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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Virality virus

I have been interested lately in how virality has come to be an end in itself, something increasingly detached from what is made to go viral. Growing investment in social-media metrics seems to have made circulation more participatory; we identify vicariously with the how information travels as much as with the attributes associated with that information. Participating in a “viral” phenomenon induces a feeling of belonging, much as fads have always done, but the barrier of entry seems lower; it takes less commitment to spread a meme. Social media companies would like it to become even more “frictionless.” Then we can all be trendy without having to risk a conscious effort. To risk a Yakov Smirnovism, memes circulate us rather than vice versa. Interacting with a meme puts us into circulation as a participant.

Mass media made fads part of the zeitgeist of any particular moment, but virality aspires to map the zeitgeist — trace the routes by which ideas spread and count influence in hard numbers. Fads used to have to measure themselves by proxy in sales figures for some particular commodity; now messages themselves are the whole of the commodity, and if there is anything material associated with a viral phenomenon, it is an afterthought, an optional souvenir. Virality becomes self-referential, tautologous, the content of a viral meme is the fact of the meme’s virality, and this autophagy becomes its essence, its motive force. It feedbacks on itself, but no one seems to hear the screech over their own shouting.

But I wanted to hear the opposing case, that there is something other than de facto virality that drives viruses, so I decided to read Contagious, a recent book by Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger that is intended as a kind of sequel to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Gladwell’s book introduced readers to elite influencers, Berger explains, but didn’t do much to explain what could make content itself viral, able to circulate itself efficiently despite the at times dubious quality of the human hosts transmitting it. “Contagious content is … so inherently viral that it spreads regardless of who is doing the talking. Regardless of whether the messengers are really persuasive or not and regardless of whether they have ten friends or ten thousand.” No cults of personality for Berger. No personality at all is required in this world. (Isn’t it wonderfully democratic?)

Contagious presents a reductive view of a social universe driven entirely by promotional discourse and human beings operating on a few very simple principles, dictated by the parameters of  the sort of experiments deployed in university behavioral psychology labs. Ambiguity and ambivalence have no place in this realm; humans act at all times as gamification gurus expect, according to unvarying scripts with instinctual determination to fulfill their encoded directives. “Just like many other animals, people care about hierarchy,” Berger notes by way of urging us to consider how to turn conversation into “social currency.”

Social currency as Berger presents it is a sort of dumbed-down, habitus-free version of Bourdieu’s cultural capital, easily accrued by gathering novel memes and spendable in a direct point-of-sale sort of way to win others’ favor. “Just as people use money to buy products or services, they use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues.” It is as straightforward as that: You buy off your friends with neato information in order to make them like you, and there are no possible negative ramifications — social currency always spends. Hmm. I want my family to like me, but I spent so much social currency on my co-worker that I don’t know if I can afford it. Wish I had some more viral content to wow them with!

Berger’s advice for “minting” social currency is as nauseating as you’d expect: it involves mining the “inner remarkability” of things, “leveraging game mechanics” and “making people feel like insiders,” just what everyone wants from their friends. Who doesn’t want the pressure of instrumentalizing every possible conversational topic? (Berger suggests turning stories into “trojan horses” for branded content and redeem it from being “idle chatter.”) Who doesn’t like the threat of exclusion in an insider/outsider game, or being expected to constantly compete for attention? Who wouldn’t want to have their friends incentivize them to achieve conversational greatness? Berger urges readers to use gamification to “motivate us on an interpersonal level by encouraging social comparison.” Perhaps “social currency” can help us appreciate the motivational encouragement given to the literally awkward in this now infamous sorority email.

In Berger’s social world, friends want to create discomfort for other friends by setting them in situations where there are conversational winners and losers and everyone knows their place on the totem pole of affiliation. Only by stoking this kind of environment does social currency achieves its maximal value. Virality matters only among atomized, anxious self-absorbed competitors who must continually struggle to purchase each other’s attention. We must “harness people’s desire to look good to others” or else they may simply relate to one another in ways from which no one will profit, and what good is that? Really, why should anyone pay attention to anyone other than themselves voluntarily? What benefit is there in that? Unless of course you are earning some social currency, some urgent new memes to spend on someone else down the line.

To make social currency appreciate, Berger also recommends generate a false sense of scarcity and exclusivity. This will make the information you possess seem more urgent and actionable, making others feel the fear of missing out more acutely. So it is important to foster information asymmetries wherever possible, hoard and dole out knowledge only when it is advantageous, only when the cost-benefit analysis certifies it’s prudent. If knowledge is hoarded, people are more likely to rely on imitation for safety, and conformity  spreads like a wonderful virus of social control.

If we are to sustain a promotional culture — Americans mention brands more than 3 billion times a day, Berger asserts, with 100 million conversations about brands taking place every hour — then sociality must consist of easily discernable motives like these: We need to believe that people can be controlled by their unremitting need to constantly impress others or else become irrelevant. Luckily, social media is structured to encourage precisely this view of human relationships. It becomes common sense to expect that self-promotion lies behind all social behavior, and it seems natural to follow suit and spend real currency to accrue the social kind.

The corollary is that we must suppress those emotions that don’t make for valuable social currency. Berger brings up sadness, which is “low arousal” and not viral and thus not something you should discuss with your fellow buzz agents, even if there might be solace in talking to someone and having them sympathize with your pain. Sympathy doesn’t spread from person to new person to new person; it collapses in on the original relationship that generates it, so it is pretty much worthless. Anger, though, is very viral. So troll away.

Berger’s book is essentially a manual for turning friends and other fellow humans into vectors, vehicles for the transmission of promotional discourse. It aims to get us to evaluate all conversations in terms of their effectiveness as word-of-mouth advertising, to see persuasion and promotion as the only reason anyone would try to communicate with anyone else.

It’s startling and sobering to think that this is the world that salespeople actually are forced to inhabit. Plenty of management tracts take this cheery, eager tone toward the manipulation of others, but this one, like Gladwell’s, has aspirations of reaching people reading for pleasure, though it’s distressing to imagine why anyone would enjoy reading this, to think of who is willing to surrender to this worldview without at least being paid white collar wages for it. But I guess it’s interesting to read as dystopian science fiction.

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