Recent Talks on Virality (part one)

The following posts are adapted from the notes of two recent Virality related talks. The first, a much longer effort, begins at the University of East London on the 22nd October. The second (the latter half of these posts) continues at Goldsmiths later the same day to celebrate the launch of Evil Media (Goffey and Fuller), Virality and the latest issue of Computational Culture.

UEL 22nd Oct

The introduction of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of the rhizome to the digital media cultures debate in the 1990s was followed by a lot of speculative writing concerning the democratic nature of hypertext and the Web.

For example, in 1993, Kathleen Burnett’s “Toward A Theory Of Hypertextual Design“, claimed that  “At its most political, connectivity is a democratizing principle”

But networks have proven to be both democratic and aristocratic.

Not surprising perhaps. In Deleuzian ontology there have always been two kinds of multiplicity…

There are lines of flight and refrains, smooth and striated spaces. Rhizomes becoming knots.

In many ways then, my research interest begins with trying to grasp these multiplicities by exploring the computer virus problem.

One way to approach the virus was to see it as a discursive formation of the network security industry, where it has predominantly been viewed as a “threat”.

 For example, in one journal article I wrote about the plight of a Canadian lecturer who had been severely criticised by the AV industry for teaching his students to code viruses.

Jussi Parrika’s book (inset) was the first to approach the computer virus problem without falling back on merely rhetorical analysis.

Around this time I also met up with a future collaborator (Jussi Parikka) who was similarly using Deleuze to look at viruses as discursive “bad” objects.

The bad virus is not simply a discursive formation. The “threat” has a material affect, and defines, to a great extent, what you can and cannot do on a network.

After reading Fred Cohen’s PhD thesis (the first computer science paper on viruses), I became interested in Cohen’s notion that viruses could in fact be benevolent. That is, viruses could function as an alternative mode of communication…

Gary Genosko’s book traces communication models from cybernetics to network cultures

 Some of these ideas, first published in M/C journal in 2005, have recently been used in Gary Genosko’s new book, Remodelling Communication.

Cohen concluded his thesis by pointing to a problem not solely to do with code, but to do with networks. A network that is open, he says, (i.e. open for sharing) is also open to viral contamination.

There were others working on the viral. Alex Galloway and Eugene Thacker, for example, approached viruses via Deleuze’s control society thesis. The control society breaks with Foucault’s disciplinary society, A move away from heat factories, toward a society controlled by computers and continuous networks. The passive danger of entropy and active danger of sabotage, is replaced in the control society by the crash, and viruses and piracy.

“There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.” (Deleuze, 1990)

In her book, Abstract Sex, Luciana Parisi similarly draws on the capacity of the viral to apply Deleuzian ontology to biotech reproduction.

Parisi’s viruses provide a significant alternative to dominant neo-Darwinist accounts of reproduction, according to an evolutionary survival mechanism, pointing instead toward an assemblage theory of the viral.

In 2009 I co-edited this collection focusing on the anomalies of network culture.

We invited contributions from Parisi, Galloway and Thacker, Sadie Plant, and Matt Fuller and Andy Goffey, to name but a few.

We described our approach as “topological,” requiring us to focus on the forces that constitute moral judgements of good and bad. We also deployed the famous Monty Python spam sketch as a counter to George Gerbner’s effects theory. We were less interested in media meaning than we were in the accidents of communication. Like this, anomalies are not counter to a network architecture. They are the becoming of a network.

                                                                                                                                                                 My chapter looked specifically at the idea of universal contagion, and asked: “what makes a network become viral?” I compared the notion of rhizomatic communication with what network science was telling us, at the time, about how network architectures emerge. Before the 1990s, and the invent of the Web, most network modelling had assumed complex networks to be randomly connected.

However, using the Web as a new, rich source of data, researchers began to observe a scale free model of connectivity. Scale free networks are both random and organised, and paradoxically, unstable and stable at once. They have been compared to a capricious fractal. Scale free networks are generally characterised by the growth of giant nodes. 20% of these nodes can have 80% of the connectivity.

In a more recent co-written chapter (with Parikka) we have again looked at how network dysfunctionalies are informing certain marketing practices. We argue that business enterprises are learning from spam and viral tactics, so as to develop new epidemiological worlds of consumption.

For example, The DubitInsider concept presents a very simple marketing idea. It seeks to recruit 7-24 year olds who consider themselves to be peer leaders with strong communication skills to act as Brand Ambassadors. In short, this requires the clandestine passing on of online and offline product suggestions to their peers via internet postings on social networks, emails, instant messenger conversations, and organising small events and parties.

 The chapter also follows a recent challenge to a widely accepted law of viral marketing; that is, the power of the influential.

Drawing from epidemiology Malcolm Gladwell argued that a few trendsetting individuals can tip the threshold of an epidemic.

 However, this mainstay of word-of-mouth marketing  is confronted by the network scientist Duncan Watts, who points to the accidents of network contagion. Given the right conditions, he argues, anyone can spread a virus.

My contribution to the Spam Book concludes by referring to early 19th century French sociology, and Gabriel Tarde’s appealing counter Durkheimian social contagion theory.

At the end of the 19th (and beginning of the 20th) century, Durkheim and Tarde provided two distinct and competing theories of the social.

It is this initial interest in Tarde that leads to Virality (see part two).

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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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