Viral phenomena or viral sensation are objects or patterns that are able to replicate themselves or convert other objects into copies of themselves when these objects are exposed to them. Analogous to the way in which viruses propagate, the term viral pertains to a video, image, or written content spreading to numerous online users within a short time period. This concept has become a common way to describe how thoughts, information, and trends move into and through a human population.
The popularity of viral media has been fueled by the rapid rise of social network sites,: 17 wherein audiences—who are metaphorically described as experiencing "infection" and "contamination"—play as passive carriers rather than an active role to 'spread' content, making such content "go viral".: 21 The term viral media differs from spreadable media as the latter refers to the potential of content to become viral. Memes are one known example of informational viral patterns.
The word meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene as an attempt to explain memetics; or, how ideas replicate, mutate, and evolve. When asked to assess this comparison, Lauren Ancel Meyers, a biology professor at the University of Texas, stated that "memes spread through online social networks similarly to the way diseases do through offline populations." This dispersion of cultural movements is shown through the spread of memes online, especially when seemingly innocuous or trivial trends spread and die in rapid fashion.: 19, 27
For example, multiple viral videos featuring Vince McMahon promoted misogynistic messages and hate against Jewish people, women, and the LGBTQ+ community. The video depicted McMahon throwing money into the ring at a WWE event. This video was taken out of context to support misogynistic views for the Men Going Their Own Way Movement to gain attention according to research lead by The Institute for Strategic Dialogue. This example demonstrates how public figures are turned into viral phenomena. Popular audio and video content on apps like TikTok are also used as memes of public figures.
The term viral pertains to a video, image, or written content spreading to numerous online users within a short time period. If something goes viral, many people discuss it. Accordingly, Tony D. Sampson defines viral phenomena as spreadable accumulations of events, objects, and affects that are overall content built up by popular discourses surrounding network culture.: 22 There is also a relationship to the biological notion of disease spread and epidemiology. In this context, "going viral" is similar to an epidemic spread, which occurs if more than one person is infected by a pathogen for every person infected. Thus, if a piece of content is shared with more than one person every time it is seen, then this will result in viral growth.
In Understanding Media (1964), philosopher Marshall McLuhan describes photography in particular, and technology in general, as having a potentially "virulent nature." In Jean Baudrillard's 1981 treatise Simulacra and Simulation, the philosopher describes An American Family, arguably the first "reality" television series, as a marker of a new age in which the medium of television has a "viral, endemic, chronic, alarming presence."
Another formulation of the 'viral' concept includes the term media virus, or viral media, coined by Douglas Rushkoff, who defines it as a type of Trojan horse: "People are duped into passing a hidden agenda while circulating compelling content.": 17 Mosotho South-African media theorist Thomas Mofolo uses Rushkoff's idea to define viral as a type of virtual collective consciousness that primarily manifests via digital media networks and evolves into offline actions to produce a new social reality. Mofolo bases this definition on a study about how internet users involved in the Tunisian Arab Spring perceived the value of Facebook towards their revolution. Mofolo's understanding of the viral was first developed in a study on Global Citizen's #TogetherAtHome campaign and used to formulate a new theoretical framework called Hivemind Impact. Hivemind impact is a specific type of virality that is simulated via digital media networks with the goal of harnessing the virtual collective consciousness to take action on a social issue. For Mofolo, the viral eventually evolves into McLuhan's 'global village' when the virtual collective consciousness reaches a point of noogenesis that then becomes the noosphere.
See also: Content sharing
Before writing and while most people were illiterate, the dominant means of spreading memes was oral culture like folk tales, folk songs, and oral poetry, which mutated over time as each retelling presented an opportunity for change. The printing press provided an easy way to copy written texts instead of handwritten manuscripts. In particular, pamphlets could be published in only a day or two, unlike books which took longer. For example, Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses took only two months to spread throughout Europe. A study of United States newspapers in the 1800s found human-interest, "news you can use" stories and list-focused articles circulated nationally as local papers mailed copies to each other and selected content for reprinting. Chain letters spread by postal mail throughout the 1900s.
Urban legends also began as word-of-mouth memes. Like hoaxes, they are examples of falsehoods that people swallow, and, like them, often achieve broad public notoriety.
Beyond vocal sharing, the 20th century made huge strides in the World Wide Web and the ability to content share. In 1979, dial-up internet service provided by the company CompuServ was a key player in online communications and how information began spreading beyond the print. Those with access to a computer in the earliest of stages could not comprehend the full effect that public access to the internet could or would create. It is hard to remember the times of newspapers being delivered to households across the country in order to receive their news for the day, and it was when The Columbus Dispatch out of Columbus, Ohio broke barriers when it was first to publish in online format. The success that was predicted by CompuServe and the Associated Press led to some of the largest newspapers to become part of the movement to publish the news via online format. Content sharing in the journalism world brings new advances to viral aspects of how news is spread in a matter of seconds.
Main article: Internet meme
The creation of the Internet enabled users to select and share content with each other electronically, providing new, faster, and more decentralized controlled channels for spreading memes. Email forwards are essentially text memes, often including jokes, hoaxes, email scams, written versions of urban legends, political messages, and digital chain letters; if widely forwarded they might be called 'viral emails'. User-friendly consumer photo editing tools like Photoshop and image-editing websites have facilitated the creation of the genre of the image macro, where a popular image is overlaid with different humorous text phrases. These memes are typically created with Impact font. The growth of video-sharing websites like YouTube made viral videos possible.
It is sometimes difficult to predict which images and videos will "go viral"; sometimes the creation of a new Internet celebrity is a sudden surprise. One of the first documented viral videos is "Numa Numa", a webcam video of then-19-year-old Gary Brolsma lip-syncing and dancing to the Romanian pop song "Dragostea Din Tei".
The sharing of text, images, videos, or links to this content have been greatly facilitated by social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Other mimicry memes carried by Internet media include hashtags, language variations like intentional misspellings, and fads like planking. The popularity and widespread distribution of Internet memes have gotten the attention of advertisers, creating the field of viral marketing. A person, group, or company desiring much fast, cheap publicity might create a hashtag, image, or video designed to go viral; many such attempts are unsuccessful, but the few posts that "go viral" generate much publicity.
Some social commentators have a negative view of "viral" content, though others are neutral or celebrate the democratization of content as compared to the gatekeepers of older media. According to the authors of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture: "Ideas are transmitted, often without critical assessment, across a broad array of minds and this uncoordinated flow of information is associated with "bad ideas" or "ruinous fads and foolish fashions.": 307 Science fiction sometimes discusses 'viral' content "describing (generally bad) ideas that spread like germs.": 17 For example, the 1992 novel Snow Crash explores the implications of an ancient memetic meta-virus and its modern-day computer virus equivalent:
We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep on humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information.— Snow Crash (1992)
The spread of viral phenomena is also regarded as part of the cultural politics of network culture or the virality of the age of networks. Network culture enables the audience to create and spread viral content. "Audiences play an active role in 'spreading' content rather than serving as passive carriers of viral media: their choices, investments, agendas, and actions determine what gets valued.": 21 Various authors have pointed to the intensification in connectivity brought about by network technologies as a possible trigger for increased chances of infection from wide-ranging social, cultural, political, and economic contagions. For example, the social scientist Jan van Dijk warns of new vulnerabilities that arise when network society encounters "too much connectivity." The proliferation of global transport networks makes this model of society susceptible to the spreading of biological diseases. Digital networks become volatile under the destructive potential of computer viruses and worms. Enhanced by the rapidity and extensiveness of technological networks, the spread of social conformity, political rumor, fads, fashions, gossip, and hype threatens to destabilize established political order.
Links between viral phenomena that spread on digital networks and the early sociological theories of Gabriel Tarde have been made in digital media theory by Tony D Sampson (2012; 2016). In this context, Tarde's social imitation thesis is used to argue against the biological deterministic theories of cultural contagion forwarded in memetics. In its place, Sampson proposes a Tarde-inspired somnambulist media theory of the viral.
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to 'memory', or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'.
viral, endemic, chronic, alarming presence baudrillard.
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