Digital Compositions and their Reach: Questioning the Viral and the Meme

Like Adam Liszkiewicz, I have participated in HASTAC thus far as a lurker. His discussion of Prof. Sheila Murphy’s "The Internet, Cats, and Toilets" talk (along with his lurking confessional), however, have kicked my lurking butt into posting. For those who haven’t (yet, I hope) followed the link to his post, he sums up Murphy’s talk as arguing “that new media scholars spend to much time speculating about things that could potentially happen on the internet, and too little time analyzing things that actually are happening on the internet,” citing the example of a YouTube video of a cat repeatedly flushing a toilet that had garnered several million views.

This post reminds me rather a lot of Green and Jenkins’ (2011) study of how value and worth gets appraised and ascribed through circulation, in which they propose the term “spreadability” as an alternative to metaphors such as “viral media” and memes” (actually, Jenkins has proposed this on his blog at least as early as 2009). Like Green and Jenkins, I'd like to take the time in this post to consider how we as scholars discuss the mechanics of how these media events "happen" and how such texts spread. Scholars have too readily have taken up and too frequently accepted the terms "memes" and "viral" without parsing out the theoretical consequences of portraying digital composition as entering and interacting with living bodies, and as capable of reproducing themselves through those bodies. Such framing of digital compositions as agents of infection leaves little to no room for conceptualizing those who actually produce these “viral” texts. Further, this metaphor of virulence frames literate bodies as both vulnerable to contagion in digital spaces and as potentially dangerous in spreading contagion to others. When a text is described as “going viral,” viral terminology implicitly pathologizes textual consumers as both infected and as incapable of agency in shaping the distribution of digital texts; they appear not as agents acting to identify specific memes as somehow valuable within a digital composing economy and to further their distribution but as simply succumbing to the replicative powers of the viral meme as carriers of its contagion.

 

And yet this pathologizing of composition and distribution isn't necessarily the problem with metaphors of virulence in and of themselves. Green and Jenkins have already observed that metaphors and terminologies of virality and memesis obscure how individuals (though potentially en mass) make rhetorical decisions to take up something they see as valuable by hitting "share" or making a similar piece within the genre (LOLcats, Philosoraptor, etc). I argue, however, that theoretical frames of composition as operating as virus or meme further obscures the sponsoring interests behind the design, production, transmission, an reproduction of these "memes" that "go viral." This results both in 1) obscuring processes of production and authorship that might be of value to authors who might take credit for the creation of a popularly circulated text and in 2) obscuring processes of mass-distributing messages that allow early distributors to facilitate the distribution of a message while making it appear to be mass-generated, veiling their social, political, and or economic interests in the spread of a text and its content.

 

The consequences of my these points appear in online efforts to construct histories and points of origins, and even to claim authorship, of popular digital texts. I think here of t-shirt company Lonely Dinosaur’s product description of “the shirt that started the [Philosoraptor] meme” and knowyourmeme.com’s attempt to efforts to chronicle the often multiple geneses and various compositional examples categorized under the umbrella of a popular meme, such as the “Philosoraptor.” I find these phenomena productive sites of research for drawing upon Paula Treichler’s (1999) notion of an epidemic of significance in questioning how verbal constructions (the genetic code, the immune system) take hold in cultural discourse so profoundly as to shape research investigations and how they interact with the phenomena that we call data, facts, even experiences. As recent applications of models of infections disease to memetic studies have portrayed memes as “self-propagated” (Wang and Wood, 2011), I question how digital metaphors of virulence represent both academic and popular assumptions that epidemiological processes of viral transmission and replication can map onto the socialization of ideas and cultural capital.

 

As I study both Lonely Dinosaur’s and knowyourmeme.com’s efforts to identify producers of popular memes, I question how assumptions of digital compositions as viral and thus self-propagating (within a living body) both shapes and erases the bodies producing and consuming digital compositions. What aspects of compositional knowledge production, transmission, and mutation are brought to light, overshadowed, overemphasized, or conceptually impossible based on such a framework of composition as vector? What are the consequences of mapping knowledge transmission and reproduction and all of its socio-political and ideological dimensions onto physiological structures of transmission and reproduction? What results from giving composition a body?

adamsl

obscuring processes & authorship

I argue, however, that theoretical frames of composition as operating as virus or meme further obscures the sponsoring interests behind the design, production, transmission, an reproduction of these "memes" that "go viral."

Well said, Kaitlin! I couldn't agree more. And I think your argument (and Green and Jenkins' study) are particularly apropos here, given that so many of those April Fools' gags on the Internet are high-cost sponsored and/or corporate productions.

Congrats on the de-lurking! :)