The Viral Self

Image by 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.

That is to say, talk of viral content almost always makes me think of how it teaches us what it takes to engineer the self to go viral. What viral content reflects is the desire to put ourselves in broader circulation, to find irresistible tidbits of information that can be turned into trojan horses carrying a more significant piece of data: the proof of our social existence.

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.

Litel writes:

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. 

In other words, everybody can turn their own online presence into a viral-content startup.

The fact that virality can be "reverse engineered" without fear of shortages of viral-worthy content is interesting enough. "Amazing" and "heart-warming" or "surprising" content is a matter of form, not extraordinary incident. These words trigger likes the way old novels triggered tears — you didn't want to seem unfeeling so you did it. But the fact that "everyone on the Internet" has become so good at "emulation" suggest the appeal of viral content is in the model it provides for self-memeification. Are we all starting to premise our self-worth on being as viral as Neetzan Zimmerman's content? Is the pursuit of virality becoming hegemonic, as online "engagement" metrics that track viral content are taken also for reliable measures of self-esteem?

The point of viral content, in part, is not to learn about "little girls in Afghanistan who are better at skateboarding than you'll ever be" or other such stories (which often turn out to be untrue) but to be the person who responds correctly to them and who tells someone else about them. The function of viral content is to permit vicarious participation in the emotions of the story, and vicarious participation in the social. The perceived virality, popularity, of the content, illusory or not, elicits a richer emotional response in the consumer of the content. Virality may function as disinhibition for a reader, authorizing fantasy and emotional investment, a suspension of disbelief that is sustained by apparent social support. Everyone is talking about this! In that sense it is "real" regardless of whether the details are accurate. The circulation of the story makes it a social fact.

This is nothing new; it is how gossip and tabloids have always worked. What is new is the veneer of statistical measurement behind labeling something viral that makes its allure and efficacy as vicarious prompt — for the time being, anyway — stronger. You can see how the story is circulating and participate and consume it at that level. You can experience virality as an emotion.

Once everyone knows about Upworthy and can source viral material from it themselves, though, its thrill is gone. Virality settles into traditional mass-media reach. And Facebook's engineers, whose algorithms underlie virality in practice, retool how their site's newsfeed works, as Ezra Klein explains here, to thwart overpopular or overliked content. And so new viral-content providers must be uncovered, new ruses to evade filters and stoke consumers' vanity devised. Viral content sites themselves have a viral life span.

But the "viral self" remains an aspiration, even when disparate viral-content sites flame out. Social media supply the infrastructure for a kind of everyday epidemiology of oneself, of one's social infectiousness. This can become the self's purpose, its anchor, its way of confirming itself to itself. When the viral self is off the timelines, out of the newsfeeds, making no push notifications happen for anyone, it is thrown into an existential crisis, seeking for new bait to inject into the network.

The viral self also knows itself in how it signals certain attachments and commitments through re-sharing. (In his post, Klein highlights the sort of peer pressure stoked by manipulative "viral" headlines: "Are you such a jerk that you won't take a moment to see the heartbreaking reason this mother had to abandon her dying baby? ... what does it say to your friend who shared it if you pass over this post in order to like something about cupcakes?") Social media in general give a stage on which to perform this sort of reader reception, which intensifies the experience and stakes of reading — or simply liking, which allows one to participate in the excitement of a story without bothering with reading beyond the headline. I know my reaction to something I am reading can be performed on Twitter, so I am sure to have a reaction, to method-act my response and see how it goes over. That is an added bonus I get from consuming content online, that I don't get from perusing Life & Style in the grocery-store line. That performance can then circulate and substantiate me, as well as provide the immediate pleasure of vicarious involvement with the story and with the crowd I imagine all responding together.

Engineering virality thus threatens to serve as a moral practice in its own right. Being able to play upon various emotional triggers to generate virality and respond appropriately to them subordinates those emotions to a greater good, whose goodness is established by the feeling's mobility, its trackable transferability — it's less a matter of something being moving than the fact that it moves. The emotions that viral content provoke almost immediately become pretexts for establishing a point of contact with an audience, and that feeling of spreading connection serves as the master emotion, the root of "authentic" feeling. Having feelings is pointless if you can't be seen having them. That was true in the late-18th-century heyday of sensibility spurred by the emergence of novels as a social medium; it's true now with online social media, in amplified form. Having feelings is pointless if your performance of them is not as viral as the occasion that prompted them.

Virality thereby becomes 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.

Just as genuineness  has proved irrelevant to viral content, it is also irrelevant to the viral self. The viral self 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. Its "authenticity" is an after-effect of having marshaled an audience that values the content it circulates. Being true to some unchanging interior spirit, being consistent despite the demands of an audience watching — these are not such relevant concerns anymore.

I think viral self works better than "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. What social media precisely do is unsettle our bearings for figuring out what a normal or "appropriate" amount of attention is supposed to be.

Virality, unlike celebrity, isn't about exclusivity or personal talent; it's about moving information continually. Wanting to go viral is not the same as wanting to become famous. Whereas a famous person has become a someone, a viral self is always in process of becoming, always proving itself. But it needs only to be circulating; it doesn't need to climb.

Social media don't facilitate the pursuit of fame any more than any other form of media does. Fame is still reserved for the few. Still, the architecture of social media normalizes making "engagement" the unit of social recognition, just as it is for advertising efficacy. (After all, in a consumer society, we aspire to be as popular as the products we are expected to crave.)  The ubiquity of virality makes it seem as though one can fit in only by spreading oneself indiscriminately. But what one might be trying to fit into is amorphous, all-encompassing — less a place or a community than a statistical curve, a limit approached asymptotically.

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.

But as long as others re-share what you share, your being is secure. You are rippling throughout the network, and you can hear the reassuring echoes.