Cultural Latency

pianoThere is a correlation between the amount of time it takes to distribute something, and the amount of time it takes for that thing to have an effect, and consequently the amount of time that thing stays relevant and interesting.

When music was distributed as sheet music—a literally laborious distribution mechanism—popular hits stayed at the top of the charts for years.

When gramophone reproductions were introduced and became a more popular mechanism for distributing music, the half-life of a hit decreased dramatically.

It decreased again each time formats became easier to distribute, for either technological or structural reasons.

Digital distribution removes many of the friction points within the distribution system—making it more efficient, economically speaking.

But this also leads to far more rapid cultural decay rates—sales charts now are driven almost exclusively by novelty—top selling DVDs are just what came out that week.

A recent study by Jonah Berger from the University of Pennsylvania and Gaël Le Mens from Stanford University and Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona have investigated why things become unpopular and shows that fast cultural adoption correlates to equally rapid falling from favor.

In gaming, and network based computing in general, the term that describes the lag between a cause and effect, between the moment when something is initiated and the moment one of the effects, can be perceived is called latency.

The lower the latency, the faster the distant computer responds, the faster you see an effect and can respond and so on. This is a good thing—it means you don't get killed in the game because your character didn't move when you told him to.

ipod girlAs communication technologies become faster and more pervasive, the latency of culture is actually decreasing.

The speed at which people could move used to be the speed at which information traveled—hence the guy who ran the marathon.

Then people on horseback became the speed at which information traveled: the speed at which messages could traverse distances put a limit on the latency of culture, which in turn tended to mean things changed more slowly.

Email enabled messages to travel at the speed of light. This led to things moving faster, things changing faster.

But email is one to one—even if you send it to many people, no one oversees it, which puts a limit on the reduction in cultural latency—and it used to be limited to the desktop.

Now we have millions of eyes all connected to a real-time micro broadcast messaging platform via a mobile device they have with them at all times, and a social eagerness to demonstrate primacy.

Cultural latency is nearing zero, at least in the more connected parts of the world.

Which is going to have some interesting effects, because it creates much faster feedback loops—information, once delivered, is both a reported effect and a subsequent cause, which triggers more effects.

A number of recent events highlight the effects of diminished latency. Swine flu went from unknown, to hysteria, to uninteresting in days. The protests in Iran found a way to reach the world and garner support thanks to twitter—the reactions and support galvanized the populace to continue because they could get real-time responses from the world. The death of Michael Jackson triggered moonwalking flashmobs in London the very same day.

But the Thriller flashmob in Times Square failed to materialize. Jeff Goldblum was forced to confirm his ongoing vitality. Rumor becomes truth after a certain number of reproductions, which can now happen in a heartbeat.

Diminished cultural latency means that the propagation of information is so fast that the spread itself becomes the defining aspect of the system: the rate-of-spread becomes as important as the information itself.

It is in this quick fire culture that the commercial meaning makers—brands and their agents—must operate. In line with the increasing cultural decay rates, the speed of advertising must increase in step—more things must be created more often, to maintain the salience of even a few years ago.

Read more of Faris Yakob's blog on Fast Company

faris-head Faris is Chief Technology Strategist at McCann-Erickson New York. Before that he was the Digital Ninja at Naked Communications. He writes and speaks about brands, media, communication, and technology. You can find him all over the Internet, but his blog—Talent Imitates, Genius Steals —and twitter @faris are good places to start.

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  • Clay Delk

    "...the rate-of-spread becomes as important as the information itself."

    Interesting how much that echoes McLuhan's assertion that "the medium is the message." That was a pretty controversial idea at the time, then sort of fell out of favor, and now seems pretty close again.
    Between that and the cliched 15 minutes of fame, we get some pretty solid predictions of exactly the type of world we're talking about now.