What Does Going Viral Mean?

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Bill Wasik

Computer viruses emerged in the 1980s. In the internet era, we decided not to beat viruses, but to join them. “Going viral” became the goal of any piece of content, from a movie to a Facebook post. Bill Wasik is the author of "And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture." He explains that the metaphor of virality goes back to Richard Dawkins’ term "meme,” which provided a biological metaphor for how culture spreads. Dawkins thought of memes as spreading through culture like genes. But he also pointed out that they could act like viruses.

What has Wasik learned about how things go viral? "Well, there's cats, and porn," he laughs. "Once we get beyond the cat/porn industrial complex, it's stuff that hits us very quickly and speaks to the relationships we already have." Which is why funny things spread quickest: “We want to make our friends laugh.”

But Wasik has become skeptical of the viral metaphor. "‘Virus’ conjures up a passive group of spreaders and imagines that the creative act is all — if you craft the thing in just the right way, it compels people to spread it,” like a contagious disease. “But we’re in the opposite situation. Things can spread quickly in this truly viral way but the reason is that the spreaders have a lot more agency. They call the shots."

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