Graham Plaster

culture + diplomacy + ethics + smart power + technology + humanities + entrepreneurship + philosophy

Hero Cults, Brand Evangelism & Core Values in Virtual Communities

Initially, a  hero cult in Homeric Greece referred to men who fought on either side during the Trojan War.  Later the word came to mean specifically, venerated dead men.

A hero was more than human but less than a god.

He or she was a founder with a founding myth. It is interesting to note that Greek hero-cults were different from clan-based ancestor worship.  Ancestor worship was more of a local phenomenon rooted in the land of a family.  The hero cult by contrast, was more thematic, and loosely tied to land. It might span more than one locality. In some cases, the names of the heroes were forgotten while their virtues remained as cultural centerpieces. The hero-cult was eventually co-opted by the city-state as a political tool.

Why is this important?

Our online communities nowadays hold together on the strength of a few rather intangible qualities (at least one and most likely most of these):

  1. the quality of the community (friends, friends of friends, followers, haters, trolls…)
  2. the quality of the content (personally curated, impersonally curated, spam…)
  3. the user experience (beautiful, fun, interesting, addictive, sharable … or not)
  4. leadership (enforces the protocols of the community)
  5. a cult of personality (exudes the values of the community)

While there is some overlap here, I want to hone in on the last one since it is often overlooked.  Everybody knows that Steve Jobs has a cult of personality perhaps even more since his death.  Apple fan boys and girls heart Jobs.  Contrast that with the failed mash-up of Ellen Pao into the role of CEO at Reddit.  Apparently, she should have been a perfect symbol for the community but things imploded and she became the scapegoat. Why?  Perhaps there was no cult of personality that could have survived the Reddit community’s vitriolic pluralism.  Add it to a long list of failed experiments in human nature’s ability to self govern.

A near perfect cult of personality for a virtual community would probably have to be Taylor Swift because she manages to make personal contact with fans and maintain a positive culture.  Similarly, the Obama administration began as a highly skilled meme of Hope aided by former Facebook staff (since then the meme has eroded a bit via forces of realpolitik).

In these situations star power is achieved through meeting a number of conditions – beauty, talent, timing, intelligence, work, money, spectacle, personality … and there are others.  None of these guarantee star power, but for those that achieve celebrity status, there is usually that star quality.

The greatest obstacle for achieving star power is not lack of money, it is withering satire.  This has always been true, but is especially true now because we live in such a media saturated environment.

In the past, if the king was displeased with the court jester, then off with his head.  Nowadays, if the jester is displeased with the king of the hour, then off with the king’s  head (read: reputation).

Not all press is good press, and not all pain makes one stronger. While star-power is often closely linked to media dominance and money.  This can be upset by viral media on a shoe-string budget (Viral media as such only gets more viral when combined with celebrity and money).  Unfortunately, star power can be mutually exclusive from leadership and and electability can be mutually exclusive from character.

In Plato’s Republic, the state is compared to a ship where some are skilled at navigating and some are skilled at taking control of the ship.  The two skills are not the same.

Nowadays, a cult of personality is about brand evangelism.  The role of the modern CEO is as Chief Story Teller – someone who relates the vision and values of the company to the public in a way that makes it worth your participation.  The CEO sets the culture of the company.  Hopefully they can also lead the company to success, but one does not guarantee the other.


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