Tag: Contagion

What Makes a Viral go Viral? The strange case of the Essex (Phantom) Lion…

Earlier this year I posted a piece on Virality called What Makes a Video Viral go Viral? It set out one of the ideas forwarded in the book concerning the spreading of phantoms. I borrowed some of this idea from an account Gustave Le Bon provides in The Crowd about a group of sailors misconstruing a branch and leaves for a distressed crew on another vessel they were approaching. In Virality Le Bon’s idea of a collective hallucination is given a decidedly Tarde/Deleuzian spin. I am pleased to see a wonderful example of the phantoms of contagion appearing in the north east reaches of my own county, Essex, here in the UK. The so-called Essex Lion, spotted and photographed near the seaside resort of Clacton is a collective hallucination exemplar. Glimpsed at first by a group of “terrified” tourists, who run for their lives shouting “it’s a fucking lion,” the phantom quickly spread to local and national media. Experts from the local zoo and police were mobilized. Stories of abandoned circus lions were rife.

There are now many funny and somewhat discourteous (to Essex people with big hair, that is) spoofs of the Essex Lion on the web.

Anyone interested in this example of phantom contagion should follow up on some of the national news stories associated with the Essex Lion.

Essex lion hunt brings bank holiday delirium to Clacton-on-Sea

Reported sighting sets off frenzied search amid torrent of rumours and doctored pics before police call off the chase

Essex ‘lion’ joins list of phantom British beasts

The Return of Crowd Contagion? 2 of 3

Christmas Comes Early: The English Summer Riots

The contrast between the student protests in London, which have, after the storming of Tory HQ in November 2010 and political defeat a month later in Parliament Square, seemingly lost momentum, and the contagious English Riots is worth considering. On one hand, the fury of the students was contained in police kettles, on the other, the spontaneity of the summer riots left the authorities mostly ineffectual. What kind of desire-event fuelled the riots? Perhaps they were an aberration of consumerism as some have suggested (The Guardian, Monday 5 December 2011). These were consumer subjectivities in the making. As widely reported the rioters couldn’t believe their luck. Christmas had arrived early, and stuff was for free! The good news quickly spread on the streets and through Blackberry too, as well as via wall to wall TV and press coverage. But more importantly the riots revive an old perplexing question concerning the subjectivation of the poor. That is, how astonishing it is that after centuries of exploitation they only riot and steal on rare occasions rather than on a regular basis (See Deleuze and Guattari, 1984)

This-is-criminality
Cameron: “this is criminality”

Perhaps the rioter’s desire to loot needs to be grasped in this light as a kind of perversion of the desire to shop: an anomalous desire-event that reappropriated, for a few days at least, the everyday enslavement of the shopping mall the consumer subject commonly desires for himself and others. The answer will certainly not be found within the riotous crowd itself, but rather within the problem of the viewing public. While a few thousand watched the protests and riots on YouTube, the larger public experienced a pacifying action-at-a-distance via coverage of student “attacks” on the royals and the fire extinguisher thrown at the police. The enduring media images of the rioters are of plasma TVs being ripped from the walls of an electrical store.

The Imbaba Contagion: Inzel! Iinzel!

It is difficult to put into words the vital force of a contagious desire-event as it flows upward through the stratifications of social power. Following Tarde, Thrift has called similar processes of affective contagion an imitative momentum of conversation and gesture, “boosted and extended by all manner of technologies.” It is a continuous “adaptive creep” which is both the background and foreground of the contagion that spreads (Thrift, 2009). Yet the Arab Spring has enabled us to witness firsthand the impetus of revolutionary contagion reach its threshold. For instance, take a look at Philip Rizk and Jasmina Metwaly’s short film of crowds pouring out of Imbaba on the 28th Jan 2011 on their way downtown to Tahrir Square. There are a few similarities here with the events in England. Certainly, Mubarak’s government has long “stigmatized neighborhoods like Imbaba as a netherworld of crime and danger” (New York Times, Feb 15 2011).

Imbaba, Cairo
Imbaba, Cairo

Like the many locations in which the English Riots took place it was rendered an apolitical zone. The intensity of the emotions of this disenfranchised crowd is comparable to the English looters too. But the energy is somehow steered from these deprived neighbourhoods toward the political centre of the capital city. This is not an event guided by Web 2.0 alone. Internet access in Egypt is amongst the lowest in North Africa and the Middle East. Imbaba in particular is not the domain of Facebook politics or the Twittering classes. The networkability of the desire-event spread from person to person tapping into the rage of Cario’s poor who bore the brunt of Mubarak’s brutal dictatorship for years. The crowd, Rizk tells us, chants “inzel! inzel!” (come down! come down!), a call to neighbours to join the march and demand the fall of the regime. Like the poor neighborhoods of Sidi Bouzid where the Arab Spring began in Tunisia with the immolation of the street vender, Mohamed Bouazizi, the momentum moves rapidly to the government buildings.


Alexandra Topping and Fiona Bawdon  “It was like Christmas’: a consumerist feast amid the summer riots” The Guardian, Monday 5 December 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/dec/05/summer-riots-consumerist-feast-looters

This is a somewhat adapted version of Deleuze and Guattari’s references to Wilhelm Reich on the mass psychology of fascism in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, (London: The Athlone Press, 1984), 37-38.

Nigel Thrift, “Pass It On: Towards a Political Economy of Propensity,” 8.

Philip Rizk and Jasmina Metwaly made this remarkable video of a huge popular protest in Cairo on 28 January.

Anthony Shadid, “In One Slice of Egypt, Daily Woes Top Religion,” New York Times, Feb 15 2011.

The Return of Crowd Contagion? 1 of 3

2010-11 will be looked back on as the beginning of a period of social uprising occurring in an age incessantly characterized by social media. Mainstream journalists were indeed quick to note the role of Web 2.0 in triggering new revolutionary and riotous crowds. However, this focus on the often over hyped potential of Web 2.0 applications perhaps loses sight of the event of social rebellion. For such events to ignite there is a requirement for the spontaneous and communicable desires of a crowd to actually spillover onto the streets. Take for example the seemingly disparate uprisings in Egypt and England. In the Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba the impetus of rebellion was visibly guided by the leaderless contagious desires of the crowd. That is to say, its momentum was more readily related to local neighbourhood contaminations of rage than it was an orchestrated communication strategy. The English Riots were a somewhat perverted arrangement of antagonism and consumer desire. Yet this widespread contagion was similarly steered without a guiding hand. Indeed, both these events signal the return of a sometimes brutal crowd contagion that outspreads many protest movements endeavouring to increase their number by tapping into the virality of social media.

The Desire-Events of Revolutionary Contagion

Of course rebellions and riots are events boosted by communications, but it is not simply the technology that propagates the event. The network is “the relationality of that which it distributes . . . the passing-on of the event.” Be it word of mouth, telegraph, television or computer networks, it is the networkability of the event itself that opens up a space ready for the repetition of further events. The vital force required for the movability of the event comes from the rare intensity of a desire-event: the immolation of a street vendor or the fatal shooting of an unarmed gang suspect, for example. What spreads out from these shock events is felt at the visceral level of affective social encounter. The repetition of contaminating affects radiate reciprocal feelings, like anger, to a point where the thrust of collective desire builds into an effervescence of hormone and sentiment fit to burst. These are rare events because it would seem that most contagions eventually peter out or are rendered docile by outside forces. Some though build up into much bigger assemblages of desire with a capacity to spread further. Desire-events can in such cases follow a deadly line of flight whereby participants are prepared to die to satisfy their needs and wants.

There is nothing new in this event reading of social uprising. Indeed, aside from the recent kafuffle surrounding social media it is worth noting the early scepticisms of nineteenth century social contagion theory. Such events are exceptional, Gabriel Tarde claimed, even accidental. They are certainly not easy to predict, plan or steer. Furthermore, although now often regarded as a proto-network thinker, Tarde regarded most imitative outbreaks to be downward rather than democratically distributed movements. They were in the main aristocratic contagions – outbreaks of religious manias, patriotism, racism, and the like. Social examples flowed downward from a “superior” model to an “inferior” imitator. Conformity, obedience and a neurotic devotional fascination for those in power were generally the laws of imitation for the subjugated class. It is this descending flow of desire and social influence that magnetizes the social medium so that everyone infected passes on, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, the example set from on high. Only on very rare occasions do the downward movements of such social terracing reverse like water flowing uphill. Democratic contagion occurs only when the movement down the scale becomes exhausted and is transformed into an inverse movement. That is, when “millions of men collectively fascinate and tyrannize over their quondam mediums.”

From his unique intellectual vantage point at the dawn of industry capitalism Tarde also observed a shift from older social assemblages, namely crowds, to new mediated social arrangements he called publics. Unlike crowds, who like animal societies required physical proximity in order to make psychic connections, publics were newly animated and dispersed by newspapers, railways, telegraphs and telephone networks. This made psychic connection possible without the need for closeness. The potential to spread new ideas was astonishing. However, by freeing up of the collective psychology from its corporal choreography, the publics’ capacity to protest was, Tarde argued, decidedly muted.

lord-rothermere-and-hitler
The press baron and the dictator

Certainly, Tarde did not see mediated connectivity as a way to escape the notion of an easily led crowd. On the contrary, Tarde regarded crowds to be without leaders, and as the nearness of their neighbourhoods diminished, and mediation increased, they became more open to persuasion from on high. Yes, the crowd was more brutal and had something of the animal about it, but publics were a passive and powerless social condition. That is to say, while the crowd leads its chief, publics are inspired by a controlling action-at-a-distance. Tarde recognized early on, as such, how the new media primes its products like a honey pot, setting up a mutual selection process whereby public opinion is dependent on a pandering to known prejudices and passions. By way of the flattery of their audiences, the press barons took hold of publics, dividing them up into several publics, making them evermore docile and credulous, and easily directed. In contrast, the crowd was to be feared.

The Blurb for Virality the Book

ImageThe blurb for Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks

A new theory of viral relationality beyond the biological

“Impressive and ambitious, Virality offers a new theory of the viral as a sociological event.” Brian Rotman, Ohio State University

 

“Tarde and Deleuze come beautifully together in this outstanding book, the first to really put forward a serious alternative to neo-Darwinian theories of virality, contagion, and memetics. A thrilling read that bears enduring consequences for our understanding of network cultures. Unmissable.” – Tiziana Terranova, author of Network Culture  

In this thought-provoking work, Tony D. Sampson presents a contagion theory fit for the age of networks. Unlike memes and microbial contagions, Virality does not limit itself to biological analogies and medical metaphors. It instead points toward a theory of contagious assemblages, events, and affects. For Sampson, contagion is not necessarily a positive or negative force of encounter; it is the way society comes together and relates.

Sampson argues that a biological understanding of contagion has been universally distributed by way of the rhetoric of fear used in the antivirus industry and other popular discourses surrounding network culture. This understanding is also detectable in concerns over too much connectivity, including problems of global financial crisis and terrorism. Sampson’s “virality” is as universal as that of the biological meme and microbe, but is not understood through representational thinking expressed in metaphors and analogies. Rather, Sampson leads us to understand contagion theory through the social relationalities first established in Gabriel Tarde’s microsociology and subsequently recognized in Gilles Deleuze’s ontological worldview.

According to Sampson, the reliance on representational thinking to explain the social behavior of networking—including that engaged in by nonhumans such as computers—allows language to over-categorize and limit analysis by imposing identities, oppositions, and resemblances on contagious phenomena. It is the power of these categories that impinges on social and cultural domains. Assemblage theory, on the other hand, is all about relationality and encounter, helping us to understand the viral as a positively sociological event, building from the molecular outward, long before it becomes biological.

Dr. Tony D. Sampson is senior lecturer and researcher in the School of Arts and Digital Industries at the University of East London.

Putting the Neuron to Work: 4 of 4

Two Questions Concerning Legitimate Practices and Subjectivation in Neuropersuasion.

4 of 4

Subjectivation at the level of the Neuron.

So what kind of subjectivity does neuromarketing present? Here I have found Tarde very useful. His microsociology is not really interested in the conscious human level of experience (individual or collective): a Tardean assemblage makes no distinction between individual persons, bacteria, atoms, cells, or larger societies of events like markets, nations, and cities. As Bruno Latour puts it, with Tarde, “everything is individual and yet there is no individual in the etymological sense of that which cannot be further divided” (Latour 2009: 11).

It is indeed at the level of the firing neuron that the subjectivations of neuromarketing occur.  The neuromarketer thus exploits the relation between what is unconsciously associated in the brain and a particular social action, that is, purchase intent.

When neuropersuasion puts the neuron to work it becomes just another aspect of the controlling deterritorialized strata of (non)cognitive capitalism.

Putting the Neuron to Work: 3 of 4

Two Questions Concerning Legitimate Practices and Subjectivation in Neuropersuasion.

3 of 4

Legitimate Practices.

These are indeed two questions hanging over my take on the Tardean trajectory into neuron science. I would like to briefly address them here as a precursor to a perhaps more detailed study to come.

Regarding the legitimacy of this business/science incursion into the neuron I want to respond to an article published in the New York Times a few years back. Like many journalistic efforts on the subject of neuromarketing “Is the Ad a Success? The Brain Waves Tell All” is in absolute awe of the claims of neuroscience to be able to measure what a consumer unconsciously responds to. It’s a wonderful example for my purposes, looking at, amongst other ads, the Apple versus PC campaign. The piece ends with this thought…

“Some consumer advocates [is that what they call us?] question the role of biometrics in ad research. They worry that blending “Weird Science” with “Mad Men” will give marketers an unfair advantage over consumers.”

But apparently this is not what they intend to do. “The role of neuromarketing is to understand how people feel and react,” claims the chief analytics officer at EmSense neuromarketing. “It in no way sets out to meddle with normal, natural response mechanisms.” EmSense’s opinion, the article continues, is “echoed by Robert E. Knight, the director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, who is also the chief science adviser at NeuroFocus.“ We’re not trying to predict an individual’s thoughts and actions and we’re not trying to input messages,” he says.

On the contrary, marketing is, arguably, all about cutting out uncertainties by making consumer behavior evermore predictable. This is what crowd sourcing and co-creation also do. They parasite the consumer experience and pull it into the production line. Neuromarketing though works on a deeper level of persuasion.

Watch another NeuroFocus video.

This one claims that neuromarketing predicts the marketplace performance of ads derived from the three metrics of persuasion, novelty, and awareness. One way in which to do this is to prime the experience of consumption by intervening directly at the level of perception and absorption. This involves the seeking out of, at the analysis and conceptual design stage, what subconsciously attracts and draws the attention. The affective priming of experience can, it is claimed, guide attention and potentially steer intent.

So, there are no “Weird Science” probes in the sense that people are having sensors fed directly into the brain or indeed being directly rigged up to MRI or EEG devices while consuming (that’s all done at the testing stage), but there is an indirect tapping into perception and absorption at the subliminal level of consumer experience. The “Mad Men” are inside your head (was that a Pink Floyd lyric?)

Putting the Neuron to Work: 2 of 4

2 of 4

Two Questions Concerning Legitimate Practices and Subjectivation in Neuropersuasion.

Question Two: What kind of subjectivity does the exploitation of the neurological unconscious suggest?

There is also a question posed from within social and cultural theory itself concerning what kind of subjectivity the exploitation of the neurological unconscious suggests. It was recently pointed out to me that my approach is bordering on humanism. To be sure, it does feature a concern for human values. My work does not however put the human subject at the centre (or atop) of its method, and neither does the Tardean approach I adopt in Virality. The subjectivities he deals with are not unbendingly human: understood as individual or collective representations. On the contrary, Tarde’s society of imitation features a distinctly subrepresentational subjectivation, that is, he presents an assemblage theory of society in which it is the infra-radiations of micro imitation that compose social wholes. Following Deleuzian jargon then, we might say that it is the most deterritorialized aspects of Tarde’s assemblage that takes control of the most territorialized strata. It is the microrelation that takes control of the whole. Indeed, the neuron is but part of the ecology or “society” of things the human assemblage becomes related to (animal societies, societies of dust, societies of events etc).

What is interesting about neuropersuasion in this context is that while it appears that a mostly unconscious human has very little control over a firing neuron, intervention into the design and production of preprimed human experiences can, potentially, bring that firing under some level of control. Perhaps explaining how subliminal advertising actually works (Thrift, 2009: 22).

Putting the Neuron to Work 1 of 4

1 of 4

Two Questions Concerning Legitimate Practices and Subjectivation in Neuropersuasion.

Question One: What is, and what isn’t, considered a legitimate partnership between the business enterprise and brain science.

Toward the latter part of Virality I begin to follow Tarde’s microsociological trajectory into present-day consumerist models of society. I am interested in how the once over hyped ambitions of viral marketing are perhaps more successfully achieved through so-called neuromarketing practices. Forget the power of the meme as a malleable unit of imitation able to spread itself through a population of consumers, indeed, forgot the meme’s neo-Darwinian theoretical underpinning (more on that in the book). Tardean virality is better realized, it would seem, in the practices of the neuromarketer, that is, practices informed by neuroscience and cognitive psychology which probe the neurological unconscious and tap into the volatility of the relation established between emotions, affect and cognition. Following on from contributions in the field of affect research from Antonio Damasio, and to some extent, Robert Zajonc, what is established here, in a nutshell, is that affect and emotions are not independent of, or interfering in, rationale cognitive process. They are instead enmeshed in the very networks that lead to reflective thoughts and decisions. Zajonc goes as far to say that affect and feelings may in fact have a mind of their own which bypasses cognitive processes altogether.

It is this type of thinking that supports the claims made by the neuromarketing enterprise. Watch this video from the company Neurofocus.

So as to understand consumer behaviour these neuroscience-PhDs-turned-marketers triangulate the consumer experience in terms of attention, emotions and memory. Their research intends to (a) grab the ever thinning slice of consumer attention, (b) stimulate the senses and emotional responses to brands and products, and (c) move marketing messages straight to memory in order to trigger decisions. These are their claims further supported by research into attention deficit and obsessive compulsive disorders, manias and Alzheimer disease.

I think Tarde would take a rather disdainful view on this incursion into the brain of the consumer. Similarly, my approach here is not intended as a guide to the potential of future marketing success. It is a social and cultural theory of epidemic spreading which encompasses the contagions of affects, feelings and emotions. It is supposed to adopt a critical distance between itself and the claims of mememarketers and neuromarketers. It is not the case however that all of academia keeps its distance. Indeed, there are lines of defence already being drawn up by those neuroscience departments looking to justify their excursions into a business-led exploitation of medical brain science intended to sell more Cornflakes and Cadillacs. Neuromarketers are, as such, pushing ahead with research into brainwave frequencies under the logic that “in hard times ads must work harder to move the merchandise.” The discourse of the age of austerity effortlessly, it seems, oils the wheels for such commercial thinking to slide in and get a discursive grip on what is, and what isn’t, a legitimate partnership between the business enterprise and scientific research.

Virality Uber Alles: Universal Contagion

An interesting article exploring from a journalistic perspective “What the Fetishization of Social Media Is Costing Us All”. It makes the point that even virality has, it seems, gone viral. Social media are the obsession of the media. But the “value” of going viral doesn’t matter, as long as it’s viral! Yes, good point.In a similar way I have also questioned the value of going viral, making the point that it is indeed difficult to tell apart the medium from the virus. With a nod to McLuhan and Baudrillard (without references, it must be added).