Overview: Virality indicates content (image, video, or other information) that rapidly circulates widely from one user to another via the internet and social media.
Keywords: Viral, virality, go viral, virus, code, viral marketing, user, rhetorical velocity, delivery, social network, information sharing, many-to-many sharing, circulation, algorithmic gatekeeping
History/Theoretical Grounding The word viral itself has long been associated with the field of biology, as in diseases or viruses—infective agents that can multiply within a living host. As computers started becoming more prevalent, the term “virus” began signifying a piece of code that can copy itself and become harmful. However, virality goes beyond code. William S. Burroughs first started the discussion of language as a virus stating “my general theory since 1971 has been that the Word is literally a virus, and that it has not been recognized as such because it has achieved a state of relatively stable symbiosis with its human host…But the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself” (47). Much like a virus, language multiplies, copies, and spreads at various speeds.
Viralinformation and events are not new. On Thursday, December 1, 1955, a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Parks was arrested for this act based on the complex segregation laws in Montgomery at that time (Dove). The news of Parks’ arrest spread like wildfire. Within four days, it is estimated that 40,000 people received information about Parks by way of handbills, telephone calls, and word of mouth. In the 1950s, this was a prime example of information going viral. However, internet infrastructure and social media have changed how we look at virality and what it means to “go viral.” Application/Praxis Merging previous uses of virality, the marketing field began using the term with Steve Jurvetson coining the term “viral marketing” in 1997 based on the email client service Hotmail (110). Hotmail grew their subscriber base from zero to twelve million users in just eighteen months. The main factor of viral marketing is that every user becomes a salesperson (Jurvetson). Users signed up for Hotmail based on a friend’s recommendation. This focus on viral marketing functions as more of a strategy and ties into Ridolfo and DeVoss’ definition of rhetorical velocity, the strategy for considering how and why a text might be recomposed by others after the original author. Originating in rhetorical studies, rhetorical velocity serves as a strategic approach to composing for rhetorical delivery and considers how quickly composed information travels and how easily it can be recomposed—that is, its potential virality. Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley define virality as “a social information flow where many people simultaneously forward a specific information item, over a short period of time, within their social networks, and where the message spreads beyond their own [social] networks to different, often distant networks, resulting in a sharp acceleration in the number of people who are exposed to the message” (16). They identify and measure virality via four bases: (i) the human and social aspects of information sharing from one to another; (ii) the speed of the spread; (iii) the reach in terms of the number of people exposed to the content; and (iv) the reach in terms of how the information travels by bridging multiple networks (Nahon and Hemsley 16). First, the human and social aspects of sharing cause information to go viral. Users share content through social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Flickr, blogs, and Wikipedia. The user’s friends, contacts, and connections must then make two decisions: whether or not to view the content and whether or not to share it. With features like the “share” button on Facebook or the “retweet” option on Twitter that enable social media users to easily share content, users must decide which content is worth sharing. Second, whether the content is deemed “viral” depends on the speed at which it is shared. Kwak, et al.’s study of 106 million tweets found that half of retweets happen within the first hour of the original tweet, and 75% of the retweets happen within the first day. In result, there is likely a sharp acceleration in the number of people exposed to content due to the many-to-many sharing that grows the audience over a short period of time early on in the sharing process.
In addition to this rate of acceleration, the rate of decay, or the decline in views, also helps determine which content is viral (Nahon and Hemsley). In other words, the length and breadth of content’s Circulation contribute to its virality. In fact, the content’s reach is broken down into two distinct elements: reach by numbers and reach by networks. Determining and even defining reach is difficult because it means something different to scholars and organizations. Simply defining the reach by the total number of people connected to all of the people who forwarded the content fails to account for the reach beyond the online world, the overlap of connections, and the selectivity of the content, algorithmic gatekeeping, or repetition of the content per user (Nahon and Hemsley). Reach by numbers is difficult to accurately calculate because it includes both users who only consume the content and users who consume and share the content.
Implications The impact of producing viral content can be life changing. In 2011, students at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) held a silent protest against tuition hikes and police violence as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. During the demonstration, police pepper sprayed peaceful, nonviolent student participants. Many recorded the incident and uploaded the clips to the internet, causing the videos to go viral. Jeremy Scott claims that the incident landed on the evening news due solely to the viral videos that were posted on YouTube. On the other hand, in 2016, Candace Payne, better known as “Chewbacca Mom”, posted a video of herself wearing a Chewbacca mask and laughing solely for her friends and family to see. After the Facebook Live video ended, it received over 162 million views, shattering the record for most views. Candace’s life changed in that very moment. Immediately, major networks started contacting her, resulting in appearances on Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight, trips to visit Facebook Headquarters and Disney World, and the release of her book, Laugh It Up! Virality is part of our everyday lives, and it is here to stay. Viral information is not new, but the method and speed at which we receive the information is, and its implications vary widely. Viral information can unite groups of people; inform us what is happening around the world better than the nightly news; or simply bring a smile to our faces.
Burroughs, William S. The Adding Machine: Selected Essays. Seaver Books, 1986.
Dove, Rita. “The Torchbearer ROSA PARKS.” Time, June 14, 1999, www.content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,991252-1,00.html.
“IDRS 15 | Closing Keynote | Collin Gifford Brooke” YouTube, uploaded by Justin Hodgson, 22 June 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hWh6mU24i0&t=1s.
Jurvetson, Steve. “From the Ground Floor: What Exactly is Viral Marketing?” Red Herring Communication, 14 May 2000, pp. 110-111.
Kwak, Haewoon, Changhyun Lee, Hosung Park, and Sue Moon. “What is Twitter, a Social Network or a News Media?” Proceedings of the 19th International Conference on World Wide Web, 2010, pp. 591-600.
Nahon, Karine and Jeff Hemsley. Going Viral. Polity Press, 2013.