Revisting Virality: Six Pointers – updated

This is an updated version of notes from a short talk on a keynote panel at the Viral/Global conference at University of Westminster (13th Sept, 2017) where I tried to provide six pointers for the study of virality.

The conference demonstrated that there’s some great work going on in this area, in particular I was struck by the way in which virality could possibly change how we  conceive of the global in terms of inner and outer worlds. While we still need to have one eye on the spreading of conformity and docility, there’s also the potential for contagions to openly challenge fixed ways of doing things in set power structures.

There’s a continued interest in emotional contagion and the relation virality has to intimacy.

There’s also interest in the notion that capitalism is a fermenter and provoker of experiences that might go viral. This is very different from saying that capitalism is a virus.

There’s still a lot of perplexing discussion about the metaphor itself and the problem of biological determinism. I agree that we need to account for the discursive power of viral metaphors – how they evidently shape security discourses e.g. There’s also a tendency to see viruses as something malevolent that we wouldn’t want to pass on. For me, this missess the potential benevolence of virality. Moreover, a lot of the concern expressed over biological determinism is, I think, frustrating, since we end up in the habitual culture/biology impasse – and never the twain shall meet. One of the strengths of using Gabriel Tarde in this context is that we can draw on biology and psychology to understand the social and cultural without being deterministic. This is, after all, not neo-Darwinian memetics!

I also wondered if researchers referring to online content with a high hit count are really dealing with virality. There seems to me to be a difference between gaining masses of attention and a necessary focus on the spreadability of events that might leap from medium to medium, e.g.

1. Virality is nothing new!

Network contagion existed in pre-industrial and industrial crowds long before all this commotion about social media.

There are crowds in networks and networks in crowds.

e.g. in 1960s – Milgram’s research into social influence included his “skywards pointing people” experiment (see below) – suggesting that a social tendency to imitate could be manipulated.

Long before Milgram – in the origins of sociology – we find virality in Gabriel Tarde’s work – Famous for his spat with Durkheim concerning how the “social” emerges.

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2. We are what we [unconsciously] imitate

Following Tarde, imitation is the very thing that constitutes the “making of social subjectivities…”

This is a fundamentally different theory of social emergence…

On one hand, Durkheim’s dynamic density of social interaction leads to the emergence of a social “consciousness of consciousness.” An emergent whole, like collective intelligence.

Tarde, on the other, points to the emergence of nonconscious associations between relational parts.

There are no wholes in Tarde’s sociology, just differing scales of relational parts.

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3. Virality is mostly accidental, but accidents can be steered

Tarde’s Virality is a universal social condition, but unlike Milgram, he suggests that it is mostly accidental!

Despite this, Tarde’s virality resonates well with today’s neurocultures wherein the nonconscious brain is being exploited in so many ways by “experience capitalism.”


4. Social media introduces new vectors for contagious affective encounters 

Achieved through, (a) the increased intimacy of connection, and (b), the various tools used to encourage and engineer imitation – e.g. “like” buttons!

Social media can be conceived of as an “affective atmosphere” in which the accidents of contagion can be fermented and provoked, and data traces sold on…

Facebook’s experiments with emotional contagion are an example of efforts made to steer “pre-emergent” affects of over 600, 000 users.


5. Virality is not something we can easily grasp with conventional conceptual tools of media theory

There are nonrepresentational and non-cognitive aspects to virality

e.g. Rebecca Coleman’s use of Raymond William’s “structures of feeling.” See the forthcoming Affect and Social Media book.

“Social media is experiential, and hence is pre-emergent. It is a series of practices, activities, flows and events that are not ‘fully articulated’ but hover ‘at the edge of semantic availability’ (Williams 1977a: 132 Cited in Coleman’s chapter).


6. Virality thrives in the relationality of the social medium

Sharing is important here, but user data is analysed in relational

Unlike older ideas concerning capitalism’s role in commodifying the individual consumer’s sense of self, this is all about the social relations made in a network (or in an assemblage)

It is the assemblage of emotions e.g. that becomes productive.

“Marketers don’t need to infiltrate the self via the mirrors and mimicry of ideology [as Judith Williamson argued]. Marketing is not the creation of self-identity, but rather the production of sensory environments in which the contagious social medium can be encouraged and passed on. The social medium becomes the producer” (see Sampson, “Cosmic Topologies of Imitation: From the Horror of Digital Autotoxicus to the Auto-Toxicity of the Social” Parallax special issue on Autoimmunities 23(1) 2017).


See original post about the conference

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