Pierre Bourdieu, Durex and Social Media – Why your Ad has gone Viral

By September 11, 2012blog

How to predict the success of an ad? Why does something travel the whole world and goes viral? Don’t be fooled. There is no such thing as a recipe for success.

But there are some interesting insights that can be found in the concepts and ideas of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). He contradicts his own concepts throughout the different books and essays he published, which makes them pretty rewarding to abuse 🙂

Field, Power and Capital

Bourdieu’s core concept is “a field”, which is an autonomous social space. Society is the principal and most general field. But there are also subfields that can be distinguished. Bourdieu’s most preferred examples are the literary world, the journalistic field, the educational field,… but you could also say that the international Lean community is a subfield, or Belgian agency people form their own subfield.

Within each (subfield) there is a struggle for power, using capital. Bourdieu defines three kinds of capital.

  1. Economic capital: everything that has to do with money and ownership.
  2. Social capital: applies to the network that every individual has within the field.
  3. Symbolic capital: every individual owns less or more symbolic capital. It can be described as honor, prestige, respect, regard, influence.

Symbolic capital can be illustrated by the priest in villages half a century ago. Although he doesn’t have contact with everyone everyday, he exercises (invisible) power through his symbolic capital. People wouldn’t buy bread from a baker who was divorced, fearing the priest would disapprove. The priest exercises power through his symbolic capital on the field “village community”. (very much like Foucault’s concept of Invisible Power and Bentham’s Panoptikon). The priest’s power does not depend on his economic capital, but on a combination of his social and symbolic capital.

How does Bourdieu’s concept are applicable to Social Media?

Although Bourdieu didn’t live up to the birth of social media, they can be interpreted perfectly within his field theory.

First of all, social capital is – in a unique way – shown through the number of followers on Twitter, or the number of friends on Facebook, the number of connections on LinkedIn.

But it is symbolic capital that is paramount when it comes down to spreading content through social networks.

When person A (sender) shares something with his or her network (receiver), you could say he/she does to enlarge their symbolic capital. He/she likes something and hopes that through communicating it to their network (social capital), this network will like the content as well. If so, person A succeeds in enlarging symbolic capital within the network/field.

What makes it even more interesting, is that receivers can operate as senders in their turn, to enlarge their symbolic capital as well, by retweeting or sharing the content with their own network of receivers.

Durex and virality

How does this apply to virality and social media? Only content that facilitates people to enlarge their own symbolic capital, will spread virally through their networks.

When a nutmeg factory only posts newsitems on its Facebook Page, those newsitems need something that will give the opportunity for senders to “shine” because of the content. Just summing up facts won’t do it.

And even if your content has a huge “WOW-factor”, it must be attractive for people to connotate themselves with. Your Durex commercial can be gigantically funny, a rightwing priest will never share is with his network.

Please let me know if you think these concepts are valuable or not in the comments below.


This post is based on a Dutch blogpost I wrote a few years ago, which was based on a talk I gave at a Barcamp in Antwerp. You can find the slides on slideshare.