Review of Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley "Going Viral" and Limor Shifman, "Memes in Digital Culture"

Intellectual Affairs
Plague of Viral Memes?
November 20, 2013

For some reason I have become aware that it is possible to take photographs of bass guitar players in mid-performance and, by digital means, to replace their instruments with dogs, so that it then appears the musicians (who very often wear a facial expressions suggesting rapture or deep concentration) are tickling the dogs. Yes, yes it is.

I am not proud of this knowledge and did not seek it out, and would have forgotten about it almost immediately if not for something else occupying my attention in the past few days: a couple of new books treating the phenomenon with great and methodical seriousness. Not, of course, the dog-tickling bass player phenomenon as such, but rather, the kind of online artifact indicated by the titles of Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley’s Going Viral (Polity) and Limor Shifman’s Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press).

The authors differentiate between the topics of the two volumes. Despite a common tendency to equate them, memes don’t always “go viral.” Things that do (say, video shot during a typhoon, uploaded while the disaster is still under way) are not always memes. The distinction will be clarified shortly -- and there is indeed some value in defining the contrast. It corresponds to different kinds of behavior or, if you prefer, different ways of mediating social and cultural life by means of our all-but-inescapable digital device.

Still, the line should be drawn only just so sharply. It seems bright and clear when the authors bring their different methods (one more quantitative than qualitative and vice versa) to the job. I don’t mean that the difference between viral and memetic communication is simply one of perspective. It seems to exist in real life. But so does their tendency to blur.

“Virality,” write Nahon and Hemsley in a definition unlikely to be improved upon, “is a social information flow process where many people simultaneously forward a specific information item, over a short period of time, within their social networks, and where the message spreads beyond their own (social) networks to different, often distant networks, resulting in a sharp acceleration in the number of people who are exposed to the message.” (Nahon is an associate professor, and Hemsley a Ph.D. candidate, at the Information School of the University of Washington.

Here the term “information item” is used very broadly, to cover just about any packet of bytes: texts, photographs, video, sound files, etc. It also includes links taking you to such material. But unlike a computer virus -- an unwanted, often destructive such packet – a message that has “gone viral” doesn’t just forward itself. It propagates through numerous, dispersed, and repeated decisions to pay attention to something and then circulate it.

The process has a shape. Charting on a graph the number of times a message is forwarded over time, we find that the curve for a news item appearing at a site with a great deal of traffic (or a movie trailer advertised on a number of sites) shoots up at high speed, then falls just about as rapidly. The arc is rapid and smooth.

By contrast, the curve for an item going viral is a bit more drawn-out -- and a lot rougher. It may show little or no motion for a while before starting to trend upwards for a while (possibly followed by a plateau or downturn or two) until reaching a certain point at which the acceleration becomes extremely sharp, heading to a peak, whereupon the number of forwards begins to fall off, more or less rapidly -- with an occasional bounce upwards perhaps, but nothing so dramatic as before.

So the prominently featured news item or blockbuster ad campaign on YouTube shoots straight up, like a model rocket on a windless day, until the fuel (newsworthiness, dollars) runs out, whereupon it stops, then begins to accelerate in the opposite direction. But when something goes viral, more vectors are involved. It circulates within and between clusters of people -- individuals with strong mutual connections with each other. It circulates through the networks, formal or informal, in which those clusters are embedded.

And from there, onward and outward – whether with a push (when somebody with a million Twitter followers takes notice), or a pull (it begins to rank among top search-engine results on a certain topic), or both. The authors itemize factors in play in decisions about whether or not to share something: salience, emotional response, congruence with the person’s values, etc. And their definition of virality as “a social information flow process” takes into account both the horizontal dimension of exchange (material circulating spontaneously among people familiar with one another) and the roles of filtering and broadcasting exercised by individuals and online venues with a lot of social capital.

None of which makes virality something that can be planned, however. “Content that we create can remain stubbornly obscure even when we apply our best efforts to promote it,” they write. “It can also grow and spread with an apparent life and momentum of its own, destroying some people’s lives and bringing fame and fortune to others, sometimes in a matter of days.”

An Internet meme, as Limor Shifman sums things up, is “(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; and (c) were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users.”

Shifman (a senior lecturer in communication and journalism at Hebrew University of Jerusalem) calls it “the best concept to encapsulate some of the most fundamental aspects of the Internet in general,” and especially now, when the tools for creating and modifying digital content are so readily available. The sort of cartoon video exemplified by “Reading and Time: A dialectic between academic expectation and academic frustration” also comes to mind, as does the Pepper Spraying Cop meme, now something of a classic.

As with virality, the concept rests on a biological metaphor. Coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, “meme” began in a quasi-scientific effort to identify the gene-like elements of behavior, cultural patterns, and belief systems that caused them to persist, expand, and reproduce themselves over very long periods of time. As reincarnated within cyberculture, the meme is a thing of slighter consequence: a matter of endless variation on extremely tenacious inside jokes, occupying and replicating within the brains of bored people in offices.

Shifman's point that memetic communication (which for the most part involves mimicry of existing digital artifacts with parodic intent and/or "remixing" them with new content) is an exemplary case of Web 2.0 culture seems to me sound, which probably also explains why much in the book may seem familiar even to someone not up on LOLcats studies. Yes, memes are a form of active participation in digital communication. Yes, they can carry content that (whether the meme goes viral or not) questions or challenges existing power structures. I have seen my share of Downfall parody videos, and am glad to know that Bruno Gantz is okay with the whole thing. But every so often that line from Thoreau comes to mind -- "as if we could kill time without injuring eternity" -- and it seems like a good idea to go off the grid for a while.




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