In 1862, the Homestead Act was passed in the US – it gave settlers 160 acres of land.
The idea was to get the population to spread west into the vast open plains.
The settlers wanted their 160 acres fenced in so they could grow crops without having them trampled or eaten.
The distances were vast and ordinary wire fences would just get knocked over.
So in 1874, Joseph Glidden patented a process for mass-producing barbed wire.
Pretty soon he was selling more than three million pounds of it a year to the settlers.
With the distances between the farms so vast, the settlers rarely ever saw another soul.
True, the phone had been invented, but nobody could afford one.
Even if they could, it wouldn’t matter – it didn’t make sense for the phone companies to run cables over all that distance for so few users.
Which is when the farmers found a use for all those miles and miles of barbed wire.
They hooked up old wooden box telephones to it and used it as phone cable.
Of course it was crude, you couldn’t just dial a number, but that didn’t matter.
It was a way for everyone to connect to each other, everyone could listen in all-at-once or separately.
If you were lonely, you just joined in with whoever was on it.
If you needed help urgently, you didn’t have to travel hours into town, you just asked whoever was closest to pass the message on.
If you wanted the news but couldn’t afford a radio, you listened in at a certain time every day – someone would read the newspaper over it.
At other times, people who could play the banjo or fiddle would link up and have a rough-and-ready sing-song.
You might have a particular signal for certain friends, three long or three short rings, which would signal who you wanted to pick up and that it was private.
It might sound annoying to us, the lack of privacy, but remember these people had never had a phone, no radio, no TV, no way to contact the outside world.
But they found a way to turn a lifeless object like barbed wire into a community, and it continued well into the 1950s.
Because people wanted to talk, and they found a way to make it happen.
A bunch of experts sitting in an office didn’t say: “I’ve got an idea, let’s make barbed wire that can double up as a telephone line.”
The hardware wasn’t made because experts envisioned its communication possibilities.
Ordinary people wanted to share language, so they found a way to make it happen.
That’s what we should remember if we want our work to go viral.
The main thing people want to share is language.
That’s why purely visual, international award-winning ads don’t go viral.
At international awards, everyone on the jury speaks a different language.
So the ads with the best chance of winning will be purely visual.
But visuals don’t go viral because people can’t repeat visuals like language.
Words are what gets passed on, so words are what goes viral.
It’s crucial for us to remember that if we want our work to go viral.
People adapted barbed wire as a means of using words.
Right now what I’m using is words, not pictures.
Of course visuals are essential, but what gets repeated is words not pictures.
That’s how people communicate.
We are in the communications business.
If we don’t start with what works, we are in the wrong business.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three