Expressive Commons

A Purpose-Based Model for Message Dissemination

What does that mean, “A Purpose-Based Model for Message Dissemination”?  And why is it important?

I don’t think it was important a generation ago, but it is now.

Let’s start with message dissemination.  In this context, message refers to any “unit” of self-expression — from a simple facial gesture to a book or opera, or even a multigenerational undertaking like the pyramids.  Dissemination refers to making the message accessible to a wide audience, including people whom the “disseminator” may not personally know (in contrast to one-on-one or private communication).  Message dissemination has been around for a long time (think cave paintings).  Successive technological developments, like the printing press and broadcast media, have enabled dramatic increases in our capacity for disseminating messages.  But, for various technical and political reasons, which (whose) messages get to be disseminated have tended to be filtered by institutionalized gatekeepers, like businesses, governments, and religions, rather than by individuals.  Publishers decide which manuscripts get published; libraries and bookstores decide which published books they’ll buy for their shelves.  These gatekeepers apply their filters with certain purposes in mind, e.g., to persuade, to entertain, to inspire, to inform, to teach, to deceive.  These purposes may be motivated by making money or building reputation or bettering the world.  These purposes may be good, or bad, or neither.  But, in any case, these purposes are usually determined and enforced by the gatekeeping organization or institution, rather than individuals.

But, as we all know, things have changed — in a big way.  Thanks to recent technological developments and emerging social practices, we quite suddenly find ourselves, as Clay Shirky puts it, “living through … the largest increase in expressive capability in human history”.   This increase is manifest in multiple ways: the sheer amount of information (number of messages), the number and diversity of people disseminating messages (“disseminators“), the proliferation of formats and media (both online and offline) with which these messages are disseminated.

Message gatekeepers are still around, and perhaps always will be.  But the information environment is now flush with messages disseminated directly by individuals, as well.  This new environment is often referred to as an “ecosystem”, to better reflect its diverse, dynamic, complex and interdependent nature.  This ecosystem is characterized not only a proliferation of the numbers of messages, of individual disseminators and of media, but also a proliferation of purposes.

Purpose, by its nature, tends to be subjective.  Generally speaking, individuals disseminate messages with some sort of intention or expectation, for some reason of their own.  Since individuals are so unique, it seems reasonable to assume that the proliferation of unique disseminators and messages indicates a proliferation of unique purposes.  These purposes may seem trivial (sharing cute cat pictures or breakfast tweets), or profound (inspiring revolutionary protests).  These purposes may be consciously intended by the originator, or only vaguely perceived. They may be privately known only to the originator, or they may be obvious to everybody. They may represent the disseminator’s original thought, or the disseminator may be forwarding or sharing a message conceived by somebody else.  But, generally speaking, one’s purpose in disseminating a message is personal and subjective.

Will a given disseminator’s particular purpose be satisfied?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  The answer often depends upon the reactions of the recipients of the message — reactions which are themselves subjective.  A novelist may try to evoke an emotional reaction from her readers.  A musician may want to encourage listeners to get up and dance.  An activist may want his tweets to get people to show up for a protest.    In each of these cases, the disseminator has a subjective purpose, the potential satisfaction of which depends upon the subjective reactions of the receivers.

So, a purpose-based model of dissemination must reflect the subjective purpose(s) of the disseminator, as well as how the subjective reactions of the receivers relate to it.  In such a model, the receivers’ reactions — as they relate to the disseminator’s original purpose — can fall into four general types:

  1. Reactions that are congruent with (or satisfy) the disseminator’s purpose.
  2. Reactions that are incongruent with (or oppose) the disseminator’s purpose.
  3. Reactions that are irrelevant to the disseminator’s purpose
  4. No reaction

For instance, imagine a billboard on the highway displaying the message of a political candidate and her pro-life (anti-abortion) stance. The disseminator of the message is the candidate (or the candidate’s campaign committee or whatever).  Let’s assume that the purpose of the ad is basically to persuade eligible pro-life voters to vote for the candidate. The receivers of the message includes all those who are driving down the highway while the billboard is up, and may have any of the four types of subjective reaction described above:

  1. Some people who are sympathetic to a pro-life perspective will have a congruent reaction, saying, “I’ll vote for her”.
  2. Some people who are pro-choice will have an incongruent reaction, saying, “I’ll vote against her”.
  3. Some people will have an irrelevant reaction, like being annoyed at seeing all of the billboards on the highway, blocking the picturesque view.
  4. And some people won’t even notice the billboard at all, having no reaction.

Furthermore, the first three of these types of reaction each contain an element of intensity. In this example, the first two types of reaction (congruent and incongruent), range in intensity from very high (“This is a really important issue to me. Not only am I going to make sure to vote for [or against] her, I’m going to call my friends and family and convince them to do the same.”) to very low (“Her pro-life stance mildly reinforces [or conflicts with] my own view, but I’ve already decided to vote for [or against] her because of her economic policies”). And, in the case of the third type of (irrelevant) reaction, the intensity can be very high (“That’s the last straw! I’m going to organize a citizens’ campaign to get rid of all these damn billboards.”) to very low (“Another annoying billboard… that’s life.”)

These types (and intensity) of reactions can be expressed in the following generalized model, with colors representing type of reaction, and brightness representing intensity.


Purpose-based model for message dissemination 2016-05-18


Using this model, one can imagine how various purposes might be best satisfied by different patterns of reactions.  For example:

  • The political candidate in the example above might seek to:
    • maximize the number of bright blue reactions (bright enough to indicate that the receiver will actually go to the polls and vote). Paler blue reactions (e.g., sympathetic younger citizens who are not old enough to vote) are desirable, but not as important, because short term votes are the coin of the realm.
    • tolerate (and, indeed, expect) a range of pale red reactions (voters she doesn’t expect to convince in any case), but may want to minimize bright red reactions (voters who may become politicized to effectively work against her).
    • minimize the number of grey reactions (she wants her message to be properly understood).
    • minimize the number of white reactions (she wants as many of the passing motorists as possible to notice her billboard)
  • Somebody promoting a social cause, on the other hand, might want to:
    • also maximize bright blue reactions (bright enough to indicate willingness to make a donation, attend a rally, become a member), but may place a relatively higher value on paler blue reactions as well (e.g., having people reconsider their point of view, being curious to find out more) — since social causes are often playing a longer-term game of influencing attitudes at a wide range of levels over time.
    • minimize red, grey and white reactions.
  • A child putting up a poster to find his lost dog, wants just one, bright blue reaction, and doesn’t care about red, grey or white reactions.

Another phenomenon that this model helps illustrate is that disseminators of the “same” message may have different purposes, and thus be satisfied by different configurations of reactions. For instance, imagine that three women place identical rainbow stickers on the rear bumpers of their cars…

  • Eliza has just recently come out as a lesbian. In fact, this sticker is one of her first declarations to the world. Her purpose in putting on the sticker is to “wink” subtly to other lesbians and allies, saying “I’m here, too”. She’s expecting to get some blue reactions (people who would appreciate her wink — and maybe even find a way to wink back). But she hopes to minimize red reactions (e.g., from homophobes, fearing they might harass her or her car). And, as far as grey reactions (people who think a rainbow is just a rainbow) or white (no) reactions, Eliza thinks these are just fine (she’d rather have grey or white reactions than red reactions).
  • Janet has been out of the closet for many years, and has been an active advocate for LGBTQ rights. Like Eliza, her purpose is assertive, but it is also militant. She, too, expects blue reactions from fellow lesbians and allies, but she also welcomes the discomfort, and even anger, that homophobic or intolerant drivers may experience. In Janet’s case, homophobic reactions are not red as they are with Eliza, but blue, since they are also congruent with Janet’s own subjective purposes. It’s hard to imagine what would constitute a red reaction in Janet’s case. But she’d likely want to minimize the number of grey or white reactions.
  • Sandra is straight and, surprisingly, never learned to associate rainbows with gay rights. But she likes rainbows, has noticed them on many other cars, and decided to put the rainbow sticker on her new red Lexus. Her purpose is just to put a little more beauty into the world. Blue reactions for her are all who love color and beauty, and appreciate just the little extra she is providing. But she knows that most people don’t put bumper stickers on their high-end cars (none of her friends have done so), so she also has some trepidation that some of her peers may regard having any bumper sticker on her Lexus as tacky or juvenile (red reactions). And, though she may not have given any thought to it, she’s likely to get quite a few grey reactions from those who incorrectly assume she’s winking gay solidarity.

So, what is the utility of this model?  What good is it?

At a minimum, I (at least) think it provides an interesting way to view the new information ecosystem. But, hopefully, it might also be a tool (or a precursor of tools) to help people think more deliberately about their purpose(s) for disseminating messages, about how they craft the content of their messages, about what media they choose to use, and about how they judge “success” for their efforts.

. . . . . . . . . . .

[change of voice]

So, let’s “bring it home”. I am the disseminator of this message (blog post). What is my purpose? What types of reactions (colors) might I expect?

My purpose is to “come out of my mental closet”, to say out loud, “This is something I’ve thought about, and that I believe is true and meaningful”.  I hope that at least some receivers might find it at least interesting, and any feedback I get may be useful in refining the model and/or further developing the larger project (Expressive Commons) of which it is a part.

  • Blue reactions: I suppose that anybody reading this and finding it the least bit interesting would be blue. If I never hear from them, it would be a rather pale blue, but blue nonetheless, because I genuinely would like to spread my ideas.  Of course, if I hear back from any recipients, the blue would be much brighter, particularly if they were to respond positively, or provide useful feedback, stories, or references to related resources.  I think that even contrary comments, disagreements, or findings of flaw would also be blue — even if they were more difficult for me to read. I am confident that I’m onto something genuine here (even if crudely stated) and I’m not so thin-skinned that I can’t handle some criticism, which I believe would hone my thinking about this.
  • Red reactions: I suppose that reactions which indicated that this model was completely obvious, totally stupid or completely useless might sting, and feel “red”. But this seems rather unlikely.
  • Grey reactions. Spammers (or spambots) who seize upon the opportunity of any blog post to leave spam comments would be grey, as would somebody who asked, “why are those colored balloons floating sideways?”
  • White reactions. People could certainly read this post and have no reaction, or start to read it an abandon it quickly as being uninteresting or irrelevant to them.

My blog posts always generate grey and white reactions. Will this one generate any blue or red ones?


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