Information is infectious. Like a living organism, it brings about changes in the host which, though unnoticeable to the naked eye, are no less significant. A body may recover from a pathogen, but its immune system comes out transformed.
It is perhaps unfortunate, not to mention portentous, that the rapid and widespread circulation of media is described in terms of its virality. If there had been an info-centric deity in the Cloud, He or She would certainly have visited the 2020 pandemic on us as punishment for our digital presumption.
The origins of media virality are inseparable from warnings about the content’s ability to spread in uncontrollable ways in the digital age. One of the first to discuss virality was the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard who cautioned against the television’s potential to act in ways similar to a virus.
The metaphor stuck and, more importantly, is now being used uncritically as a synonym for rapid replication and transmission of media content. A viral video is one that reaches a huge number of people by being replicated and shared across vast networks of connected devices. What misses from the mainstream concept of viral-ness is a reflection on the effect the raging item has on its ‘hosts’, those who get infected and who are counted towards its virality rate.
It doesn’t seem that the viral pandemic has prompted many of us to reconsider the idea of media virality. While the medical virology of each of us in 2020 has improved considerably compared to previous years, we remain rather cavalier about the nature and consequences of viral images and videos of all kind spreading like wild fire through social networks.