[Image: Kris Hargis]
I keep telling myself I should stop pursuing virality through critiques of virality. But then I’ll read something about how virality can be pursued and engineered as an end in itself — like this Wall Street Journal piece
by Farhad Manjoo, or this
from the Atlantic Wire about the site Viral Nova by Alex Litel — and I will be inspired to write a series of tweets about online circulation and its various measures displacing other forms of content with which to make up the self. And then I will track my Interactions page on the Twitter site to see how they did, and how I am doing.
The thrust of the articles linked above is that aggregating viral content is a business model threatened by its own popularity. Renowned viral-content collector Neetzan Zimmerman worries his methods will be adopted by competitors; Viral Nova proves how launching a viral-content site takes few employees and little capital, thus threatening the potential of viral sites in general as an investment.
Though ViralNova is the synthesis of a self-made millionaire’s years of experience in SEO-driven content, it also represents the volatility of internet-oriented media—someone without venture capital, publicists, or big-name journalists, effectively built their own immensely successful version of BuzzFeed or Upworthy. As much as those sites might market their proprietary technology and processes, ViralNova suggests it can be reverse engineered fairly quickly by anyone with a careful eye for emulation — which is to say everyone on the Internet.
The fact that virality can be “reverse engineered” without fear of shortages of viral-worthy content is interesting enough. “Amazing” and “heartwarming” or “surprising” content is a matter of form, not extraordinary incident. But how did “everyone on the Internet” become so good at “emulating” this form, or at emulation in general? Does this mark some kind of evolution in subjectivity toward spurious cultural replication? Is the appeal of viral content the model it provides for self-memeification? Are we all starting to premise our self-worth on manufacturing or uncovering virality (and thus becoming viral ourselves by proxy) as Neetzan Zimmerman does? Is the pursuit of virality becoming hegemonic, as online “engagement” metrics that track viral content are taken also for reliable measures of self-esteem?
Engineering virality seems to be becoming a virtue in its own right, a moral practice. Being able to play upon various emotional triggers to generate virality subordinates those emotions to a greater “good,” whose goodness is established by the mobility of the affect generated. It’s less a matter of something being “moving” than the fact that it “moves” — that the experience culminates not with how you feel upon being told something but in retelling it. The emotions that viral content provoke almost immediately become pretexts for establishing a point of contact with an audience — that feeling of connection serves as the governing emotion, the root of “authentic” feeling.
Virality thereby becomes the reigning truth procedure, setting the horizon beneath which occurrences no longer figure socially, no longer count for anchoring identity or asserting a self. If a retold experience doesn’t continue to circulate, the experience and the original retelling of it amount to nothing. They are not even false; they simply don’t matter.
This, then, would be the “viral self,” which knows itself only in terms of how well it can circulate content. When it can no longer circulate content, or what it shares goes nowhere, it ceases to exist. It is “postauthentic” in that it finds the truth of itself in ex post facto metrics rather than fidelity to some pre-existing ethic or value system. “Authenticity” is an after effect of having marshaled an audience that values your content. It has nothing to do to being true to some unchanging interior spirit regardless of the presence of an audience or not.
The “viral self” could also replace the concept of “microcelebrity” or “microfame” as a way to describe what people are doing on social media in trying to garner likes, followers, reblogs, and so on. I have never really liked the implications of those terms, which suggest a pursuit of some excess above ordinary social life, as if the pursuit of microfame expressed a dissatisfaction with one’s appropriate and “natural” level of social attention. But virality isn’t about exclusivity or personal talent; it’s instead an expression of being extremely attuned to what is expected, what is desired by others, what can provoke another’s engagement and inspire them to connect other people to your information. You become subordinate and equivalent to the information you spread, which itself is only significant insofar as it is spreading and remains in motion. A famous person has become a someone; a viral self is always in process of becoming, proving itself. It is dynamic without being necessarily aspirational; it needs only to be moving, circulating; it doesn’t need to climb.
Social media don’t facilitate the pursuit of fame — establishing one’s permanent arrival at a level of social importance. That is still reserved for the few. Instead they normalize the measuring of attention and circulation, of making “engagement” the unit of social recognition (as it is for advertising efficacy — in a consumer society, advertising establishes our social norms). By concretizing and facilitating engagement, social media unsettle our bearings for figuring out what a normal or “appropriate” amount of attention is. No one knows what is normal, what is enough. It’s always being refreshed. Instead, one learns that sharing and posting makes one appear, makes one be — and when others re-share what you shared, your being becomes more secure as long as that process continues. Your being ripples throughout the network, and you can hear the echoes.
Social media sustain a measurement system that makes “more attention” seem always appropriate and anything less insufficient. If you are not growing your online presence, if your content is not circulating ever more widely, then you are failing. You are disappearing. You are not only not “microfamous”; you are not socially relevant. You are on the fringe, in danger of total exclusion. You are adding nothing to the social bottom line. You are not inspiring anybody.