If Luther Had Twitter

There was a time when the word “viral” meant the plot of a new novel by Michael Crichton revolving around some weird, rapidly spreading disease that threatens the very existence of our world.

Then the Internet arrived and “viral” took on a new connotation.

No need to go into detail but we all remember the dancing baby (pre-YouTube), Psy, the Korean sensation (who disappeared like a disease after a dose of antibiotics), cats peeing on shoes (always a great share) and a myriad of other one-night wonders that punched way above their true cultural weight as “traditional” media reverse-megaphoned and inflated their importance.

I won’t bother commenting, here, on companies that demand the creation of “virals” or on people who actually still use the term as a measure of success.

Nor will I comment, here, on the strange dichotomy of a culture of micro-targeting that also worships the free-ranging spread of so-called “viral” that have little or nothing to do with the most rudimental audience alignment.

No. My interest is in understanding the dynamics of sharing, human interaction, media amplification, and the difference between ephemeral promotion and lasting cultural change.

To that end I will start with Luther and end with Wendy…I hope you are intrigued enough to follow on…

…. After decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.

Now many will think I am describing the Arab Spring of a few years ago…and I could be. But I’m not.

No…I am talking about Martin Luther and the beginning of the Reformation and the following article in The Economist is nourishing food for hard thought:

The start of the Reformation is usually dated to Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517. The “95 Theses” were propositions written in Latin that he wished to discuss, in the academic custom of the day, in an open debate at the university.

…Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

Think about that…14 days…in 1517…While I have no way of actually comparing and quantifying, I would stake a bet on it being the equivalent and better of any digital “viral” of today.

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518.

Millions of Luther’s pamphlets were printed and shared – enough to cause a stir today – and recreated in woodcuts and ballads – “music and images” in our parlance– and discussed in taverns and other public public places. Luther went from unknown theologian to heretic to founder of a new and powerful denomination.

And in what was possibly the first hint of viral:

The papal bull threatening Luther with excommunication in 1520 said its aim was “to cut off the advance of this plague and cancerous disease so it will not spread any further.” The Edict of Worms in 1521 warned that the spread of Luther’s message had to be prevented, otherwise “the whole German nation, and later all other nations, will be infected by this same disorder.”


And as my readers know…I am obsessed with understanding the origins and dynamics of behavior to understand how to make the most of our amazing and powerful digital world.

The article from The Economist concludes:

Modern society tends to regard itself as somehow better than previous ones, and technological advance reinforces that sense of superiority. But history teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun. Robert Darnton, an historian at Harvard University, who has studied information-sharing networks in pre-revolutionary France, argues that “the marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past — even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the internet.” Social media are not unprecedented: rather, they are the continuation of a long tradition. Modern digital networks may be able to do it more quickly, but even 500 years ago the sharing of media could play a supporting role in precipitating a revolution. Today’s social-media systems do not just connect us to each other: they also link us to the past.”

And I’d argue that the past connects us to a better future.

What could any of us learn from Luther? Again, from The Economist:

Many pamphlets called upon the reader to discuss their contents with others and read them aloud to the illiterate. People read and discussed pamphlets at home with their families, in groups with their friends, and in inns and taverns. Luther’s pamphlets were read out at spinning bees in Saxony and in bakeries in Tyrol. In some cases entire guilds of weavers or leather-workers in particular towns declared themselves supporters of the Reformation, indicating that Luther’s ideas were being propagated in the workplace. One observer remarked in 1523 that better sermons could be heard in the inns of Ulm than in its churches, and in Basel in 1524 there were complaints about people preaching from books and pamphlets in the town’s taverns. Contributors to the debate ranged from the English king Henry VIII, whose treatise attacking Luther (co-written with Thomas More) earned him the title “Defender of the Faith” from the pope, to Hans Sachs, a shoemaker from Nuremberg who wrote a series of hugely popular songs in support of Luther.

The Arab Spring, by contrast, passed us by like a hot desert wind in part because the media amplification wasn’t about the content but about the event and the self-congratulatory story of digital social media…a story that has been debunked by many since.

But now let me fast-forward from Luther to Wendy…or more accurately to Wendy’s.

First, full disclosure…the story I share refers to one of our own group companies, VML, and I think it makes the case for the power of understanding how to use digital social media, today, in a powerful and non-self-conscious manner…in other words not setting out to create “viral” Digibabble but rather to have fun and support a great brand story and sell product.

The Ellen DeGeneres–staged spontaneity was the “most tweeted selfie” — it kicked off at the Oscars — until this Nevada teenager tweeted at Wendy’s “Yo @Wendys Hhw many retweets for a year of free chicken nuggets?” Wendy’s responded “18M”…

TheNextWeb shares the story:

He then went on an aggressive campaign of asking for retweets from friends and celebrities alike, which bore rich fruit. Before long, #NuggsforCarter was a trending campaign with t-shirts, and Carter was appearing on TV shows. There was a #NuggsforCarter emoji on Twitter, and Wendy’s followed the campaign closely, responding every time he hit a major number.

Bottom line: Carter won’t be remembered like Luther, nor will his nugget victory lead to a reformation – but then no one ever pretended it would…and while a month from now few will care…so what! It served its purpose and on to the next…

The lesson?

Stop trying so hard!!!

Learn from Luther and Wendy’s…

  1. Serendipity creates most of the most powerful moments…be ready to pounce and exploit them
  2. Paying for the seeded moment is not authentic…be genuine
  3. Kill the Digibabble approach…understand when media is creating a bigger effect than your social graph
  4. Not every share starts a revolution…
  5. Learn and pivot as necessary

And just to keep us all a bit humble as we contemplate social media in the age of Luther contrasted to the age of Wendy’s, listen:

“Digital data are more fragile than printed material.” –Robert Darnton

Now that is, I hope, food for thought and contemplation.

What do you think?


Related posts: