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Spreading Alerts in Egypt and Elsewhere

June 18, 2015

When people keep getting warnings but nothing ever happens... they just start ignoring them.

When people keep getting warnings but nothing ever happens… they just start ignoring them.

One of the interesting things about living as an expatriate in Egypt and India was that you received frequent warning messages telling you that the embassy has intelligence that something might happen and so you should limit yourself to necessary travel. We seemed to get one or two of these per week.

And nothing ever seemed to happen.

So travelers and expatriates alike routinely deleted alerts unread because the sheer quantity of them created a lack of credibility.

I was reminded of this recently because someone asked me about the advisability of using social media to send out alerts and warnings about health issues.

And I thought: one of the silly things institutions keep trying to do  is to seek to use social media to do the kinds of things that broadcast media do well:

  • disseminate information,
  • circulate advertising,
  • distribute propaganda

In broadcast media, you have a center where messages are created, and a mass audience whose only common feature may be the broadcast media they consume.

When we try to imagine social media performing the functions of a broadcast media, like sending alerts, the process immediately appears to be problematic because:

  • The audience is fragmented by multiple platforms or applications that operate differently. Professors check their e-mail every ten minutes but college students only once a day. People who adore Instagram may ignore Facebook.
  • Audiences are further fragmented by selectivity. The sheer quantity of platforms and sources of information require selectivity on the part of their producers, and many platforms have algorithms to preselect what people to see and hear based on their stated or unstated preferences. Even e-mail, a form of social media that closely resembles broadcast, is subject to many of these constraints.

Of course, people are always selective about the media they consume, but this selectivity occurs within a media ecology with both infrastructural and social constraints. To some extent, it is preselected for them by availability–what kinds of media exist in my locale, what media can I afford to subscribe to, and so forth. And to some extent, their choices are socially determined.

Then and Now

It was easier to get alerts out to a mass audience when there were only three networks and PBS...

It was easier to get alerts out to a mass audience when there were only three networks and PBS…

In the US when I was a child, there were three TV  networks, most people could receive a handful of radio stations, and most cities were served by one large newspaper and one or two free, advertising heavy “arts and entertainment” newspapers.

When I worked as a public relations specialist for a medium-sized non-profit institution, we followed what had evolved into a formulaic process used throughout the country: we would send out two press releases for every even, one in a newspaper style meant to be revised and used as news copy in print material, and one intended to be read aloud. We sent them to about 40 venues and tracked an average of 12 media using them (about 30%). Although we saturated the local and regional media, it would be quite possible for someone who read one newspaper, watched one local TV news channel and listened to a radio station to completely miss our news event depending on who chose to pick up or not pick up our alerts.

I’ve written about the way that in places like New Delhi, where there may be 40+ daily newspapers, audiences segment along many different lines of social cleavage–particular kinds of newspapers are associated with particular kinds of people, distinguished by class, education, language, age, gender, religious community and caste.

In Egypt, although the free television of the airwaves is government controlled, there has been a growing nongovernment  cable news media. Even so, the number of broadcast and distribution centers remains finite, and the nature of the media ecology is such that one can reach all of them, negotiate with (or pay) content gatekeepers and get your message out in more-or-less the form you want it.

Everybody Is A Gatekeeper

In the digital media, segmentation follows entirely different patterns because there are few centers with gatekeepers with whom to negotiate. Aggregation centers from which many people share across their networks to other platforms exist (Daily Beast, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed) but the popularity (and thus reliability) of these tends to ebb and flow.

In the link ecology, everyone is a gatekeeper, choosing what content they want to share with their networks, and what content they do not wish to share with their networks.

In addition, content has the possibility of being remediated, either by being (re)framed through comments people add as they share, or by shifting the content from one platform to another (as when someone encounters something on a news web site and decides to share it to Facebook, or pin it to Pinterest.

To further muddy the waters, it appears that social rules governing what kinds of information people believe they should spread across what kinds of platforms are unstable and shifting; recent unpublished work I’ve seen from ad agency research, and interview data by Ilana Gershon (2010) suggests that in the US, at least, people who fall into identical demographic categories may have dramatically different ideas about what kinds of media channels to use for what kinds of purposes.

The whole field of public relations has accordingly changed as institutions try to figure out what media platforms to create and maintain, and how to create content that will be shared from those platforms to multiple, expanding networks.

Spreading the Word

Search on Slideshare and you will find dozens of decks offering a prescription, most of which end with a slide giving contact information for the consulting firm that created them, offering to tailor-make you a solution for your business.

Search on Slideshare and you will find dozens of decks offering a prescription, most of which end with a slide giving contact information for the consulting firm that created them, offering to tailor-make you a solution for your business.

So how can an institution frame messages so that they spread with maximal efficiency?

This is, of course, the million dollar question, and if I had an answer to it I would make a fortune as a consultant. Indeed, there are many purported answers. Search on Slideshare and you will find dozens of decks offering a prescription, most of which end with a slide giving contact information for the consulting firm that created them, offering to tailor-make you a solution for your business.

But there do seem to be some generic trends that emerge:

  1. First, experience-near messages are important. People share messages that validate, or speak to their experiences. An alert or warning that is las localized as possible, is more likely to spread (example: I don’t subscribe to weather alerts but I know people who live far across the country from me who do, and who will send alerts about my areas weather to me, or post to Facebook with me tagged in the message).
  2. Second, simple, straightforward messages serve best. The shorter and more pointed the message, the more likely it is to be shared.
  3. Third, people share material they deem funny. Not sure you could do much with that if we are talking about warnings.
  4. Fourth, widely shared messages usually incorporate, or are accompanied by, strong images. Indeed, without a captivating image, alerts may never be shared to graphically-based sites like Instagram or Pinterest.
  5. Finally, the messages should not be overused. When new warnings are posted every week, people become inured to them and stop spreading them. To be effective, they must be used sparingly.

Initial distribution generally takes place by posting the messages to your own social media sites, which you have managed so as to have strong links to other sites with high user value (news sites, aggregation sites).

But there are other possibilities. One could imagine creating a network of thousands of people who pledge to share immediately any warnings they receive. This is a growing and changing field for which there are as yet no formulaic answers.

Bottom Line

All human beings are persons in relation to other persons—they are social networks. If we see social media as extending and facilitating this, we realize that social media is not broadcast but spread. People are connected in part according to who shares what with whom.

Every user of social media who receives an alert is capable of spreading that alert or not. Whether or not they do so—and whom they choose to share with—will depend on how they perceive the credibility, urgency and relevance of the alert. Social media is much more like an old fashioned grapevine—a gossip chain—where we hear our alerts from people about whom we have some knowledge and thus whose credibility we can evaluate.

This requires entirely different ways of framing alerts so that they are spread with maximal efficiency. And there are likely to be institutional constraints on how to construct appropriate messages that inhibit the very things that might make such messages the most spreadable among particular networked populations.


Gershon, Ilana. 2010. Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: Media Switching and Media Ideologies. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20: 389–405.

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