The Misnomer Of “Viral”

Bill Wasik pinpoints why the Internet term doesn’t ring true:

A real virus has genuine agency, hijacking our cells (and sometimes our behavior) in the service of spreading itself. Much of the mythology of viral is in suggesting that content too can compel its own spread — that all one needs to do is craft the ultimate piece of content and the public will be powerless to resist it. That’s why “going viral” has become the holy grail for admen and marketing flacks across corporate America: It flatters the arrogance of a certain creative mindset. It involves the notion that consumers are fundamentally passive — victims who, having become infected with a meticulously engineered message, can’t help but cough it all over their friends.

In reality, of course, consumer passivity is itself the most prominent victim of the Internet age, in which the patients have been given the tools to oversee their own infection. Going viral happens through a series of volitional acts, each carried out by a specific human being who sees stuff they like and shares it if — and only if — they believe it will entertain the other specific human beings. No would-be viral message goes anywhere if the audience doesn’t actively pitch in. And that affects the content. It’s the reason why so much viral content is comedic (we love to make our friends laugh), why so much of it is short (no one wants to chew up their friends’ time), why its premise tends to get announced right up front (no one wants to bewilder friends about what they’re forwarding), and why so much of it revolves around animals or relationships or kids or the other things we already blab about in casual conversation.