You 'viral', me 'main' • 11 March 2012 • The SnowBlog

You 'viral', me 'main'


The internet is probably full of articles on this point, but I happen not to have tripped over any, so I thought I'd share. When a YouTube video or a cute picture or a new craze spreads not via mainstream marketing campaigns or television masts broadcasting identical ads into every home, but instead by humans telling the other humans they know, we say that the spread has 'gone viral'. 'Virus', as you probably know, comes from a word meaning 'poison' and shares a root with the word 'vile'. Directly translated, it means 'ooky'. It suggests the mindless spread of something unhealthy. 'Virus' also has another meaning in modern times: a virus is something that takes over the orderly operation of a system and compromises or hijacks its behaviour.  I can understand why 'viral' would be one of the ways we might describe the non-centralised spread of something through the population, but why we would settle on a word with such negative connotations I can't imagine (or rather I can). Surely only people thoroughly steeped in the one-to-many, mainstream 'broadcast' model of marketing could label the act of telling your friends about something as both a malfunction and an unhealthy process. 

It is, I suspect, far too late to relabel this process, but maybe there's occasionally scope to say that something is 'spreading organically' instead of 'virally' ('organic' suggesting living things plus a healthy lack of processing or additives). I could even make a case for a term like 'naturally'. And I suppose we're groping our way in that direction by talking about 'social networking' the whole time. We don't have a handy phrase for 'it spread in a social-network-y way', but maybe that's what the term 'socially' will come to mean in a few years' time. The reason I think the terminology is worth thinking about is that when information spreads from person to person, based on friendship and individual judgement, there are a lot of advantages over the 'broadcast' model. And we don't want to give something wholesome a name that suggests it's to be discouraged. The 'broadcast' model will give you Britney Spears or Boyzone; organic connections will give you a cool, local band you can actually get in to see on a Friday night. 'Broadcast' will give you top-selling novels everyone's read and no one really cares about; 'organic' will give you genre hits and cult classics and actual excitement and passion for the material. I'm talking about the difference between reading a literary review of an 'important' book and hearing a friend rave about how they stayed up until 2:30am turning pages. Yes, sometimes 'broadcast' hits the bullseye, but - to take one example - two weeks ago (for the first time as far as I'm aware) the website RottentTomatoes which collects hundreds of movie reviews about each new release had scored every film in the U.S. top-ten as 'rotten'.

Even more importantly, the pathways that 'organic' information travel along are also the connections that build a community. Every time something flows across those wires it either strengthens or weakens the bonds - weakens if the info is a turn-off, strengthens if it hits the spot. And this network, unlike the 'broadcast' marketing model, is much better at fine-tuning itself. "Dude*," you would say to a friend, "enough with the lolcats. When is your brother's band next playing?"

We're moving towards a world in which 'organic' connections are back at the heart of communication, just as they were in every century before the Twentieth. We still need a parallel, centralised way of sharing information to help stop communities turning into cults, crazy cliques or mobs, but I've often wondered what would happen in a world where, say, the Yellow Pages had never existed and when we wanted a plumber or electrician, the rule was that we had to ask our friends for a recommendation. That would be a world where 'cowboys' didn't last long.

So, if you get a chance, maybe you could think about saying that something spread 'socially' rather than 'virally' just in case it makes a difference. If nothing else it will remind you that 'talking to friends' is normal and it's being bombarded by information from corporations that's potentially unhealthy. Fortunately we now live in a bizarre age where 'talking to friends' is seen as the next big thing.

*This may not capture the exact vernacular employed by your social group 


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