Is Extreme Economics Infecting Social Media?

The times are a changin' in social media.

In her fascinating book “The Watchman’s Rattle,” Rebecca Costa talks about a super meme known as “extreme economics.”

For those unfamiliar with the concept of memes (rhythms with “seems”) they are units of cultural transmission or imitation and like real genes they compete for survival, some winning and others dying out.  They also evolve with time.  Super memes are those beliefs and ideas that become so ubiquitous that they direct the way we think and behave as a culture and a society – without society really knowing that the meme is in place.

One example of a super meme is religion – a belief so ingrained in culture and society that few question it.

In her book, Costa identifies another super meme “extreme economics.”  As Costa explains this is the super meme where “we begin applying the strategies we use to succeed in business to the other areas of life.”  For example, in healthcare or government.  If something isn’t economically viable or doesn’t have a business model attached to it, society simply won’t embrace it even if it will benefit everyone.

We can see this meme in action with alternative energy.  For example, we already have the technology available to operate automobiles with electricity or hydrogen, yet we haven’t widely adopted these extremely beneficial technologies because they the cost would be too high to replace the cheaper gasoline economy we currently have.  These alternatives simply lack a strong economic incentive so they are not widely accepted.

I’d like to offer up the observation that the “extreme economics” super meme has invaded and is changing – quite drastically – social media and social networks.

Social media was once thought of as a media for the masses.  Anyone with an internet connection could create a blog or open a social network account and begin to publish content – opinions, articles, fiction, photography, drawings, videos, graphic design, etc.  There were few forms of content that couldn’t be published and instantly shared – for free.

However, in the last couple of years the desire to “share” and “create” in the name of expression has quickly been dwarfed and overrun by “extreme economics.”  We are moving toward “paid” media – rather than social media. While some commentators, like Tom Foremski of the Silicon Valley Watcher, worry that social media is being taken over by corporate voices, I worry that many of the top social media content creators are already turning themselves into corporations.

The signs are everywhere:

  • Bloggers in greater numbers than ever are demanding that they be compensated for writing posts about the topics they used to cover for free (or because they were passionate about it).  The idea of making money with a blog isn’t new, but the desire for an economic model among amateur bloggers has become nearly ubiquitous.  Blogging organizations like BlogHer provide tips and how-to on monetizing blogging – through advertising, affiliate marketing and paid sponsorships.  Bloggers are now asking for direct compensation from the companies and brands that they write about.
  • Video stars at YouTube are monetizing their followings by reaching out to brands to create more sponsored content than ever. Sponsored content has become a trend.  There are even companies out there that specialize in making videos go viral – for the right price.
  • Power users at social news sites like and Reddit are become more brazen in soliciting brands and companies to pay them directly to push content into their communities – and they rarely disclose these relationships.  There are even companies that sell guarantees for front page stories on these sites. Efforts by to fix or make it difficult for these users to game the system have been met with hostility.
  • Twitter users with large followings (many celebrities) are charging a premium for their own sponsored tweets – basically sponsored content with a link to a brand site.
  • Popular content on social networking sites are being developed in greater numbers by paid professionals – either from entertainment companies or from the marketing and advertising arms of corporations.  The content that you think is being created by amateurs is actually produced by professionals and made to look grassroots.

What do you think?  Was it inevitable that bloggers and other content creators on social media platforms would demand payment?  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  Or does it even matter?  Does it matter to you if content is sponsored or if a blogger was paid to write a blog post?  And how should brands react?  Should they pay for content and syndication?

All questions everyone in the industry will be wrestling with in the months and years to come.


“The Watchman’s Rattle” at

Wikipedia entry on

2007 story in TechCrunch on secrets of making a video go viral

Silicon Valley Watcher “Social Media is Not Corporate Media”


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