If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead (Part One): Media Viruses and Memes

Over the next eight posts, I am going to be serializing a white paper which was developed last year by the Convergence Culture Consortium on the topic of Spreadable media. This report was drafted by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, and Ana Domb Krauskopf With Joshua Green. Our research was funded by the members of the Convergence Culture Consortium, including GSDM Advertising, MTV Networks, and Turner Broadcasting.

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I was able to share some of the key insights from this research during my opening remarks at the Futures of Entertainment conference last fall, where they have sparked considerable discussion within the branded entertainment sector. We are hoping that sharing this work in progress with you will spark further debate, allowing us to tap the collective intelligence of our readers. Green, Sam Ford, and I are developing this research into a book, which will further map how information circulates across the emerging media landscape.

Introduction: Media Viruses and Memes

Use of the terms “viral” and “memes” by those in the marketing, advertising and media industries may be creating more confusion than clarity. Both these terms rely on a biological metaphor to explain the way media content moves through cultures, a metaphor that confuses the actual power relations between producers, properties, brands, and consumers. Definitions of ‘viral’ media suffer from being both too limiting and too all-encompassing. The term has ‘viral’ has been used to describe so many related but ultimately distinct practices — ranging from Word-of-Mouth marketing to video mash-ups and remixes posted to YouTube — that just what counts as viral is unclear. It is invoked in discussions about buzz marketing and building brand recognition while also popping up in discussions about guerilla marketing, exploiting social networks, and mobilizing consumers and distributors. Needless, the concept of viral distribution is useful for understanding the emergence of a spreadable media landscape. Ultimately, however, viral media is a flawed way to think about distributing content through informal or adhoc networks of consumers.

Talking about memes and viral media places an emphasis on the replication of the original idea, which fails to consider the everyday reality of communication — that ideas get transformed, repurposed, or distorted as they pass from hand to hand, a process which has been accelerated as we move into network culture. Arguably, those ideas which survive are those which can be most easily appropriated and reworked by a range of different communities. In focusing on the involuntary transmission of ideas by unaware consumers, these models allow advertisers and media producers to hold onto an inflated sense of their own power to shape the communication process, even as unruly behavior by consumers becomes a source of great anxiety within the media industry. A close look at particular examples of Internet “memes” or “viruses” highlight the ways they have mutated as they have traveled through an increasingly participatory culture.

Given these limitations, we are proposing an alternative model which we think better accounts for how and why media content circulates at the present time, the idea of spreadable media. A spreadable model emphasizes the activity of consumers — or what Grant McCracken calls “multipliers” — in shaping the circulation of media content, often expanding potential meanings and opening up brands to unanticipated new markets. Rather than emphasizing the direct replication of “memes,” a spreadable model assumes that the repurposing and transformation of media content adds value, allowing media content to be localized to diverse contexts of use. This notion of spreadability is intended as a contrast to older models of stickiness which emphasize centralized control over distribution and attempts to maintain ‘purity’ of message.

In this section, we will explore the roots of the concept of viral media, looking at the concept of the “media viruses” and its ties to the theory of the “meme.” The reliance on a potent biological metaphor to describe the process of communication reflects a particular set of assumptions about the power relations between producers, texts, and consumers which may obscure the realities these terms seek to explain. The metaphor of “infection” reduces consumers to the involuntary “hosts” of media viruses, while holding onto the idea that media producers can design “killer” texts which can ensure circulation by being injected directly into the cultural “bloodstream.” While attractive, such a notion doesn’t reflect the complexity of cultural and communicative processes. A continued dependency on terms based in biological phenomena dramatically limits our ability to adequately describe media circulation as a complex system of social, technological, textual, and economic practices and relations.

In the following, we will outline the limits of these two analogies as part of making the case for the importance of adopting a new model for thinking about the grassroots circulation of content in the current media landscape. In the end, we are going to propose that these concepts be retired in favor of a new framework — Spreadable Media.

Definitional Fuzziness

Consider what happened when a group of advertising executives sat down to discuss the concept of viral media, a conversation which demonstrates the confusion about what viral media might be, about what it is good for, and why it’s worth thinking about. One panelist began by suggesting viral media referred to situations “where the marketing messaging was powerful enough that it spread through the population like a virus,” a suggestion the properties of viral media lie in the message itself, or perhaps in those who crafted that message. The second, on the other hand, described viral media in terms of the activity of consumers: “Anything you think is cool enough to send to your friends, that’s viral.” Later in the same exchange, he suggested “Viral, just by definition, is something that gets passed around by people.”

As the discussion continued, it became clearer and clearer that viral media, like art and pornography, lies in the eye of the beholder. No one knew for sure why any given message “turned viral,” though there was lots of talk about “designing the DNA” of viral properties and being “organic” to the communities through which messages circulated. To some degree, it seemed the strength of a viral message depends on “how easy is it to pass”, suggesting viralness has something to do with the technical properties of the medium, yet quickly we were also told that it had to do with whether the message fit into the ongoing conversations of the community: “If you’re getting a ton of negative comments, maybe you’re not talking about it in the right place.”

By the end of the exchange, no one could sort out what was meant by “viral media” or what metrics should be deployed to measure its success. This kind of definitional fuzziness makes it increasingly difficult to approach the process analytically. Without certainty about what set of practices the term refers to, it is impossible to attempt to understand how and why such practices work.

As already noted, the reliance on a biological metaphor to explain the way communication takes place — through practices of ‘infection’ — represents the first dificulty with the notion of viral media. The attraction of the infection metaphor is two-fold:

  1. It reduces consumers, often the most unpredictable variable in the sender-message-receiver frame, to involuntary “hosts” of media viruses;
  2. While holding onto the idea that media producers can design “killer” texts which can ensure circulation by being injected directly into the cultural “bloodstream.”

Douglas Rushkoff’s 1994 book Media Virus may not have invented the term “viral media”, but his ideas eloquently describe the way these texts are popularly held to behave. The media virus, Rushkoff argues, is a Trojan horse, that surreptitiously brings messages into our homes — messages can be encoded into a form people are compelled to pass along and share, allowing the embedded meanings, buried inside like DNA, to “infect” and spread, like a pathogen. There is an implicit and often explicit proposition that this spread of ideas and messages can occur not only without the user’s consent, but perhaps actively against it, requiring that people be duped into passing a hidden agenda while circulating compelling content. Douglas Rushkoff insists he is not using the term “as a metaphor. These media events are not like viruses. They are viruses . . . (such as) the common cold, and perhaps even AIDS” (Rushkoff, 9, emphasis his).

Media viruses spread through the datasphere the same way biological ones spread through the body or a community. But instead of traveling along an organic circulatory system, a media virus travels through the networks of the mediaspace. The “protein shell” of a media virus might be an event, invention, technology, system of thought, musical riff, visual image, scientific theory, sex scandal, clothing style or even a pop hero — as long as it can catch our attention. Any one of these media virus shells will search out the receptive nooks and crannies in popular culture and stick on anywhere it is noticed. Once attached, the virus injects its more hidden agendas into the datastream in the form of ideological code — not genes, but a conceptual equivalent we now call “memes” (Rushkoff, p.9-10).

The “hidden agenda” and “embedded meanings” Rushkoff mentions are the brand messages buried at the heart of viral videos, the promotional elements in videos featuring Mentos exploding out of soda bottles, or Gorillas playing the drumline of In the Air Tonight . The media virus proposition is that these marketing messages — messages consumers may normally avoid, approach skeptically, or disregard altogether — are hidden by the “protein shell” of compelling media properties. Nestled within interesting bits of content, these messages are snuck into the heads of consumers, or wilfully passed between them.

These messages, Rushkoff and others suggest, constitute “memes”, conceived by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 as a sort of cultural version of the gene. Dawkins was looking for a way to explain cultural evolution, imagining it as a biological system. What genes are to genetics, he suggested, memes would be to culture. Like the gene, the meme is driven to self-create, and is possessed of three important characteristics:

  1. Fidelity — memes have the ability to retain their informational content as they pass from mind to mind;
  2. Fecundity — memes possess the power to induce copies of themselves;
  3. Longevity — memes that survive longer have a better chance of being copied.

The meme, then, is “a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds” (Brodie, 1996, p. 32). They are the ideas at the center of virally spread events, some coherent, self-replicating idea which moves from person-to-person, from mind-to-mind, duplicating itself as it goes.

Language seems to ‘evolve’ by non-genetic means and at a rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation (Dawkins, 1976, p.189).

Dawkins remained vague about the granularity of this concept, seeing it as an all-purpose unit which could explain everything from politics to fashion. Each of these fields are comprised of good ideas, good ideas which, in order to survive, attach themselves to media virii — funny, catchy, compelling bits of content — as a vehicle to infect new minds with copies of themselves.

We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep on humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban Legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information. (Neil Stephenson, Snow Crash, 1992, p.399)

Though imagined long before the rise of the Internet and the Web, the idea of the meme has been widely embraced as a way of talking about the rapid dispersion of informationn and the widespread circulation of concepts which characterize the digital era. It has been a particularly attractive way to think about the rise of Internet fads like the LOLcats or Soulja Boy, fads considered seemingly trivial or meangingless. The content which circulates in such a fashion is seen as simplistic, fragmentary, and essentially meaningless, though it may shape our beliefs and actions in significant ways. Wired magazine (Miller, 2007) recently summed it up as a culture of “media snacks”:

We now devour our pop culture the same way we enjoy candy and chips – in conveniently packaged bite-size nuggets made to be munched easily with increased frequency and maximum speed. This is snack culture – and boy, is it tasty (not to mention addictive).

This description of snacks implies that they are without nutritional value, trivial or meaningless aspect of our culture, a time waste. And if this meaningless content is self-replicating then consumers are “irrational,” and unable to escape their infection. Yet these models — the idea of the meme and the media virus, of self-replicating ideas hidden in attractive, catchy content we are helpless to resist — is a problematic way to understand cultural practices. We want to suggest that these materials travel through the web because they are meaningful to the people who spread them. At the most fundamental level, such an approach misunderstands the way content spreads, which is namely, through the active practices of people. As such, we would like to suggest:

  1. That “memes” do not self-replicate;
  2. That people are not “susceptible” to this viral media;
  3. That viral media and Internet memes are not nutritionally bereft, meaningless ‘snacks’.

The Problem of Agency

Central to the difficulties of both the meme and the media virus models is a particular confusion about the role people play in passing along media content. From the start, memetics has suffered from a confusion about the nature of agency. Unlike genetic features, culture is not in any meaningful sense self-replicating — it relies on people to propel, develop and sustain it. The term ‘culture’ originates from metaphors of agriculture: the analogy was of cultivating the human mind much as one cultivates the land. Culture thus represents the assertion of human will and agency upon nature. As such, cultures are not something that happen to us, cultures are something we collectively create. Certainly any individual can be influenced by the culture which surrounds them, by the fashion, media, speech and ideas that fill their daily life, but individuals make their own contributions to their cultures through the choices which they make. The language of memetics, however, strips aside the concept of human agency.

Processes of cultural adaptation are more complex than the notion of meme circulation makes out. Indeed, theories for understanding cultural uptake must consider two factors not closely considered by memetics: human choice and the medium through which these ideas are circulated. Dawkins writes not about how “people acquire ideas” but about how “ideas acquire people.” Every day humans create and circulate many more ideas than are actually likely to gain any deep traction within a culture. Over time, only a much smaller number of phrases, concepts, images, or stories survive. This winnowing down of cultural options is the product not of the strength of particular ideas but of many, many individual choices as people decide what ideas to reference, which to share with each other, decisions based on a range of different agendas and interests far beyond how compelling individual ideas may be. Few of the ideas get transmitted in anything like their original form: humans adapt, transform, rework them on the fly in response to a range of different local circumstances and personal needs. Stripping aside the human motives and choices that shape this process reveals little about the spread of these concepts.

By the same token, ideas circulate differently in and through different media. Some media allow for the more or less direct transmission of these ideas in something close to their original form — as when a video gets replayed many times — while others necessarily encourage much more rapid transformations — as occurs when we play a game of “telephone” and each person passing along a message changes it in some way. So, it makes little sense to talk about “memes” as an all-purpose unit of thought without regard to the medium and processes of cultural transmission being described. Indeed, discussing the emergence of Internet memes, education researchers Michael Knobel and Colin Lankshear (2007) suggest Dawkins’ notion of memetic ‘fidelity’ needs to be done away with altogether. Defining the Internet meme as the rapid uptake and spread of a particular idea, presented as a written text, image, language, “‘move’ or some unit of cultural “stuff”, Knobel and Lankshear suggest adaptation is central to the propogation of memes:

Many of the online memes in this study were not passed on entirely ‘intact’ in that the meme ‘vehicle’ was changed, modified, mixed with other referential and expressive resources, and regularly given idiosyncratic spins by participants…A concept like ‘replicability’ therefore needs to include remixing as an important practice associated with many successful online memes, where remixing includes modifying, bricolaging, splicing, reordering, superimposing, etc., original and other images, sounds, films, music, talk, and so on. (Knobel and Lankshear, 2007, p.208-209)

Their argument is particularly revealing as a way to think about just what comprises the object at the heart of the Internet meme. The recent “LOLcat” Internet meme, built so heavily upon remixing and appropriation, is a good case study to illustrate the role of remixing in Internet memes. “LOLcats” are pictures of animals, most commonly cats, with digitally superimposed text for humorous effect. Officially referred to as “image macros,” the pictures often feature “LOLspeak”, a type of broken English that enhances the amusing tone of the juxtaposition. On websites such as icanhascheezburger.com, users are invited to upload their own “LOLcats” which are then shared throughout the web.

Over time, different contributors have stretched the “LOLcat” idea in many different directions which would not have been anticipated by the original posters — including a whole strand of images centering around Walruses and buckets, the use of “LOLspeak” to translate religious texts (LOLbible) or represent complex theoretical arguments, the use of similar image macros to engage with Emo culture, philosophy (loltheorists), and dogs (LOLdogs, see: ihasahotdog.com).

So just what is the “meme” at the centre of this Internet meme? What is the idea that is replicated? More than the content of the pictures, the “meme” at the heart of this Internet phenomenon is the structure of the picture itself –the juxtaposition, broken English, and particularly the use of irreverent humor. Given the meme lies in the structure, however — how to throw the pot rather than the pot itself — then the very viability of the meme is dependent on the ability for the idea to be adapted in a variety of different ways. In this sense, then, it is somewhat hard to see how contained within this structure is a “message” waiting to occupy unsuspecting minds.

The re-use, remixing and adaptation of the LOLcat idea instead suggest that the spread and replication of this form of cultural production is not due to the especially compelling nature of the LOLcat idea but the fact it can be used to make meaning. A similar situation can be seen in the case of the “Crank Dat” song by Soulja Boy, which some have described as one of the most succesful Internet memes of 2007. Soulja Boy, originally an obscure amateur performer in Atlanta, produced a music video for his first song “Crank Dat”, which he uploaded to video sharing sites such as YouTube. Soulja Boy then encouraged his fans to appropriate, remix, and reperform the song, spreading it through social networks, YouTube, and the blogosphere, in the hopes of gaining greater visibility for himself and his music.

Along the way, Crank Dat got performed countless times by very different communities — from white suburban kids to black ballet dancers, from football teams to MIT graduate students. The video was used as the basis for “mash up” videos featuring characters as diverse as Winnie the Pooh and Dora the Explorer. People added their own steps, lyrics, themes, and images to the videos they made. As the song circulated, Soulja Boy’s reputation grew — he scored a record contract, and emerged as a top recording artist. — in part as a consequence of his understanding of the mechanisms by which cultural content circulates within a participatory culture.

The success of “Crank Dat” cannot be explained as the slavish emulation of the dance by fans, as the self-replication of a “compelling” idea. Rather, “Crank Dat” spread the way dance crazes have always spread – through the processes of learning and adaptation by which people learn to dance. As CMS student Kevin Driscoll discusses, watching others dance to learn steps and refining these steps so they express local experience or variation are crucial to dance itself. Similarly, the adaptation of the LOLcat form to different situations — theory, puppies, politicians — constitute processes of meaning making, as people use tools at their disposal to explain the world around them.

Next Time: We will compare and contrast “stickiness” and “spreadability” as competing paradigms shaping the practices of web 2.0.

References

Brodie, Richard (1996). Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme, Seattle: Integral Press

Dawkins, Richard (1976). The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Knobel, Michele & Lankshear, Colin (2007). New Literacies: Everyday Practices &

Classroom Learning. Open University Press

McCracken, Grant (2005a). “‘Consumers’ or ‘Multipliers’: A New Language for

Marketing?,” This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics,

November 10.

Miller, Nancy (2007). “Minifesto for a New Age,” Wired, March.

Rushkoff, Douglas. (1994) Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture. New York:

Ballantine.

Stephenson, Neil (1992). Snow Crash. New York: Bantam.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this Henry, it’s one of the smartest things I’ve read about “viral media” in a long, long time.

  2. Henry Jenkins says:

    I received the following from a reader who had trouble with my dreaded filter:

    The Dawkins descriptor “longevity” in the first of your viral media posts is

    surely not applicable

    Longevity — memes that survive longer have a better chance of being copied.

    “Activity” would be a better descriptor because viral longevity is a product

    of copying – if the copying didn’t happen the meme would be there, it would

    have longevity, it just wouldn’t be memetic.

    John Dodds

    http://makemarketinghistory.blogspot.com/

  3. I think the growth of the “viral” metaphor is a distorting of Dawkins original meme metaphor – bear in mind that Genes, are abstract constructs that bridge between the details of the DNA and their expression in the Phenotype. Viruses are an anomalous special case in genetics, not the dominant form of reproduction.

    Sexual Reproduction causes mixing of genes just as cultural reproduction causes mixing of memes – some get reinforced and some get diluted and dispersed.

    I think a reproductive metaphor is more fruitful than a disease-based one. See http://bit.ly/viral for my previous discussion of this.

  4. I also disagree with your characterization of the “meme” concept. The metaphor relates ideas to genes, and there are two important concepts of evolutionary theory that carry over:

    1. In genetic natural selection, the environment is the single overwhelming force that shapes genes and organisms.

    2. It’s not that genes particularly “want” or “try” to evolve or adapt. They don’t even have to be able to reproduce themselves through their own actions, they just need to have properties that effect their chances of being reproduced. Dawkins talks about nonliving things like the structure of molecules in clay “evolving,” because molecules touching others can cause replication of their own structure.

    Our minds are the environment of memes. The memes that spread are the ones that are meaningful to us — we are the sole force that shapes their evolution. I don’t think meme theory is in any way suggesting that memes are “viruses” that infect unwilling hosts. The memes that are the most successful DO “travel through the web because they are meaningful to the people who spread them.”