Viral phenomenon

Viral phenomena are objects or patterns that are able to replicate themselves or convert other objects into copies of themselves when these objects are exposed to them. They get their name from the way that viruses propagate. This has become a common way to describe how thoughts, information, and trends move into and through a human population. "Viral media" is another common term whose popularity has been fueled by the rapid rise of social network sites.[1]:17 Different from the "spreadable media", "viral media" uses viral metaphors of "infection" and "contamination", which means that audiences play as passive carriers rather than an active role to "spread" contents.[1]:21 Memes are one known example of informational viral patterns.

History of terminology


Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As conceived by Dawkins, a meme is a unit of cultural meaning, such as an idea or a value, that is passed from one generation to another. When asked to assess this comparison, Lauren Ancel Meyers, a biology professor at the University of Texas, states that "memes spread through online social networks similarly to the way diseases do through offline populations".[2] This dispersion of cultural movements is shown through the spread of memes online, especially when seemingly innocuous or trivial trends spread and die in rapid fashion.[1]:19, 27


"Viral" pertains to a video, image, or written content spreading to numerous online users within a short time period.[3] If something goes viral a lot of people talk about it. Another rendition of the term includes Douglas Rushkoff's coined term "media virus" or "viral media" defining it as a type of Trojan horse: "People are duped into passing a hidden agenda while circulating compelling content."[1]:17 Tony D. Sampson defines viral phenomena as spreadable accumulations of events, objects, and affects that are overall content built up by popular discourses surrounding network culture.[4]:22 In Jean Baudrillard's 1981 treatise Simulacra and Simulation, the philosopher describes An American Family, arguably the first "reality" television series, as a marker of a new age in which the medium of television has a "viral, endemic, chronic, alarming presence".[5] In the 1964 Understanding Media, philosopher Marshall McLuhan describes photography in particular, and technology in general, as having a potentially "virulent nature".[6]

History of content sharing

Early history

Before writing and while most people were illiterate, the dominant means of spreading memes was oral culture like folk tales, folk songs, and oral poetry, which mutated over time as each retelling presented an opportunity for change. The printing press provided an easy way to copy written texts instead of handwritten manuscripts. In particular, pamphlets could be published in only a day or two, unlike books which took longer.[7] For example, Martin Luther's Ninety-five theses took only two months to spread throughout Europe. A study of United States newspapers in the 1800s found human interest, "news you can use" stories and listicles (though that term had not been invented) circulated nationally as local papers mailed copies to each other and selected content for reprinting.[8] Chain letters spread by postal mail throughout the 1900s.

Urban legends also began as word-of-mouth memes. Like hoaxes, they are examples of falsehoods that people swallow, and, like them, often achieve broad public notoriety.


Beyond the vocal sharing, the Twentieth Century made huge strides in the World Wide Web and the ability to content share. In 1979 dial-up internet service provided by the company CompuServ was a key player in online communications and how information began spreading beyond the print. Those with access to a computer in the earliest of stages could not comprehend the full effect that public access to the internet could or would create. It is hard to remember the times of newspapers being delivered to households across the country in order to receive their news for the day, and it was when The Columbus Dispatch out of Columbus, Ohio broke barriers when it was first to publish in online format. The success that was predicted by CompuServe and the Associated Press led to some of the largest newspapers to become part of the movement to publish the news via online format. Content sharing in the journalism world brings new advances to viral aspects of how news is spread in a matter of seconds.[9]

Internet memes

The creation of the Internet enabled users to select and share content with each other electronically, providing new, faster, and more decentralized controlled channels for spreading memes. Email forwards are essentially text memes, often including jokes, hoaxes, email scams, written versions of urban legends, political messages, and digital chain letters; if widely forwarded they might be called "viral emails".[10] User-friendly consumer photo editing tools like Photoshop and image-editing websites have facilitated creation of the genre of the image macro, where the same image is overlaid with different humorous text phrases. These memes are created with Impact font, a popular understand of an "Internet meme". Video-sharing websites like YouTube made viral videos possible. Internet memes blew up because of Instagram, it gave meme creators a new platform to share there memes. Because of this there are a lot of Instagram meme accounts.

It is sometimes difficult to predict which images and videos will "go viral" with widespread sharing; sometimes the creation of an Internet celebrity is a sudden surprise. One of the first documented viral videos is "Numa Numa", the webcam video of then-19-year-old Gary Brolsma singing and dancing to Romanian pop song "Dragostea Din Tei".[11]

The sharing of text, images, videos, or links to this content have been greatly facilitated by social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Other mimicry memes carried by Internet media include hashtags, language variations like intentional misspellings, and fads like planking. The popularity and widespread distribution of Internet memes have gotten the attention of advertisers, creating the field of viral marketing. A person, group, or company that wants a lot of fast, cheap publicity might create a hashtag, image, or video designed to go viral; many such attempts are unsuccessful, but the few posts that "go viral" generate a lot of publicity.

OK Boomer

In 2019 the phrase OK Boomer is alleged to have started on Twitter in April of 2018. In January of 2019, it started picking up traction quickly gathering tremendous popularity. Later that year, a song was written by a college student, which led to a remix being made that resulted in the meme's explosion on the social media network, TikTok, becoming viral overnight.[12]

Woman Yelling at a Cat

This meme from June 2019 is a split-screen picture of a blonde-haired woman yelling at a white cat making a face in front of a plate of lettuce. Two separate pictures at first that has Taylor Armstrong from the reality television show The The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills where she's captured screaming and the other has Smudge, a white cat sitting on a chair at a dinner table. The image became a viral sensation when a Twitter user decided to combine both pictures stating "These photos together is making me lose it" resulting in an internet meme and becoming one of the most popular jokes on the internet.[13]

Cash me outside, how 'bout dah?

In 2016, Danielle Bregoli and her mother appeared on the Dr. Phil (talk show) and while being interviewed about stealing her mother's car Danielle challenged the audience, saying that they could "cash me outside, how 'bout dah?" A few months later her catchphrase went viral and became a meme.[14]

Ain't nobody got time for that

On April 7th, 2012, Kimberly Williams, more well known by the name Sweet Brown, was interviewed by her local news station after a three-alarm fire erupted at Sweet Brown’s Oklahoma City apartment complex in Oklahoma. Sweet Brown's recollection of the morning's events, along with her unique personality led to the interview going viral. In the interview, she described waking up to grab a "cold pop" and smelling the fire, only she thought that someone was grilling. Upon realizing that it was actually a fire that she was smelling, she ran out of her apartment with no shoes on to which, during the interview, she exclaimed "Ain't nobody got time for that!" which would become a lasting internet meme.[15]

Evaluation by commentators

Some social commentators have a negative view of "viral" content, though others are neutral or celebrate the democratization of content as compared to the gatekeepers of older media. The authors of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture wrote: "Ideas are transmitted, often without critical assessment, across a broad array of minds and this uncoordinated flow of information is associated with "bad ideas" or "ruinous fads and foolish fashions".[1]:307 Science fiction sometimes discusses "viral" content "describing (generally bad) ideas that spread like germs".[1]:17 For example, the 1992 novel Snow Crash explores the implications of an ancient memetic meta-virus and its modern-day computer virus equivalent:

The spread of viral phenomena are also regarded as part of the cultural politics of network culture or the virality of the age of networks.[16] Network culture enables the audience to create and spread viral content. "Audiences play an active role in "spreading" content rather than serving as passive carriers of viral media: their choices, investments, agendas, and actions determine what gets valued."[1]:21 Various authors have pointed to the intensification in connectivity brought about by network technologies as a possible trigger for increased chances of infection from wide-ranging social, cultural, political, and economic contagions. For example, the social scientist Jan van Dijk warns of new vulnerabilities that arise when network society encounters "too much connectivity". The proliferation of global transport networks makes this model of society susceptible to the spreading of biological diseases. Digital networks become volatile under the destructive potential of computer viruses and worms. Enhanced by the rapidity and extensiveness of technological networks, the spread of social conformity, political rumor, fads, fashions, gossip, and hype threatens to destabilize established political order.[17]

Links between viral phenomena that spread on digital networks and the early sociological theories of Gabriel Tarde have been made in digital media theory by Tony D Sampson (2012; 2016).[4][18] In this context, Tarde's social imitation thesis is used to argue against the biological deterministic theories of cultural contagion forwarded in memetics. In its place Sampson proposes a Tarde inspired somnambulist media theory of the viral.[19]

Viral videos

Viral videos are among the most common type of viral phenomena. A viral video is any clip of animation or film that is spread rapidly through online sharing. Viral videos can receive millions of views as they are shared on social media sites, reposted to blogs, sent in emails and so on. When a video goes viral it has become very popular. Its exposure on the Internet grows exponentially as more and more people discover it and share it with others. An article or an image can also become viral.[20]

The classification is probably assigned more as a result of intensive activity and the rate of growth among users in a relatively short amount of time than of simply how many hits something receives. Most viral videos contain humor and fall into broad categories:

  • Unintentional: Videos that the creators never intended to go viral. These videos may have been posted by the creator or shared with friends, who then spread the content.
  • Humorous: Videos that have been created specifically to entertain people. If a video is funny enough, it will spread.
  • Promotional: Videos that are designed to go viral with a marketing message to raise brand awareness. Promotional viral videos fall under viral marketing practices.[21] For instance, one of the newest viral commercial video – Extra Gum commercial.
  • Charity: Videos created and spread in order to collect donations. For instance, Ice Bucket challenge was a hit on social networks in the summer of 2014.
  • Art performances: a video created by artists to raise the problem, express ideas and the freedom of creativity. For instance, First Kiss viral video by Tatia PIlieva;
  • Political: Viral videos are powerful tools for politicians to boost their popularity. Barack Obama campaign launched Yes We Can slogan as a viral video on YouTube. "The Obama campaign posted almost 800 videos on YouTube, and the McCain campaign posted just over 100. The pro-Obama video "Yes we can" went viral after being uploaded to YouTube on February 2008."[22] Other political viral videos served not as a promotion but as an agent for support and unification. Social media was actively employed in the Arab Spring. "The Tunisian uprising had special resonance in Egypt because it was prompted by incidents of police corruption and viral social media condemnation of them."[23]

YouTube effect

With the creation of YouTube, a video sharing website, there has been a huge surge in the number of viral videos on the Internet. This is primarily due to the ease of access to these videos and the ease of sharing them via social media websites. The ability to share videos from one person to another with ease means there are many cases of 'overnight' viral videos. "YouTube, which makes it easy to embed its content elsewhere) have the freedom and mobility once ascribed to papyrus, enabling their rapid circulation across a range of social networks."[1]:30 YouTube has overtaken television in terms of the size of audience. As one example, American Idol was the most viewable TV show in 2009 in U.S. while "a video of Scottish woman Susan Boyle auditioning for Britain's Got Talent with her singing was viewed more than 77 million times on YouTube". The capacity to attract an enormous audience on a user-friendly platform is one the leading factor why YouTube generates viral videos. YouTube contribute to viral phenomenon spreadability since the idea of the platform is based on sharing and contribution. "Sites such as YouTube, eBay, Facebook, Flickr, Craigslist, and Wikipedia, only exist and have value because people use and contribute to them, and they are clearly better the more people are using and contributing to them. This is the essence of Web 2.0."[24]

An example of one of the most prolific viral YouTube videos that falls into the promotional viral videos category is Kony 2012. On March 5, 2012, the charity organization Invisible Children Inc. posted a short film about the atrocities committed in Uganda by Joseph Kony and his rebel army. Artists use YouTube as their one of the main branding and communication platform to spread videos and make them viral. For instance, after her time off, Adele released her most-viewed song "Hello". "Hello" crossed 100 million views in just five days, making it the fastest video to reach it in 2015.[25] YouTube viral videos make stars. As an example, Justin Bieber who was discovered since his video on YouTube Chris Brown's song "With You" went viral. Since its launch in 2005, YouTube has become a hub for aspiring singers and musicians. Talent managers look to it to find budding pop stars.[26]

According to Visible Measures, the original "Kony 2012" video documentary, and the hundreds of excerpts and responses uploaded by audiences across the Web, collectively garnered 100 million views in a record six days.[27] This example of how quickly the video spread emphasizes how YouTube acts as a catalyst in the spread of viral media. YouTube is considered as "multiple existing form of participatory culture" and that trend is useful for the sake of business. "The discourse of Web 2.0 its power has been its erasure of this larger history of participatory practices, with companies acting as if they were "bestowing" agency onto audiences, making their creative output meaningful by valuing it within the logics of commodity culture."[1]:71

Viral marketing

The term "viral marketing" was first popularized in 1995, after Hotmail spreading their service offer "Get your free web-base email at Hotmail"[1]:19 Viral marketing is the phenomenon in which people actively assess media or content and decide to spread to others such as making a word-of-mouth recommendation, passing content through social media, posting video to YouTube. Viral marketing has become important in the business field in building brand recognition, with companies trying to get their customers and other audiences involved in circulating and sharing their content on social media both in voluntary and involuntary ways. A lot of brands undertake guerrilla marketing or buzz marketing to gain public attention. Some marketing campaigns seek to engage an audience to unwittingly pass along their campaign message.

The use of viral marketing is shifting from the concept that the content drives its own attention to the intended attempt to draw the attention. The companies are worried about making their content 'go viral' and how their customers' communication has the potential to circulate it widely. There has been a lot of discussion about morality in doing viral marketing. Iain Short (2010) points out that many applications on Twitter and Facebook generates automated marketing message and update it on audience personal timeline without users personally pass it along.[28]

Stacy Wood from North Carolina State University has conducted research and found that the value of recommendations from 'everyday people' has potential impact on the brands. Consumers have been bombarded by thousands of message every day which make authenticity and credibility of marketing message been questioned; word of mouth from 'everyday people' therefore becomes an incredibly important source of credible information. If a company sees that the word-of-mouth from "the average person" is crucial for the greater opportunity for influencing others, many questions remain. "What implicit contracts exist between brands and those recommenders? What moral codes and guidelines should brands respect when encouraging, soliciting, or reacting to comments from those audiences they wish to reach? What types of compensation, if any, do audience members deserve for their promotional labor when they provide a testimonial."[1]:75

Popeyes Chicken Sandwich

Popeyes chicken sandwich gained an unprecedented boost in sales after they tweeted in response to Chick-fil-A when they attempted to undercut Popeyes by suggesting that their sandwich wasn't the original. After their tweet had amassed 85,000 retweets and 300,000 likes, stores had actually begun to run out of the sandwich. This prompted other chicken chains to tweet about their chicken sandwiches, but they didn't have the response of Popeyes.[29]

Financial contagion

In macroeconomics, "financial contagion" is a proposed socially viral phenomenon where disturbances quickly spread across global financial markets.

See also


  1. Jenkins, Henry; Ford, Sam; Green, Joshua (2013). Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: NYU Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-4350-8.
  2. "Charles Darwin Tagged You in a Note on Facebook". Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  3. "Technical Terms:Viral Definition". Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  4. Sampson, Tony (2012). Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-7005-5.
  5. Baudrillard, Jean (1 January 1994). Simulacra and Simulation (reprint ed.). University of Michigan Press. p. 30. ISBN 9780472065219 via Google Books.
  6. McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media. p. 193. ISBN 9780262631594 via Google Books.
  7. How Luther went viral The Economist, Dec 17th 2011.
  8. "Hot Content Went Viral In The 1800s, Too".
  9. Shedden, David. "Today in media history: CompuServe and the first online newspapers". Poynter. Retrieved 24 September 2014.
  10. Smith, David. "Viral email rocks the world". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-11-04.
  11. McCarthy, A. J. (2014-12-05). ""Numa Numa," the Original Viral Video, Turns 10". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 2015-11-04.
  12. Mitchell, Amanda. "What's This "OK Boomer" Meme All About?". The Oprah Magazine. Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  13. Fabian, Renee. "The Story Behind Popular 'Woman Yelling at a Cat' Meme Was Actually the Result of Abuse". Yahoo. Retrieved 18 November 2019.
  14. Barrett, Gena-mour. "How the 'Cash Me Outside' girl became an award-nominated rapper". BBC. Retrieved 18 April 2018.
  15. Leiderman, Jay. "Ain't nobody got time got time for that! Sweet Brown sued iTunes and lost". Jay Leiderman Law. Retrieved 30 September 2016.
  16. Sampson, Tony D (2012-08-01). "Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Contagion (University of Minnesota Press, 2012)". Retrieved 2012-06-07.
  17. Marzouki, Yousri; Oullier, Olivier. "Revolutionizing Revolutions: Virtual Collective Consciousness and the Arab Spring". The Huffington Post US. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
  18. Sampson, Tony D (2016). The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-1-5179-0117-2.
  19. Parikka, Jussi (2013). "'Tarde as Media Theorist': an interview with Tony D. Sampson, by Jussi Parikka". Theory, Culture & Society. Journal Website.
  20. "What is a Viral Video?". Retrieved 2015-11-04.
  21. "What is a Viral Video? – Definition from Techopedia". Retrieved 2015-11-03.
  22. Tom Broxton; Yannet Interian; Jon Vaver; Mirjam Wattenhofer (2013). "Catching a viral video, Volume 40, Issue 2, pp 241–259". Journal of Intelligent Information Systems. doi:10.1007/s10844-011-0191-2.
  23. Lee Rainie; Barry Wellman (2013). Networked: The New Social Operating System. MIT Press. p. 208. ISBN 978-0-262-52616-6.
  24. David Gauntlett (2011). "Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0" (PDF). Polity Press. Retrieved October 30, 2016.
  25. "YouTube Trends: 'Hello' Joins List of Fastest Videos to Reach 100M Views". Retrieved 2015-11-20.
  26. Lee Rainie; Barry Wellman (2013). Networked: The New Social Operating System. The MIT Press. p. 215. ISBN 978-0-262-52616-6.
  27. "The 5 Most Successful Viral Videos Ever". Retrieved 2015-11-04.
  28. Short, Iain (2010). "Viral Marketing vs. Spreadable Media". Archived from the original on 2010-08-29.
  29. McLymore, Arriana. "Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich launch heats up social media". Reuters. Retrieved 23 August 2019.

Further reading

  • Jonah Berger (2016). Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1451686586.
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