The Social Overton Window

by Jay Deragon on 06/03/2011

Social media is causing markets to react to the open discourse about everything, anything, everyone and anyone. It is the open discourse and reactions that create “windows” of public sentiment towards everything.

The Overton window is a concept in political theory, named after its originator, Joseph P. Overton. It describes a “window” in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on a particular issue.

At any given moment the “window” includes a range of discourse acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, with “acceptable” defined as something people can recommend without being considered too “extreme” or outside the mainstream to gain or keep public support.

When the window moves or expands, it means that ideas previously not considered publicly acceptable have become so, and possibly that ideas previously considered acceptable are no longer.

The Social Overton Window

All things social are just beginning to gain mass market acceptance. However the first acceptance is still at the early stages of understanding of the related dynamics. Ideas and innovative approaches to the use of social technology fuel the intrigue and pull more of the public into the dialog. The degrees of acceptance of the public’s use of social technology  can be described in six behaviors as:

  1. Unthinkable: Some firms do crazy things with social technology that do not fit into the “norm” of public sentiment. Consider some of the things that the young adults have done on MySpace that are “unthinkable” i.e sexually explicit videos and trash talk. Think of some of the stupid things brands have tried using social technology only to create a negative response from the public. On the other end of the spectrum of Unthinkable are those people and organizations that do creative things that no one else even considered, i.e. Pepsi Refresh. The Unthinkable applies to both the good and bad things people and organizations end up doing. Consider Facebook’s attitude towards privacy.
  2. Radical: Social media are creating radical changes in publishing, broadcasting and traditional forms and models of media.Radical uses of social media are marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional tending or disposed to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions. Many industries and organizations from all business segments are just beginning to feel the impact of just how radical social media can be when they discover what their customers are saying about them
  3. Acceptable: The first uses of social media have been aimed at marketing and PR. Traditional practices are being applied to the radical nature of social media. What marketing and PR professionals are learning is that what was once an acceptable practice is no longer acceptable. The consumer now defines what is acceptable and is now “connected” to others  with a collective voice.
  4. Sensible: Social media initiatives designed around having, containing, or indicative of good sense or reason. The sentiments of “sensible” are influenced by the human network in response to institutional messages and marketing tactics applied to use of social technologies. While consumers understand the old school marketing methods most are not responsive to these same tactics applied to social media. Subsequently brands that do not understand the relational dynamics of all things social are considered nonsensical. In other words the message has no importance or value to the consumer.
  5. Popular: Messages of or relating to the general public’s interest. If your message doesn’t fit with the market you are trying to reach then you are not likely going to create a “popular” appeal.Consider the unpopular  BP response to the oil spill. Then consider the response generated from a non BP person who started @BPGlobalPR on Twitter and ripped the mask off of BP’s PR Efforts. What was once a “popular” methods for managing public relations, marketing and advertising is now becoming unpopular and new methods are being introduced by the populace.
  6. Standard Practice: When more and more people and organizations do the unthinkable and radical things the more the public considers such things as acceptable, sensible and popular then ultimately they become standard practice throughout the entire marketplace.

The Social Overton Window is a means of identifying which ideas define that range of acceptance people’s ideas and media fall into. Media used to  persuade or educate the marketplace so that the window of behavior either “moves” or expands to encompass them. Opponents of changes caused by media, policies and politics seek to convince people who think these should be considered unacceptable.

The social sentiment can be moved (the window) by deliberately promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous “outer fringe” ideas.  The idea is that priming the public with fringe ideas intended to be and stay unacceptable, will make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison. Over time what was once unthinkable becomes standard practices and the cycle continues which fuels even more social changes, good, bad and indifferent.

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