The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World: The Power of Attraction
October 2004

by Terry Heaton

I was hopelessly naive when I was young, as I think most kids were who grew up in the '50s. My father's growing up speech ("Terry, you're at that age where hair is going to start growing in strange places.") didn't equip me to handle the girls with whom I so easily fell in love. I also wasn't equipped to handle the girl in the pink halter top who tried to seduce me at one of our concerts. "I just LOVE banjo players." Yikes! I ran.

Seduction, I have since learned, is a power game. It's remarkably simple, yet complex in its rules, and, of course, some are better at it than others. Here's the essence of the game:

I want you to want me more than I want you.

Most people attribute the word to the dating scene, but seduction takes place in every walk of human life. It's an important word in discussing anything associated with the media, because mass marketers are doing their best to seduce all of us with a relentless stream of winks and smiles. The truth is they want us more than we want them, and the trick for them is to turn that around. An enormous industry is based entirely on this concept.

Attraction is certainly a part of seduction, but there's an important difference that often goes unnoticed or certainly unacknowledged. One can only MAKE himself or herself attractive up to a point. Ultimately, the attraction decision (consciously or unconsciously) is made by the one being courted. This decision is the target of seduction, and it's where the media status quo is most threatened by the empowerment of the individual in our increasingly Postmodern world. Technology is only the catalyst in the cultural shift underway. People are what's really driving it all, and that's why the power of attraction is so crucial to future media success. Mass marketing exists in a one-to-many world, whereas attraction works on a level of many-to-one. This may seem like splitting semantic hairs, but the difference is really quite profound.

In the Postmodern worldview, people are united through the concept of tribes, where attraction takes center stage. This is difficult to grasp from a Modernist perspective which, it is fair to say, includes just about all of us because we're blocked by logic and history. The word conjures up images of human beings living in groups on river banks before Caucasians arrived in North America, villages with a chief in charge.

tribe n 1 group of (esp. primitive) families or communities linked by social, religious, or blood ties, and usually having a common culture and dialect and a recognized leader. 2 any similar natural or political division. 3 usu. derog set or number of persons, esp. of one profession etc. or family. (Oxford)

The problem with any purely Modernist understanding is that it can limit what's possible, and, therefore, this cultural shift is taking place largely beyond our comprehension. If we don't see it, it must not be there. We either ignore the reality entirely, then, or we attempt to assign logical interpretations that make us feel comfortable in our ignorance.

A case in point is the discussion currently underway regarding the influence of bloggers and the blogosphere a remarkable Postmodern development. Attempts to assign rankings to various blogs to determine their influence are based on the hierarchical (and therefore Modernist), mass-marketing concepts of reach and frequency. Traditional journalists fear bloggers are whacking their fatted calf, and many bloggers are actually joining in this misdirected fear-cum-anger. The ensuing debates over credentialed versus uncredentialed, opinion versus objectivity, checks and balances, echo chambers, and most importantly who has the greater ability to influence the masses, all lock the debaters into purely Modernist arguments. In so doing, the point is missed entirely, and that is that influence in a Postmodern world is entirely the opposite of convention. Individuals now determine their own influences. Think about that for a minute. Do you ever wonder why nothing you try seems to be working anymore? There's your answer.

The Democratic National Convention introduced bloggers to the world of political conventions for the first time. In fact, it was one of the big stories of the convention. Stories about this band of renegades descending on Boston were everywhere, and now we're in the process of deciding what value, if any, the blogosphere brought to political journalism.

A few of my favorite bloggers were there, including Jay Rosen and David Weinberger. I'm so familiar with each that it was like having trusted friends present, people through whom I could let my guard down enough to actually look inside the Fleet Center.

Jay Rosen and David Weinberger are members of my tribe MY tribe. They don't know this, of course, and that's fine, for the first rule of Postmodern tribalism is that each individual gets to choose his or her own tribe members. In that sense, each person is their own tribal leader and that role is absolute, because one isn't subject to group-think, being out-voted, or submission to any form of hierarchy. Tribe members don't have to acknowledge membership or even be aware of it. The make-up of the tribe is ever-evolving and amoebic.

Bloggers, therefore, function in tribal membership roles, not leadership. This is contrary to Modernist notions of influence, because the power of influence lies in the hands of those being influenced. Hence, conventional rules and roles don't apply, and that leads to the second rule of Postmodern tribalism: attraction is the defining dynamic of influence.

Weinberger gets this where many don't. "Weblogs filter readers," he writes, "the way people filter friends. That is, to the extent to which a Weblog is a personal expression leaving out some of the more "professional" blogs the Weblog attracts readers for the same sorts of reasons that people make friends. Mass media write for mass audiences. Bloggers write for people who know them."

I'm regularly jolted by the things complete strangers say to me as a result of my own Weblog. Clearly, I am a part of many tribes, few of which I have any knowledge of whatsoever. However, I am keenly aware that there is something about the content of my blog that brings certain people to it. I know this, because I've done little to "market" myself in the tradition sense. I have a mailing list made up entirely of people who've asked to be a part of it, but that's about it. The blogosphere has its own way of promoting, and I'm content to just let that happen. The best and smartest thing I can do is get out of the way. This is the concept of attraction that is so difficult for hierarchical Modernists to understand. It's just too, well, random.

It's also at the heart of attempts by some to "rank" bloggers based on influence, as defined in terms of reach and frequency. Bloggers each reach certain people, the argument goes, who then reach others, and so on down the pyramid (the masses, it seems, always live at the bottom of some pyramid). Companies who offer ads to bloggers, like Blogads, are betting on this paradigm, and many bloggers are hoping it will form the essence of a business model for them. It may or it may not, but this is an example of applying top-down (Modernist) thinking to an innovation that is clearly bottom-up, and blogs and bloggers who function this way are nothing more than another form of hierarchical media. If they continue, they will ultimately be replaced by others who aren't so inclined, for in adopting this perspective, bloggers are trading the concept of conversations for just another bully pulpit. What is the message, after all, from those who provide site statistics to their readers if not to point out their position on the pyramid?

In life, there is intended influence and unintended influence. The former is the work of, among others, journalists, entertainers, PR flacks, advertisers, politicians and all sorts of bullies. The latter is that which resonates within, a picture that inspires, the voice of a friend, human touch, a laugh, a right word spoken in time of need. The line between them cannot be deliberately bridged, for the right to be unintentionally influenced belongs to the individual, and that is powerfully enabled by the Internet.

One of the lessons that the Net is teaching marketers is that this law of attraction can be successfully used to market products and services in unconventional ways. The best example is the growing understanding and use of viral marketing. This is a new industry built on what appears to be a chaotic foundation that people will carry your message for you if given a compelling vehicle. You don't "buy" rating points, page views or any other scientific measurement with a viral campaign. You simply put it out there and let it happen. You can test it until the cows come home, but the overriding issue in any viral campaign is faith.

People are seduced by viral campaigns, not hit over the head. It is the power of attraction at work, and it offers an important reminder for those of the blogosphere who are trying to figure out (read: control) where this is all going. The pyramid has been inverted, and the people are now in charge.

Disruptive technologies are empowering individuals far beyond anything we've ever known before. This is either true or it isn't (it is). If it is true, then the relationship between buyer and seller can only produce a buyer's market. This is true whether you're a blogger, The New York Times, Proctor & Gamble, or a local television station. Our energies need to stay focused on making ourselves more attractive on every level instead of wasting our time and resources on clever ways to promote ourselves.

We may just find that, in the game of seduction, the best strategy is often to stop wanting the other so much. That can be very attractive.

© Terry Heaton