These ephemeral blips of content—often sweet or funny videos and memes—burst into our feeds like comets. They startle us with their sudden popularity, glimmer for a bit, and then fade. This is the nature of something going viral, a phenomenon that might seem dictated by likeability, chance, and timing. Even as we participate in “spreading the virus” by reposting a sneezing panda or retweeting a celebrity’s Vine, we’re often stumped as to why some content seizes the collective “us” while other content disappears as quickly as it’s made. What, we wonder, makes something go viral?
During the hot summer months, our friends began dumping buckets of ice over their heads in the name of medical research and awareness. At a time when cynics might doubt that legitimate goodwill lives on the Internet, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge generated over $100 million dollars for the ALS Association. The idea is simple: film yourself getting doused with cold water, challenge three people to do the same in 24 hours, and anyone who fails to accept pays $100 to the ALS nonprofit.
In the case of both an actual virus and a viral phenomenon like the Ice Bucket Challenge, there is a “patient zero,” the source from which the occurrence originates. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge can be traced back to Pete Frates, an athlete and ALS patient diagnosed in 2012. With so many good causes we could support, why was Frates’ campaign so successful? Many would claim that they participated because they wanted to contribute to a worthy cause, but the speed with which this campaign spread can’t be solely attributed to kindness. Abhinav Sharma, a product designer for Quora who studies human-computer interaction, explains that the imposed 24-hour time limit combined with the fact that each participant receives the challenge personally (“You’re made to feel part of a small exclusive club.”) has contributed to its widespread success.
According to Darius Cheung in a post for 99.com, it’s also a numbers game: “This is true built-in virality.” He calculates that, “If we start off with just one person, and every person challenges another three, assuming 50% of challenges are accepted, each acceptance takes an average of two days. The Ice Bucket Challenge would theoretically reach 1.9B people in 100 days.” While the challenge has its critics with some claiming it’s more about narcissism and clicktivism as opposed to actual efforts to combat ALS—and while not everyone who participated actually donated money—this phenomenon reflects how virality is about the right components. This challenge was designed to spread.
This is the nature of a virus at its very best: a collective impulse to contribute. If this reflects something essential about us, so, too, does our fear of actual viruses, one that’s magnified and escalating. As I type this, benign Vines and YouTube clips share space in our feeds with news about Ebola. We find articles explaining virus-blocking HAZMAT suits and news segments critiquing quarantine laws juxtaposed against soon-to-fade viral content, like Brad Pitt’s appearance on Between Two Ferns and Daniel Radcliffe rapping on The Tonight Show. One petrifies us while the other distracts us. And while Ebola is something we should certainly both think and care about for many reasons, scientists claim that most of us aren’t in danger of contracting it. Yet the quickness with which we can learn about symptoms and the barrage of programming dedicated to its nonstop coverage stokes our collective fear just as the Ice Bucket Challenge stokes our collective generosity. Two versions of virality ping-pong off one another in the media we consume.
While we may fear viruses (and sometimes loathe viral content), we also harbor fascination. Brooklyn-based visual artist Laura Splan creates computer-generated lace doilies of microbes—intricate and beautiful at first glimpse but unsettling once you notice they’re renderings of HIV, SARS, and the flu. You can purchase petri dish Christmas ornaments and vivid watercolor prints of the swine flu online. There are cross-stitch microbe patterns on Etsy. You can buy three-dimensional, nylon plastic printings of viruses from David Bhella, a Glasgow research scientist. Available for purchase elsewhere: plush toys of any microbe you can imagine, like fuzzy chickenpox and bright green Dengue Fever with its beady eyes. We are compelled to hold in our hands or explore more tangibly the microscopic particles we both fear and help spread.
There are those who claim that humans don’t merely spread a virus: some believe mankind itself is a virus. Writer William S. Burroughs famously claimed that “language is a virus.” He would go on to suggest in his novel Cities of the Red Night that not just human language but the human species itself was the viral problem. “Self-identity is ultimately a symptom of parasitic invasion, the expression within me of forces originating from outside,” he writes. “…The whole quality of human consciousness, as expressed in male and female, is basically a virus mechanism.” If Burroughs is correct, maybe the Ice Bucket Challenge is a tiny glimpse of the better side of our viral-ness—an unconscious atonement.
There may be a shade of scientific truth to Burroughs’ claims. Carl Zimmer’s article for Discover magazine, “We Are Viral From the Beginning,” explores the viruses we carry inside us from conception, not the ones we catch and spread. He explains how, when a retrovirus infects an egg that then becomes fertilized, every cell of that person (and that person’s offspring, and so on) will carry the virus. “It turns out that the human genome contains about 100,000 fragments of endogenous retroviruses,” he writes, “making up about eight percent of all our DNA.” We fear and are fascinated by and bear witness to the viruses outside ourselves, when an aspect of our nature has already “gone viral.”
It’s too cold for the Ice Bucket Challenge, at least here where the lawns have frozen over and the leaves are gone. My feed has dried up. By next summer, we may find ourselves compelled again toward collective activism. We can only guess which cause will choose us or which well-made meme will stoke the altruistic spot in our brains. While we wait, Rick Astley will continue to dance and an astronaut will continue to sing, even though we’re no longer listening.