to this genre (Williams 2003, p. 6). In addition, Pan MacMillan’s digital VP believes that the eBook is a bit of a misnomer, a product of the book industry’s obsession with sales of reading devices (in Maxwell 2012). She insists that the ‘product’ is the content, which has been consumed via multiple platforms for some time, for example, the internet and digital audiobooks. While the digital angle of 50 Shades has been much-hyped, James’ audience is very fragmented – the paperback version is the fastest selling book of all time (Acuna 2012). Many high-culture commentators struggle to believe that James could possibly sell her work for social or cultural reasons. But here are just a few: Maybe people like to be titillated; maybe we’re suckers for online hype; maybe it’s a recession and we women secretly want some hot weirdo to buy us expensive presents (Daum 2009).


Acuna, K 2012. By the Numbers: The ‘50 Shades of Grey’ Phenomenon, Business Insider, viewed 11 January 2013, <;.

Colgan, J 2012, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, The Guardian, viewed 11 January 2013, <;.

Daum, M 2009, ‘The recession heats up romance novels’, LA Times, viewed 11 January 2013, <;.

James, EL 2011, 50 Shades of Grey, Vintage Books, London.

Maxwell, J 2010, ‘Ebooks and Technological Determinism’, viewed 11 January 2013, <;.

O’Toole, E 2012, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey is no one-handed erotic read for me but …’, The Guardian, viewed 11 January 2013,

Slate 2012, ‘The Audio Book Club on Fifty Shades of Grey’, podcast, viewed 11 January 2013,

Williams, Raymond 2003, “The technology and the society” in Williams, E (ed.), Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Routledge Classics, London, pp. 1-25.

Image: Reddit.

The Mass Mummy Society

I don’t read mummy blogs. If I want ‘reality’ I’ll go make my own children a sandwich. I am, however, fascinated by the theory of mummy bloggers and their cultural products. I have been reading about the mass society theory of media, as explained by McQuail (2005, pp. 77-109), and I will attempt to answer the question of whether mummy-blogging exhibits any of the features of this theory. McQuail says “new electronic media gives rise to a neo-utopian vision of what society can become, that runs counter to the central mass society thesis” (McQuail 2005, p. 95). I initially thought that the power of mummy-blogging as an example of niche-media brought into question the validity of the mass society theory, but on investigation, I was disappointed to find it a pretty good fit.

The ‘mass’ theory of media suggests a centrally constructed view of the world, a “substitute” or “pseudo-environment” (McQuail 2005, p. 94), its content reflective of producers’ political interests. The popular Woogsworld blog states a focus on “documenting the daily mundane” (Mrs Woog 2013), reflecting (yes, ok, mediated) reality concerned with normalizing the subjective ‘normal’ – hardly political. But recently Julia Gillard ‘cosied up’ to mummy bloggers, ostensibly to show an interest in ‘women’s issues’, hoping to gain “maximum advantage” from the association (Grattan 2012). With all this public attention on the power of this ‘mass niche’, I wonder if the quasi-feminist politics of mummy-blogging will become more overt in the future? I also wonder if the flattery of having Julia Gillard eat your homemade jam (Gillard 2012) outweighs the feeling of being “used for manipulation and control” (McQuail 2005, p. 20), forever a wielder of scone-soft power?

A couple of the factors that McQuail associates with the mass society theory of media are closely intertwined when it comes to mummy-blogs: economic interests and identity. He states a feature of the mass society theory of media is that “people depend on media for identity” (McQuail 2005, p. 20). In a culturally and geographically atomized society like Australia, compounded by the fact that mum-audiences have often left their professional identities behind, it’s easy to see how mummy-blogs could be essential providers of ‘identity life-support’. It seems mummy-bloggers are gaining economic power as a result of their relatability, with B&T saying “Consumers recognise and trust this authenticity, which makes them incredibly powerful for brands to work with” (Media Watch 2012). It seems the mass society of identifying mothers has ultimately been commodified.

Utopian theories of media promise dialogical communication, but the popularity of a small number mummy-blogs means that while dialogue with producers is possible, production is still largely centralized. Commenting and social media provide contact with media producers, but the ratio of ‘successful’ producers to audience suggests that true dialogue is largely imagined. At first I really thought that the example of mummy-blogging would invalidate the mass society theory of media, but when society is structured around gaining political and economic power through one’s identity as a producer and product (i.e. the values of the entire blogosphere), it’s probably not all that surprising. Ugh. I feel deflated now. I am going to go make my kids a sandwich.


Gillard, J 2012, ‘Julia Gillard (JuliaGillard) tweets..’,, viewed 10 January 2013, <>.

Grattan, M 2012, ‘PM cosies up to mummy bloggers’, SMH, viewed 10 January 2013, <>.

Media Watch 2012, ABC1, video and transcript, viewed 10 January 2013, <>.

McQuail, D 2005, ‘Theory of media and theory of society’, in McQuail D (ed.), McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory, McQuail, Sage, London, pp. 77-109.

Mrs Woog 2013, Woogs World, viewed 10 January 2013, <>.

Picture: Making amigurumi sandwiches helps me multitask my maternalism.

Quitting Facebook – it’s all academic


I’m one of the hipsters who recently quit Facebook. And for the next 400 odd words, I am going to pretend that my decision was calculated, rational, and rooted in my deep understanding of media and its complications. I’ll deconstruct Facebook, Thompson-style , explaining why it could be considered a ‘hybrid’ medium (1995, p. 6), containing elements of face-to-face interaction, mediated interaction and mediated quasi-interaction. Then, I will use this logic to vent a teensy bit of opinion.

Facebook’s space/time constitution
Facebook provides functionality for communications to be sent and received in real time, via ‘live’ streaming and ‘chat’, however, archiving allows users to dip in and out at leisure. As such, its temporal constitution shares characteristics with face-to-face, mediated and mediated quasi-interaction. The “activity of reception” (Thompson 1995, p. 10) often takes place in face-to-face situations as well as online; it’s not uncommon for users to check Facebook on mobile devices while in each others’ presence, using what they read as a “stimulus for interaction” (Thompson 1995, p. 8). During my time as a Facebook addict, I observed that couples in the same spatio-temporal setting – their house – would often make cloying comments on each others’ streams. I used to wonder if this was part of their ‘front’ (Goffman in Thompson 1995, p. 9), a gratuitous mediated PDA providing ‘evidence’ of the loved-up-ness of their relationships. Gross.

Symbolic cues and Facebook
Facebook interaction is “mediated symbolic exchange” on speed. Like mediated interaction and mediated quasi-interaction, Facebook narrows the range of available symbolic cues, accentuating text communication (Thompson 1995, p. 4). Facebook even has its own paralanguage, its symbols intensely tied up with institutional values. ‘Liking’, despite being a near-passive act, has become performative and quantifiable. Relationships can be cut short by ‘blocking’ or ‘unfriending’, enabling an interaction users would be unlikely to perform face-to-face. Thompson states, “participants must always consider how much contextual information should be included in (an) exchange” (1995, p. 4), however his wise words are often unheeded, with users of this new media seemingly confused about the locations of their ‘backs’ and ‘fronts’ (Goffman in Thompson 1995, p. 9): exaggerated intimacy and mundanity are frequently confused with ‘authenticity’ (apparently details of orgasms are not off-limits), while contradictory pictorial contrivances are posted as ‘evidence’ of attractiveness and happiness.

Action orientation? Dialogical or monological?
Facebook culture represents a contemporary desire to be a mass-producer of media (mediated quasi-interaction), while accruing a mass-dialogical ‘fan’ base (mediated and face-to-face interaction). I question whether this is realistic for the average user. Users broadcast ‘status’ updates, shaped by an imagined “reciprocity and personal specificity” (Thompson 1995, p. 5). Volume of interactions is valued, raising questions about whether ‘friends’ really can be considered “specific others”, like those addressed with mediated and face-to-face communications (Thompson 1995, p. 6). Without getting into highly subjective (and heated) arguments about whether Facebook friends represent real relationships, I will make a telling confession: I have, on occasion, seen ‘online-only’ friends in the street, pulled down my hat, thrown on my sunglasses and walked on by.

Quasi-face-to-face, Quasi-mediated, quasi-mediated-quasi-interaction – Facebook has it all! You may find a few rational reasons in this post to reconsider your relationship with the complex beast that is Facebook. And if not, don’t think me more-academic-than thou, even for a second: The true reason I quit Facebook was because all of my coolest friends did!


Thompson, John B 1995, ‘The rise of mediated interaction’ in Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media, California, Stanford University Press, pp. 81-118

Reimagining Media – Three works McLuhan would have loved

I have to admit that I’m not used to writers in the field of sociology who “refus(e) to moralize” (Scannell 2007, p. 135). So my first reading of Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” was deeply frustrating (1964). It wasn’t until I read Paddy Scannell’s ‘gloss’ that I was able to figure out what kind of mind I was trying to scrutinize. McLuhan is at once talkative and obtuse, hyperbolic yet without judgement. The man simply wanted to understand media – he was the first theorist to bother (Scannell 2007, p. 136). In the spirit of ‘McLuhanism’, I present three works which inspire much chin-stroking and verbosity (up to 500 words of course!)

The Road – Cormac McCarthy
While The Road (2006) is a linear narrative, unlike McLuhan’s preferred ‘mosaic’ form (Scannell 2007, p. 139), McCarthy’s tale begins at the apocalyptic ‘end’ of Western civilization. And the uncertainty of the human race at the novels’ end could hardly be called “narrative closure” (Barthes Eco in Scannell 2007, p. 132). McCarthy rejects generic ‘rules’ of syntax, creating an arbitrary system belonging only to him. At times his writing resembles ‘stream of consciousness’, resulting in the “intimate and involving” prose which both McLuhan and his mentor Harold Innis had judged the exclusive property of orality. This example of metafiction brings the author into the reader’s line of sight (Barthes 1967). In a break from Realism, the medium is self-consciously and unapologetically ‘the novel’, not a claim to render a fictional universality with the grossly inadequate written word.

4’33” – John Cage
What is the medium here? Cage’s masterpiece is a metaphysical question about the “formal properties” of silence (Scannell 2007, p. 134). The composition is a sociologist’s dream : hundreds of listeners struggle to maintain a ‘front’ (Goffman in Abercrombie, Hill & Turner 2000) deafened by their inner monologues, willing hungry tummies to be quiet. The original performance was intimately tied to ‘place’ (Scannell 2007, p. 137), the formal setting and its attendant expected behaviours forming a crucial part of the mediation. Recently the piece was reimagined as a charity single for the Royal British Legion; celebrities performed, recorded and then commodified silence. The organisers also ascribed a social value to the project, citing the “poignancy of silence” as a medium of remembrance (Wallop 2010).

The Ascent – Yehuda Duenyas
This interactive installation allows unadulterated, unmediated brainwaves to ‘perform’ a communicable action. Or does it? Is this transcendental ‘evidence’ a form of communication? And does the EEG-driven apparatus change, expand or limit the message? I’m afraid that is a question for a wiser Zen master than I, but what I do know is that McLuhan would have been intrigued. He speaks prophetically about the “final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness”, (Scannell 2007, 135) but this installation pushes Singularity theories to their limit, suggesting that one day humans may have technologically mediated quasi-embodied experiences which defy space and time.


Abercrombie, N, Hill, S, & Turner, BS, 2000, Dictionary of Sociology, Penguin Reference, London, p. 155.

Barthes, R 1967, ‘The Death of the Author’, viewed 6 January 2013, <>.

McCarthy, C 2006, The Road, Alfred. A. Knopf, New York.

McLuhan, M 1964, ‘The medium is the message, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, The MIT Press, Massachusetts, pp. 7-21.

Scannell, P 2007. Media and Communication, Sage, London.

The Ascent 2007, Viewed 6 January 2013,

Wallop, H 2010, ‘Two minutes’ silence released as a charity single’, The Telegraph, viewed 6 January 2013, < >.

Dumb Ways to Disseminate?

I’m a podcast nut. I let podcasts mediate my news, my literature, even my experience of viral marketing. Hardly anything gets to me unfiltered by my medium-du-jour. This is how I initially experienced the Dumb Ways to Die rail safety awareness campaign by Melbourne’s Metro Trains. I’ve been participating in a hyperreal experience of the campaign via ABC’s Common Knowledge (ABC Radio National: Common Knowledge 2012) and analysis on Mumbrella (Hughes 2012 and Mumbrella 2012). They’ve led me to thoughts on virality and the essential interplay between the effects (transmission) and the culturalist (ritual) views of communication.

I often hear advertising creative friends complain about digital briefs which are accompanied by the demand ‘Make it go viral’, as though this can be contrived. Many articles claim that it can, and Carey would probably attribute the action of ‘sharing’ to the cultural view of media, namely creative elements which generate and reflect “fellowship” and “commonality” (Carey 2002, p. 39). But, as Tim Burrowes points out (ABC Radio National: Common Knowledge 2012), awareness campaigns are traditionally for the purpose of saving (or controlling) lives – a function aligned with the effects model. Ritual is harnessed to disseminate, but the measuring of click behaviour seems to have usurped the importance of accounting for offline behavioural change; ‘Effects’ measurements have been amputated at the metrics.

Viral media represents an additional process in the hypodermic model: instead of a central source ‘injecting’ passive receivers (Gitlin 1978, p. 210), the receivers ‘infect’ others. As Carey says, “communication is a process whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people” (Carey 2002, 36). Viral marketing achieves this end exponentially, but I question whether online distribution is enough to affect social and behavioural change: Is sharing-by-click too passive to do the job? Under the culturalist model, sharing would attest to a campaign’s success – and for a branding campaign, a viral result would be more than adequate. This campaign has the potential to save lives, but with efficacy measured in clicks and shares, we may never know if its popularity has averted a death.

Carey hints at the flaw in viral outcomes: measuring effects in numbers alone is just easier. Media pundits have historically congratulated viral marketers on their statistical ‘scorecards’, while questions about cultural influences like demographics are unpopular (ABC Radio National: Common Knowledge 2012). With a viral result, the question of whether a cutesy jingle and some fluffy graphics stack up to the bone-crunchingly graphic ‘offensive’ style awareness campaigns of the past becomes moot. Carey explains the resistance to cultural view of media, saying “This intellectual aversion to the idea of culture derives in part from obsessive individualism” and says that culture “provides ethnocentric error” (Carey 2002, p. 40). It’s easy to see how virality as an end in itself can be very seductive for campaign creators. Record stats achieved amid much peer-gushing? Job done!

Criticism and questioning like that by Hugh Stephens in a subsequent Mumbrella post may hail the eventual maturation of virality as a discrete medium (Hughes 2012). It seems the question finally being asked is not how to transmit the message to the most people in the shortest space of time (transmission), but how to then make those messages stick in the minds of the people who need to hear them most (culture). Dissemination is only part of the equation: culture can be harnessed to distribute a message, but equating “vanity metrics” with social change is a dangerous model of efficacy (Hughes 2012).


Carey, J 2002, ‘A cultural approach to communication’, in McQuail D (ed.), McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory, McQuail, Sage, London, pp. 36-45.

Gitlin, T 1978, ‘Media sociology: The dominant paradigm’, Theory and Society, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 205-253.

Hughes, S 2012, Stop using vanity metrics to measure behaviour change, Mumbrella, viewed 3 January 2013, <>.

Mumbrella 2012, Metro Trains ‘Dumb ways to die’ video goes viral, viewed 3 January 2013, <>.

Radio National: Common Knowledge 2012, Dumb Ways to Die and TLDR, Podcast, viewed 12 December 2012, <;.