War of the Concepts: Virus vs Spread

Last Thursday and Friday I had the pleasure of attending a retreat of the Convergence Culture Consortium, an alliance between a core group led by Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, industry partners, and consulting researchers made up of people like myself looking at issues around participatory audiences, media convergence, and all that good stuff.

There were more interesting things than I can begin to recount here, but one that resonated a lot with me was an argument in the presentation Henry Jenkins, Ana Domb, and Xiaochang Li gave where they (among other things) critiqued the concepts of viral and sticky, pitching spreadable as a better alternative.

They said, and I agree, that the goal of creating “sticky” internet sites — sites that hold people’s attention, provide a unified customer experience, provide only top-down information and so on — needs to be (or is being) replaced with the goal of “spreadable content” which circulates among diverse, dispersed people as they participate in social networks and engage in grassroots activity. I’ve talked about this in the context of providing fans with widgets they can export to sites of their choosing in order to spread word of (keyboard?) about whatever it is they’re into.

They also went after the notion of “viral” with its biological language of infection. When something spreads virally — take, for example, the flu — people receive the virus without realizing (and sometimes never even manifesting) it. They pass it on to others without any effort — indeed, if they realize they have it, they have to put effort into NOT spreading it. From a marketers perspective, if you can engineer the perfect “viral” campaign, the people will be powerless to resist. They’ll be diffusing your ideas before they know what hit them.

This creates an illusion of control — a viral campaign will work if we design it right — and therefore feeds into what I see as a dying model of media control in which the big content providers get to manage everything from the top down (see “stickiness” above).

In fact, people are active. We spread things “virally” not because we can’t help it, but because we think it’s cool enough that we want to tell others. It resonates with us, we think it will resonate with others, we are socially engaged with others, we talk about it. We make choices and we enact behaviors in order to spread the things we like around, we don’t stand idly by while the virus travels through us to other destinations.

That said, there is one piece of the viral metaphor that works for me in a way that spreadable does not, and that is the truly physical feeling I experience when I am sucked into a new record I love. This doesn’t happen all that often, once a year if I’m lucky. It happened a few weeks ago with The Last Shadow Puppets. It happened with The Fine Arts Showcase’s “Radiola.” Bigtime with The Wrens “The Meadowlands.” Needless to say it’s a near-continuous state with Madrugada. And when it happens, that music gets inside of me and consumes me in a way that really does feel like biological infection. I am compelled to listen to it. I ache for it. I ache while I listen to it. I don’t listen to anything else. I talk about them incessantly while my ever-humoring husband laughs at me. And it runs its course, just as viruses do. Gradually, after anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months, it lets up and I’ve built up enough resistance that I am no longer completely distracted. It doesn’t feel in those times like I have any power to resist at all. And what’s more, if I had power to resist, I wouldn’t.

In the end, though, when I write posts about it, or talk about it with friends, or send links to people, or twitter, or whatever I do to spread the word about that music, I’m making active choices that are deeply embedded in the social structures and connections I create through my everyday relational behavior. Even in the throes of the most infectious pop of all, the further spreading from me to the people I know depends on my making strategic decisions about what to communicate to whom and how.

Comments (1) to “War of the Concepts: Virus vs Spread”

  1. Hi Nancy,
    That’s a terrific post. I too am a big fan of Henry’s notion of spreadable media. The notion that they are in “control” is a delusion that plagues marketers of all stripes… not just the people who work on word of mouth or so-called “viral” marketing. Just look at the common title of “brand manager,” as if it’s something you really can manage.

    The internet has put a great deal of pressure on how the newly fungible shape of a communication (your web page can be viewed on a big monitor, on a small one, on a BlackBerry or iPhone) can put cognitive English on the experience of the communication, whether it be text or video. Of course, this is a dilemma that hearkens all the way back to Phedrus (Jonathan Culler’s discussion of it in On Deconstruction is probably the clearest), but I think that the pressure of how appliances transform a communication’s appearance added on top of the interpretive problems created by distance alone is still something that most thinkers on the topic haven’t grappled with.

    Back on viral, you might enjoy this article by my friend Sean X Cummings:

    Please keep up the good work!

    Brad Berens, Ph.D.
    Chief Content Officer & Editor at Large, NA
    ad:tech & iMedia

    read my blog at http://www.mediavorous.com