What I Meant When I Coined the Term ‘Media Virus’
It doesn’t matter what side of an issue people are on for them to be infected by a meme
An increasingly competitive media landscape favors increasingly competitive content. Today, anyone with a smartphone, web page, or social media account can share their ideas. If that idea is compelling, it might be replicated and spread to millions. And so the race is on. Gone are the collaborative urges that characterize embodied social interaction. In their place comes another bastardized Darwinian ideal: a battle for survival of the fittest meme. The term “media virus” was meant to convey the way ideas could spread in a world with more interactive communications. A real, biological virus has a novel, never-before-seen protein shell that lets it travel through a person’s bloodstream unrecognized. (If the body identifies the virus, it sends antibodies to attack it.) The virus then latches onto a cell in the host organism and injects its genetic code within. The code works its way to the nucleus of the cell and seeks to interpolate itself into the cell’s DNA. The next time the cell reproduces, it replicates the virus’s code along with its own.
Then the person carrying the virus begins spreading it to others. The virus continues to replicate and spread until, at last, the body learns to reject its code. From then on, the protein shell will be recognized and attacked, even if it comes back months or years later. Immunity.
A media virus works the same way. It has a novel, unrecognizable shell — a unique, rule-breaking use of media that seems so sensational we can’t help but spread it. A woman “livestreams” her husband dying of gunshot wounds. A congressman transmits smartphone pictures of his genitals to a minor. A president threatens a nuclear attack in a public, 140-character message typed with his thumbs.
In each case, the story’s initial proliferation has more to do with the medium than the message. The viral shell is not just a media phenomenon, but a way of grabbing attention and paralyzing a person’s critical faculties. That moment of confusion creates the time and space for infection.
The virus continues to replicate only if its code can successfully challenge our own. That’s why the ideas inside the virus — the memes — really matter. A fatal car crash attracts our attention because of the spectacle, but worms its way into our psyche because of our own conflicted relationship with operating such dangerous machinery, or because of the way it disrupts our ongoing denial of our own mortality.
Likewise, a contagious media virus attracts mass attention for its spectacular upending of TV or the net, but then penetrates the cultural psyche by challenging collectively repressed anxieties. Surveillance video of a police van running over a black suspect recalls America’s shamefully unacknowledged history of slavery and ongoing racism. The social media feed of a neo-Nazi bot in Norway can stimulate simmering resentment of the European Union’s dissolution of national identities.
The amazing thing is that it doesn’t matter what side of an issue people are on for them to be infected by the meme and provoked to replicate it. “Look what this person said!” is reason enough to spread it. In the contentious social media surrounding elections, the most racist and sexist memes are reposted less by their advocates than by their outraged opponents. That’s because memes do not compete for dominance by appealing to our intellect, our compassion, or anything to do with our humanity. They compete to trigger our most automatic impulses.