2 of 4 What Makes a Video Viral go Viral?

Trojan Virality

The idea of idiocy is nothing new to contagion theory. In Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd, for example, the social collectives through which contagion spread were considered to be stupider than the individual minds that compose them. To put it another way, it is not simply the case that what spreads is idiotic. It is also the infected social medium that is made up of so many idiots. To be sure, Le Bon’s The Crowd is like the smart mob thesis in reverse: we are stupider together than we are alone. Le Bon was of course afraid of the crowd. In an age of revolutionary contagion it posed a real threat to his social class. But despite his acute aristocratic paranoia concerning the crowd’s revolutionary potential (paranoia that still reverberates within the neo-liberal power structures of today) what he does usefully point to is the collective idiot’s vulnerability to Trojan-like events. Unlike the anomic regulatory forces of his contemporary Durkheim, which were supposed to detect such anomalous contagions, this straw man of 19th century contagion theory provides a few compelling examples of how Trojan virals slip under the collective consciousness, appearing to function according to a “mechanism of hallucination.” As follows, Le Bon recounts how one of Napoleon’s frigates, the Belle Poule, fell victim to a hallucinatory Trojan event. The ship was “cruising in the open sea for the purpose of finding the cruiser Le Berceau, from which she had been separated by a violent storm.” He continues:

“It was broad daylight and in full sunshine. Suddenly the watch signaled a disabled vessel; the crew looked in the direction signaled, and every one, officers and sailors, clearly perceived a raft covered with men towed by boats which were displaying signals of distress. Yet this was nothing more than a collective hallucination. Admiral Desfosses lowered a boat to go to the rescue of the wrecked sailors.”

Belle-poule

The Belle Poule

“On nearing the object sighted, the sailors and officers on board the boat saw “masses of men in motion, stretching out their hands, and heard the dull and confused noise of a great number of voices.” When the object was reached those in the boat found themselves simply and solely in the presence of a few branches of trees covered with leaves that had been swept out from the neighboring coast.” Before evidence so palpable the hallucination vanished.”

And what idiots Napoleon’s sailors and officers must have felt like – just as stupid perhaps as those YouTube visitors caught out by the present day Trojans of internet viral marketers. Take for example an early video viral from YouTube called Lonelygirl15. In 2006 a series of webcast blogs were uploaded to the video-sharing website YouTube. Set in the bedroom of an often-pouting teenager, Lonelygirl15 attracted the largest number of visitors to the file-sharing site since its creation the year before.

lonelygirl-1

Lonelygirl15 (Photo by Jeff Ellis as published in the book Virality)

The video also triggered a wave of imitative video clips and feverish comments posted by fans of the blog. These comments reveal a distinct lack of awareness on behalf of these fans concerning what would be later exposed as a hoax. Lonelygirl15 was an actress, and the video blog was designed to promote the work of a couple of budding Internet moviemakers. Here the viral marketers not only set out to publicize their work and make some money, but they also made idiots out of those YouTube visitors who were, it seems, fooled into believing in what turned out to be a ruse.

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About Virality

Tony D. Sampson is Reader in Digital Culture and Communications at the University of East London. A former musician, he studied computer technology and cultural theory before receiving a PhD in sociology from the University of Essex. His publications include The Spam Book, coedited with Jussi Parikka (Hampton Press, 2009), Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and Affect and Social Media (Rowman and Littlefield, due 2018). He is organizer and host of the Affect and Social Media conferences in the UK, a co-founder of Club Critical Theory and Director of the EmotionUX Lab at UEL. He occasionally blogs at: https://viralcontagion.wordpress.com/ Full academic profile: https://www.uel.ac.uk/Staff/s/tony-sampson
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