…or, I Started Writing About Something Else, Then I Had An “Oh, Shit!” Moment

One of the occupational hazards of having a tween daughter is the new exposure I have to pop music. No curmudgeon I, pop music does instill a certain youthful kick to the workaday car ride.
But some of those vaporous, gossamer tunes get stuck in your head, uninvited like a migraine. And, like a migraine, they eventually go away if only because they are crowded out by something even more insipid.

Marketers strive to turn their client’s messages into memes much as labels and artists mine for hits; even for a pro the yield is generally pretty meager. But all it takes is one to make a difference in someone’s day.

The next phase of “meme” needs to be an experience that capitalizes on the strengths of the Internet, and can be easily shared by millions across large distances very quickly. The Internet is nothing if not a decentralized broadcasting infrastructure. Radio stations can play any type of programming they choose, but they all largely do the same things because those are the things that pay money. The time is ripe for a new kind of experience to be created expressly for the web that provides the same kind of near-universal resonance as pop music.

Hint: it’s not porn or Angry Birds, and won’t come from some ad agency.

About 3 minutes after finishing that last sentence, right as I opened my Fast Company daily email and read about the web game “Spent“, the aforementioned “Oh, shit!” moment happened.

Spent is a web-based game that, like many simulators, provides inputs that the user can manipulate to control the output, like choose your own adventure. Except this adventure is a true-to-life depiction of what it’s like to live below the poverty line in the US. As Fast Company describes it:

Spent casts players as a newly unemployed, middle-class worker searching for a job after the Great Recession. You face the next month with only $1,000 in the bank. When the financial math doesn’t add up, players face gut-wrenching decisions: do I pay for health care, or the rent? Fill up on gasoline or take your pet to the vet? Players must ask their friends though Facebook to borrow money in a crunch to see what’s it like to ask.

The game presents situations that are not hypothetical, but reflect the lives of those left homeless and are seeking assistance through the Urban Ministries of Durham, which sponsored the game. Thus far, more than 1.5 million people have played the game, and it continues to grow in popularity. Most importantly, there is a link to an online petition to members of Congress to have them play the game so they can experience first-hand what impact their non-action on Capital Hill has on poorer Americans.

It’s heavy stuff, but it is immersive, engaging, and thought-provoking. It is also freely available – ironically – to those who are not in the situation the game portrays.

Not into the social justice thing? Twitter buddy Ray Page, Creative Director at ZAAZ in Seattle tweeted “You vs. John Paulson” and it is another thought-provoking winner:

How long does it take super-trader John Paulson to earn your annual income?

You enter your income – or any income – and see how many days – or hours – it takes John Paulson to earn what you earn. It’s kind of funny, but it also (for me, anyway) brought forth a little daydreaming about dealing with that much income flowing through my personal system. Thoughts ranged from “What would I even buy?” to “No, I wouldn’t quit my job…nothing would change.” (Yeah, right…)

Spent and You vs. John Paulson are a lot of things. Above all, they might just represent the “next thing” in what a runaway popular online activity could be. Now that I think about it, maybe Farmville wasn’t too far off the mark (although I’ve never played it and probably never will). Perhaps the answer is that the Internet can do something that radio and all forms of advertising could never do: provide a feedback loop.