Images from Virality – future project with artists at UEL

As part of a potential joint project between authors and artists at UEL (intended to explore how the concepts in a book like Virality might be morphed into media other than a book, or how the material below might be rematerialized) I’m posting images from the book along with some context (includes some images that never made it through the final edit).

Resuscitating Tarde’s Diagram in the Age of Networks
Virality begins with an interpretation of the foundational sociological ideas Gabriel Tarde forwarded in three key texts: Social Laws, The Laws of Imitation, and Psychological Economy. These books introduced a complex series of interwoven microrelations, the diagram of which provides a novel alternative to dominant micro- and macroreductionisms so often attributed to social, cultural, and economic relationality. The aim here is to disentangle Tarde from Durkheim’s collective consciousness and unravel contested claims that try to make him a forefather of both memetics and actor network theory. Virality instead aligns Tarde to Deleuzian assemblage theory, connects him to a disparate series of past and present contagion theories.

These include approaches to imitation and conformity, crowd manias, and contemporary perspectives drawn from cognitive neuroscience and the theory of affect. By breathing new life into these microrelations, Virality intends to further connect Tarde to present-day network ontology.

What Spreads? From Memes and Crowds to the Phantom Events of Desire and Belief

The Virality of the LG15 YouTube videos. A so-called Internet meme

Virality focuses on various aspects of Obama love. Photo by Jeff Ellis, Photoshopped by the author

What spreads through a social network is all too often attributed to two largely uncontested logics of resemblance and repetition. First, cultural contagion is assumed to correspond to a distinctive biologically determined unit of imitation (the meme). This is unquestionably a mechanistic virality analogically compared to the canonical imprint of genetic code. Second, what spreads is said to occur in a representational space of collective contamination in which individual persons who become part of a crowd tend toward thinking in the same mental images (real and imagined). Like this, the reasoned individual is seemingly overpowered by a neurotic mental state of unity unique to the crowd, which renders subjectivity vulnerable to further symbolic contagious encounters and entrainments.

Milgram’s Manhattan Experiment

A big influence on Virality, although not entirely aligned to Tarde’s diagrams, it must be added, is Milgram’s Manhattan experiment. Nearly eighty years after Tarde’s ruminations about the society of imitation, a research team headed by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram set up an experiment intended to better understand how social influence spreads through the urban crowd. Mirroring to some extent Tarde’s late-nineteenth-century interest in how imitative contagions propagate through social collectives mostly unawares, Milgram’s experiment in 1968 was designed to stimulate the imitative behaviors of individuals as they encountered a crowd. To begin with, an actor was planted on a busy Manhattan street corner and told to look up at a tall building while the researchers observed the actions of unwitting passers-by. A few of the passers-by noticed and looked up too. However, Milgram then increased the number of skyward looking actors to five.

Stanley Milgram’s skywards pointing people (as carried out by our new media students at UEL) provides an interesting example of the contagiousness of phantoms (Photo by Jeff Ellis)

The idea was to gauge how this increase in stimulus would influence the decisionmaking processes of the urbanite passers-by and to record how many more of them would subsequently imitate the skyward looking crowd. In the first test, 20 percent of the passers-by looked up, but when five actors appeared on the street corner, the number apparently jumped to 80 percent. From these results, Milgram deduced his theory of social proof; that is, as our performance piece at UEL (image above right) shows, on encountering the crowd, the individual makes a contagious assumption based on the quantity of evidence that there is something worth looking up at. To put it another way, the individual’s imitation of others is largely dependent on his cognitive assessment of the magnitude of social influence.

The LG15 viral video, another example of the contagiousness of phantoms (Photo by Jeff Ellis, Photoshopped by the author)

As becomes apparent in Virality, Milgram’s impact on the new network sciences approach to contagion has been considerable.

Network scientists, like Albert-Laszlo Barabási (influenced by Milgram), have developed the scale-free network. This network model has become the favoured diagram of contagion.

Not only has his work greatly influenced the models used but his ideas figure writ large in the stress given to an individual’s instinctual tendency to herd or cascade, particularly in times of bubble building and subsequent financial crisis but also during the spreading of fashion and fads. In many of these accounts, imitative decisions (rationale or irrational) conforming to the social actions of others are assumed to be biologically hardwired into the brain, enabling a person to make snap judgments to avoid, for example, threats to her physical, emotional, or financial well-being. Notably, even when using online systems like e-mail, it is argued that “the human brain is hardwired with the proclivity to follow the lead of others.”

Barabasi describes the power law behind the scale free model like this: “If the heights of an imaginary planet’s inhabitants followed a power law distribution, most creatures would be really short. But nobody would be surprised to see occasionally a-hundred feet-tall monster in fact among six billion inhabitants there would be at least one over 8,000 feet tall.” This picture was snapped by Jussi Parikka while at a conference in Barcelona a few years back. I thought it captured something of the power law (Photoshopped by the author)

Milgram’s focus on the individual’s internal motivations guiding decision-making processes (agentic states, as he called it) clearly differs in many ways from Tarde. It is the evolutionary propensity of individuals to obey rather than to imitate that matters. He is not, as such, untypical of the cognitive turn in the twentieth century (discussed in the introduction to Virality), in this case in social psychology, in which crowd behavior was generally traced to the disposition of individuals caught up in a natural chain of command or hierarchy rather than association or disassociation. As Milgram argues, imitation leads to conformity, but obedience ultimately requires the distinct social action of the individual. Whereas crowd theory ascribed contagious affect to mania and hypnosis, the cognitive turn would contrastingly dismiss such ideas as fanciful psychologism. Nevertheless, Milgram was famously the great manipulator of the social encounter. Resembling his other famous experiments linking social conformity to authority and obedience, his triggering of crowd contagion in Manhattan was unquestionably socially engineered. He might even be considered a hypnotist of sorts, or an authentic viral marketer, insofar as he planted suggestibility, via the points of fascination provided by his skyward looking actors, into the neurological, biological, and sociological composition of the crowd. From this privileged position, Milgram not only observed but also controlled the involuntary, semiconscious, and imitative responses his experiment induced.

Two Stratagems of Virality (borrowing approach from Evil Media)

Stratagem 1: Immunologic

The immunologic stratagem has two parts. The first is explained here by way of registering the efforts made by the antivirus (AV) industry to counter the computer virus writing scene (VX). Both AV and VX have been complicit in a discursive and prediscursive immunological conflict that associates digital contagion with anxieties concerning biological contamination. This decidedly asymmetrical conflict involves the stirring up of a kind of misotramontanism (a fear of the other) that is endemic to an entrepreneurial endeavor to sell more security via appeals to insecurity as well as being inserted into the materiality of AV software systems. Indeed, immunological conflict is more than a rhetorical war of words intended to “legitimize” the immunity (and integrity) of a discursively designated self pitted against a hostile nonself. It also features in the software infrastructures that organize the network space. Clearly language plays a major role. As Sean Cubitt eloquently puts it, the “metaphor of contagion is at once to presume the integrity of the cell” and therefore legitimatize “a counter-attack based on maintaining that integrity and limiting, if not destroying, the virus’s ability to mutate.” Nonetheless, these linguistic associations have become more concretely embedded in the logic of future network conflict. The persuasive force of this logic is not fixed or limited by linguistic representations but is transformed by the discursive events of language that order the contents of the assemblages to which they relate. Unlike a linguistic representation, then, the immunological binaries of self and nonself operate as an incorporeal transformation via expressions “inserted into” contents, that is, not represented but delimited, anticipated, moved back, slowed down or sped up, separated or combined. As follows, the second part of the immunologic stratagem cunningly positions a wide range of new network threats at the center of further anxieties concerning the lack of an assignable enemy.

Like the War on Viruses, then, the deceptions of the War on Terror exemplify how the heightening of fears associated with a transmittable and infectious unknown enemy becomes endemic to the subterfuge of a progressively more indiscriminate network security paradigm.

Stratagem 2: Viral Love

Tarde clearly regarded love as a powerful political concept. In fact, in his science fiction–climate disaster novel Underground Man, published in 1905, he writes about the fate of the human race as it is forced to live beneath the surface of the earth when the sun begins to die. This catastrophic environmental event provokes social instabilities marked by a shift from social hierarchy to social harmony. As a consequence, love not only replaces the energy of the sun but becomes a major force of social power. Love becomes the very air that the Underground Man breathes. Not surprisingly, perhaps, humans soon become embroiled in a bloody conflict for this precious recourse. On one side, there are those who fight “to assert the freedom of love with its uncertain fecundity,” and on the other, there are those who want to regulate it. In the “forced intimacy of a cave,” Tarde writes, “there is no mean between warfare and love, between mutual slaughter or mutual embraces.” Love is war.

Obama love spreads via Facebook

It is also endemic to the “extra-logical” influences that underpin the laws of imitation, and by pointing to the desire to love as central to the exercise of power, Tarde similarly raises some very interesting questions concerning what is located between the “uncertain fecundity” of love and the tyrannies that seek to regulate its flow. Indeed, there seems to be a very thin line separating, on one hand, the spontaneity of a love that spreads freely and, on the other hand, a love that controls. There is “nothing more natural,” Tarde states, “than that those who love each other should copy each other,” but love-imitation is a distinctly asymmetrical relation insofar as it is the lover who by and large copies the beloved.

Obama Love

In contrast to the microbial contagions of the neo-Cons, and their appeal to the political unconscious through the cold, emotionless channels of advisors like Cheney and the fearmongering of Rumsfeld, Obama’s campaign of hope and change managed to empathically tap into the infectable emotions of many U.S. voters. Indeed, empathy became the political tool of choice—a response to Bush’s failure to connect with the public mood, particularly after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. But Obama-love was also a contagion befitting the age of networks: the political shift in power from the G. W. Bush administration’s spreading of fear via the repeated use of TV images of 9/11 to Obama’s election campaign of hope and change propagated via Facebook and Flickr photos.

Tardean Hypnosis: Capture and Escape in the Age of Contagion

Neuropersuasion and Noncognitive Capitalism

An eye tracking heat map capturing the attention (or distractions) of the consumer (image by the author)

The force of imitative encounter is a difficult event to grasp insofar as it is by and large insubstantial. The imitative ray is indeed a constituent of “unknown and unknowable . . . universal repetitions.” This is because a social contagion has a subrepresentational affective charge that seems to pass through social atmospheres, entering into the biology of the contaminated body via the skin before it triggers social actions, emotions, and thoughts. The organizing principle (if that is the right word to use) of affective contagion is after all its deterritorialized flow and the capacity of that flow to contaminate whatever it comes into contact with. But what matters to the marketer today does not necessarily need to have a substance to persuade. Although imitation-suggestibility is, it would seem, without a body, the intensity of its flow is not entirely untraceable or, indeed, immeasurable. Technological innovations have allowed business enterprises to detect flows of influence at the surface of the skin and regions of the brain even before a decision is made. As follows, the Tardean trajectory becomes traceable in the efforts marketers make to tap into the affective absorbency a consumer has to imitation-suggestibility. For example, so-called neuromarketers are deploying a combination of eye tracking, galvanic skin response (GSR), and electroencephalography (EEG) to develop new methods of persuasion. These practices map out correlations between what draws a consumer’s spontaneous attention and changes in skin conductance and brain activity linked to inferred emotional states to better prime a “propensity to buy.” This is a deeper intensification of the technological unconscious currently entering into the realm of neuropersuasion, where the pretesting of involuntary and spontaneous consumption helps to ensure that marketing messages move more rapidly to memory, without the need for costly posttest surveys. Of course, this technoexpansion into neurological unconsciousness raises big ethical questions concerning social power. Indeed, the technologies used to tap into the visceral relations consumers have with brands and products intervene in a seemingly entrenched ocularcentric Western paradigm. The pure reason of Enlightenment Man, linked as he so often is to a visual bias, representational objectivity, and the exclusion of subjective affect, comes into direct conflict with the idea that irreducible subrepresentational flows might actually have a mind of their own. There is nothing new in such a challenge. The notion of an unaffected ocularcentric reason has already been confronted by questions concerning the problematic distancing function the visual system establishes between subject and object, and here I similarly approach problems relating to the pureness of the objective pathway that is assumed to relate objects to eyes and minds.

Bird Brains

The below is taken from an article to be published in Distinktion in December. It not only links nicely with the cover (an accident), but it points toward my next project concerning neuroculture.

Tarde’s society of imitation has multiple territorial arrangements which can be understood through the Deleuzo-Guattarian conceptions of refrains and lines of flight. As a pianist Guattari grasped how the rhythm of a ritornello composes the time and space in which music is played (Dosse, 2010, 253). How the return to a repeated theme brings together the singularities of an improvisation and the repetition of imitation brings unity to composition. Like Guattari, Tarde used the example of birdsong refrains to think through how species produce territorial unity.

Cover Design by Martyn Schmoll

The memetic bird is generally understood to imitate the song of their mothers, and others in their specie line, so as to delineate territorial boundaries. However, territorial unity is complicated by what appears to be the many examples of cross-kingdom imitation. As Deleuze and Guattari (1987, 302) suggest, the ‘labor of the refrain’ can be used for ‘very subtle deterritorializations.’ It does not remain territorial, but ‘selective lines of flight’ transverse ‘across all coordinates—and all of the intermediaries between the two,’ before lapsing back into the refrain. Quite unlike memetic birdsong which requires a particular species to learn an exact copy of a catchy song before passing it down the hereditary line, the Tardean bird reaches out and borrows from an arrangement of interconnecting lines of communication. Like Proust’s fat bumble bee fertilizing the orchid, the social reaches outside the species line to borrow the desires and inventions of others. Tarde in fact refers to a ‘deep-seated desire to imitate for the sake of imitation,’ noting how ‘[a] mocking-bird can imitate a cock’s crow so accurately that the very hens are deceived’ (Tarde 1903, 67). Imitative birdsong, as Guattari similarly argues, becomes an unintentional occupation of frequencies (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 331). The more birds, the more the species lines get crossed, and the more lines of communication get crossed, the more the refrains are exposed to the outside. The social relation becomes a multiplicity ‘defined by the outside: by the abstract line, the line of flight or deterritorialization according to which they change in nature and connect with other multiplicities’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 9). The occupation becomes inseparable from the decomposing lines of flight that lead to other assemblages, producing an intermixing of birdsong. Think of it as a remixing or scrambling of codes which can lapse back into the refrain, disrupt its repetition, before becoming a new line of flight.

While memetics would perhaps render all endeavours made by animals to be social in the human world abortive due to their failure to evolve imitation into developed cognitive capacities lie language, Tarde contends that every animal, like every human ‘reaches out’ to the social life to satisfy their innate capacity to imitate (Tarde 1903, 67). This is Tarde’s ‘sine qua non of mental development,’ a precondition of all social life which predates language (Tarde 1903, 67). As he puts it, ‘[t]he adaptive capacity of cerebral functions, the mind, is distinguished from other functions in not being a simple adaptation of definite means to definite ends.’ (Tarde 1903, 67) The adaptive mind is ‘indeterminate’ and depends more or less on the chance ‘imitation of outside things’ (Tarde 1903, 67).  Prior to a late twentieth century neuroscientific understanding of a hardwired imitative capacity which may have evolved initially to help animals improve physical movements and eventually became available for more complex functions like language, Tarde located the social mind in an ‘infinite outside’ or ‘outer world’ of imitation-repetition (Tarde 1903, 67). Mutual examples are not simply imitated by way of top down, internalized cognitive processes of the mind, but also filter through the noncognitive sharing of feelings, sensations and emotions. These are reciprocated magnetisms that form part of a ‘universal nature’ – a ‘continual and irresistible action by suggestion upon the… brain and muscular system,’ (Tarde 1903, 67) which spreads through the social environment.


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: Full academic profile:
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