Net Effect

The Savage effect triggers a viral tsunami

As someone who is lucky to travel almost every week but unlucky to do it on a passport that requires a visa to go almost anywhere in the world, I usually feel bad for people who face travel problems. Moreover, I even extend my sympathy to those whom I wouldn’t otherwise even want to share ...

As someone who is lucky to travel almost every week but unlucky to do it on a passport that requires a visa to go almost anywhere in the world, I usually feel bad for people who face travel problems. Moreover, I even extend my sympathy to those whom I wouldn’t otherwise even want to share a plane ride with. Michael Savage, the firebrand conservative radio host, who has recently found his name on the list of people banned from entering the United Kingdom, surely fits that category. While I disagree with everything that Savage says, I think that the best way to prove him wrong is to let him speak and be exposed as a dilettantish populist that he is.

Well, the British government officials think otherwise; they probably haven’t really got the point of all those parliamentary debates. I can easily imagine how a bunch of Oxbridge-educated British bureaucrats reasoned their way through this decision: Savage’s ideas are very offensive and unwelcome in the multicultural and extreme society that Britain aspires to be, so keeping people like Savage away would help to prevent their ideas from gaining currency in the country (even though I do find it strange when a diverse and multicultural society is based on exclusion of people espousing radical views – Savage is a case in point).

So, let me offer one free piece of advice to all other governments: never let people who are ignorant of the inner working of the global public sphere, mediated by the Internet and 24-hour news cycle, make such sensitive decisions. Travel bans may have worked in the pre-Internet age: after all, getting national exposure without touring the nation’s universities and visiting the editorial offices of its leading newspapers may have been impossible, particularly in the class-obsessed Britain.


But these are different times; speaking tours are no longer the most effective way to spread one’s ideas; Twitter and YouTube offer a much cheaper and scalable way to get wide international exposure without ever having to leave your basement (fielding a lot of media requests in light of the Twitter/swine flu meme two weeks ago, I was surprised as to how many TV channels that contacted me were willing to have me self-record my answers via a Web cam).

In the age of cheap and widely accessible self-publishing, all one needs is to catch a viral tide on Twitter, YouTube or Facebook and ride it as long as possible. A decision to ban Savage from entering the UK triggered more than a viral tide – it triggered a viral tsunami, which the man – if he is any smart – would be riding for the next few months, making sure to appear on every semi-important news outlet in the US, UK (have they heard of satellites?), and elsewhere.

Quite predictably, the most likely outcome of this debacle is that Savage would get instantaneous name recognition beyond the United States, with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic having to listen to his oft-quoted but ill-thought sound bites on autism, women’s rights or immigration. A host of conservative and Internet-savvy bloggers are already wasting a lot of bandwidth to rally behind the man. There was also a noticeable spike in Savage-driven Twitter conversations: according to Twist, a Twitter-tracking service, discussions about Savage made up around 0.05% of all Twitter discussions on May 6th, shortly after the British decision was announced (there were almost no Savage-related discussions before that – see the graph below).



Graph: Savage-related discussions explode on Twitter following the news of the travel ban


And even if many of these conversations are nothing but acts of outrage at Britain’s actions and wild speculations on how far liberal organizations like ACLU would go in defending the ultra-conservative Savage, it still helps to attract unnecessary attention to Savage’s ideas that would surely boost his following, at least in the United States.

So if Britain’s original intention was to thwart the circulation of Savage’s ideas they failed miserably. In fact, they have fallen victim to the variation of the Streisand Effect – whereby efforts to censor information backfire and bring only more publicity to it; usually, such attempts take the form of Internet censorship, but, as this past week revealed, travel bans could be as counterproductive. Is it too early to speak of the Savage Effect, whereby efforts to limit the dissemination of information in the analogue form backfire and are trumped by the viral power of the digital communications?


Above all, the British were wrong to think that they would be able to create “Savage-scarcity” by preventing him from travel; in the age of always-on content that exists on YouTube and Twitter, it’s useless to even try to create artificial content scarcity, for it would only boost global demand for the content in question. In other words, a YouTube ban on Savage would be much more effective than any travel ban – but, fortunately for the freedom of expression, Google would not entertain such a ban, at least not any time soon.

Here is the main problem with the new networked public sphere that has emerged to replace our national and mostly self-contained public spheres: when one node on the network blunders, all other nodes have to suffer through the consequences. In this case, the blunder is Britain’s and the rest of us have to suffer from interminable Savage coverage on television and the Internet, as both mainstream media and bloggers feel some desperate urge to air Savage’s juiciest and most offensive quotes over and over again. It’s a real pity that the British authorities still believe in a world that recognizes travel bans; whether we like it or not, the only use of travel bans in the world we currently live in is to trigger viral tsunamis.

One would have thought that Britain would heed the power of the Internet by now: after all, only a few weeks ago the entire British nation had to live through the Susan Boyle phenomenon. I know that the British are known for their insular isolated thinking but they couldn’t help notice that Susan Boyle was also an immediate start outside Britain also. Among other things, the Boyle phenomenon revealed that national television is no longer local; anything that airs and enters YouTube is fair game for the global audience.

Local memes that have a global viral potential cross national borders faster than the speed of light; their source and origin do not matter. What does matter is the powerful narrative contained in these memes: in Boyle’s case, it was her charming but very sad personal history as well as her can-do drive; in Savage’s case, it’s the story of a man who gets in trouble for political speeh. Both are stories that most people can relate to.


The new viral infrastructure – and Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, which are integral parts of the new global viral infrastructure – works wonders in turning these powerful narratives into viral sensations. However, in Boyle’s case, the world got to hear some beautiful music, which is rarely a bad thing; in Savage’s case, the world got to hear another very offensive rant about autism and illegal immigration, for which there was hardly any need. So, just a word of advice to the British government: if you dislike someone’s ideas, simply keep quite about it.


photo by Neil T/Flickr

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