“Where is all the knowledge we lost with information?” – T. S. Eliot
It used to mean something a lot different. Those cloud-infused days where you would wake up to realize – despite all responsibilities, whether work or school – there was no way you were getting out of bed. Whether it was an epic headache, the kind of stomach churning that makes standing upright impossible, or the breathlessness of body weakness, there was a time when viral meant something else entirely. Given the meaning of what ‘going viral’ is now, I can’t help but miss it…
Much like an actual virus would, the concept of viral content makes me feel a little bit dizzy in the head, sick to my stomach, in need of a warm blanket and a hot cup of sugary coffee – a simple means of escaping what qualifies as interesting. Going viral may once have related to illness but in today’s cultural climate, it is an indication of value, of a piece of ‘content’ – whether a video, article or open letter – that takes the Internet by storm, becoming something that is shared with the masses and has a marked impact for a period of time. But what is the cultural value of ‘going viral’? And what does what becomes popular say about us?
The world of the media, and information dissemination, has made rapid advancements with the evolution of technology in recent years. While smart phones and the Internet have amplified the influence of information, it was the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 14th century that gave us the term “the press”. Information and what qualified as news once existed on a local scale, but newspapers and televisions changed the transmission, making everything a source of news, however scandalous or remote. According to a study by Microsoft Corp, the average human being’s attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015, perhaps a result of this technological consumption. By any estimation, it’s a staggering statistic.
In an article on Entrepreneur.com, “The Paradox of What Makes Something Go Viral”, the author and entrepreneur Seth Godin is asked about the nature of content that becomes popular on the web. According to Godin, the trick to viral content is that it is, “Something both so personal, but simultaneously so universal and human that not sharing it would seem selfish or “out of whack”. Instead of merely being seen as popular, like a pop song or a burger, it goes beyond itself, becoming – in its very popularity – both validated and valued.
Unfortunately, there is a lot missing from Godin’s definition of what is readily consumed. Accordingly, ‘going viral’ is a testament to what’s both personal and universal, but given the current 8-second attention span (1 second less than that of a goldfish!), what is both personal and universal must also be immediate and easily absorbed. If something is easily absorbed in such a current, it may very well represent some universal truth, but in essence – among the swell of content – it may be a testament to the power of re-hashed old truth, a recognition incapable of challenging the current premises we’ve arrived at.
In a time where most businesses have an online presence, going viral is seen as a metric of value, one that has the power to be parlayed into more business and greater reach. However, in an age of clickbait and an 8-second attention span, I’ll stick to my preferred definition and head for my blanket.