Rob Horning has a very interesting meditation on the viral self over at the New Inquiry, touching on emotion, accuracy, viral content and the reasons why we pass certain stories on:
The point of viral content, in part, is not to learn about “little girls in Afghanistan who are better at skateboarding than you’ll ever be” or other such stories (which often turn out to be untrue) but to be the person who responds correctly to them and who tells someone else about them. The function of viral content is to permit vicarious participation in the emotions of the story, and vicarious participation in the social. The perceived virality, popularity, of the content, illusory or not, elicits a richer emotional response in the consumer of the content. Virality may function as disinhibition for a reader, authorizing fantasy and emotional investment, a suspension of disbelief that is sustained by apparent social support. Everyone is talking about this! In that sense it is “real” regardless of whether the details are accurate. The circulation of the story makes it a social fact.
Much of it is quotable for insight about how viral content taps a desire to be viral ourselves, to have our own identities spread and carried through social media alongside the things we post. His points about how viral sites themselves have a limited half-life – a sort of meta-virality – are particularly interesting. Especially given that this is presumably an element of what Buzzfeed is attempting to avoid by growing its more serious reporting side.
Once everyone knows about Upworthy and can source viral material from it themselves, though, its thrill is gone. Virality settles into traditional mass-media reach. And Facebook’s engineers, whose algorithms underlie virality in practice, retool how their site’s newsfeed works, as Ezra Klein explains here, to thwart overpopular or overliked content. And so new viral-content providers must be uncovered, new ruses to evade filters and stoke consumers’ vanity devised. Viral content sites themselves have a viral life span.
He also talks intelligently about the problems of identities constructed solely or primarily through social media, the way that becomes a responsibility with a watching audience – something that I suspect bites particularly hard for online “anchor” journalists, who tend to meld professional and public identities into a single social entity, and who tend to set great store by the numbers attached.