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Net Neutrality: Why Some Ideas Go Viral And Some Don't

01/05/2015 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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The AIB (of the Roast fame) have created a video on it. RaGa, in a phase of summer moonshine, has waxed eloquent on it. Even Tharoor, ministerial big wigs, and assorted tech gurus are assembling next week to discuss it. Ten year old Bangalorean school girls are penning blogs on it, for Quartz and no less. Why has a geeky enough topic like Net Neutrality become de rigueur conversation for internet savants and casual users alike? All we need now is the muppets of Galli Galli Sim Sim to start talking about it.

What then makes an idea go viral, and why do some topics like Net Neutrality catch on, while others like cyber security remain the stronghold of smaller groups of subject matter experts.

Jonah Berger, author of the book Contagious and a professor of marketing at Wharton Business School, suggests that ideas go viral because they have social currency, have an external trigger to talk about it, elicit emotions, can be seen, have some practical value, and can be shared across networks in the forms of stories. That is quite a list. But if only getting an idea to become universally talked about were as easy as six clean steps!

True, it makes a ten year old appear cool and intelligent by speaking on the subject, and that in itself is a good story to share. But there is more.

"No one wants to pay for chatting and social networking."

At the recently held LIT.MUS festival in Bangalore, idealistic participants suggested it was the idea of freedom of expression and unfettered speech that was inciting the Indian populace to speak on the matter. We are, after all, one of the largest set of internet users in the world and who would not support openness and fair play?

Like in everything else, money makes the world go round. The old telecommunications incumbents, in a desperate bid to retain revenues and staunch the slide of profits, are doing what scared businessmen have done the world over since times recorded. They are setting up barriers, becoming protectionists, seeking control through embedded regulatory relationships. Just like the ice-carvers of America did in the face of the refrigeration business.

net neutrality

Cynics claim that the uproar for Net Neutrality relates to specific commercial interests of the consumers as well. That really, it is just about WhatsApp and Facebook. No one wants to pay for chatting and social networking. Take the two services away, and users and consumers and the general public may not really care about the ethics and philosophy of open access, or the notions of creative destruction amid the digital players. Fair play will take a back seat. As long as their chatting and networking fix is taken care of, like any addict the general public will not care about the rest of the world.

But that still does not answer the first question - why in the face of issues like drought relief, land reforms, tech perils, and more, would the idea of Net Neutrality take such a centre stage?

The Heath brothers in their book Made to Stick suggest that ideas spread because they are expressed simplistically even when complex, are unexpected, appear credible even when untrue, extract an emotional response and can be related in the form of a story. Given that myths and urban legends and con stories endure, even some bright ideas don't, suggests that there may be intrinsic stylistic elements to the spread of an idea than just merit.

In fact, Seth Godin, marketer extraordinaire has even coined the phrase 'panic marketing' to explain why certain ideas spread because they are not just simple, stylish and visually or emotionally appealing, but they also exploit the fear factor.

"Why would someone create an infographic on Net Neutrality, and why not one on RBI rate cuts."

In fact, in the entire literature of the marketability of ideas, with books, papers, technical monographs written by social scientists, marketing specialists, strategy gurus and academicians, only the simple ones do better. Not the peer reviewed ones that garner intellectual plaudits and get cited in more academic papers; rather the ones with colourful covers and simple diagrams that the creators of aforementioned treatises would condescendingly ignore.

What does this say about the notion of Net Neutrality. Clearly many have attempted to explain it in simple terms so that even a ten year old and her grandmother can have an opinion on it. It has created a panic for sure - resist or empty your purse. It certainly elicits emotions - big bad money-seeking business against the thrifty aam junta. It has been decoded in simple terms, in bright infographics by internet crusaders and hence has become topical and acquired social currency.

Yet, it still leaves me with the original question. Why would someone create an infographic on Net Neutrality, and why not one on RBI rate cuts. Possibly because the deduction in few basis points, while elemental to the economy, remains too complicated for the homemaker to care about. But she certainly does care about her WhatsApp groups and her Facebook profile.

We are back to that age old adage. KISS. Keep it simple and stupid.

In the end, then, my cynical friend wins! It is indeed about chatting and networking, about gossips and cliques.

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