Virality is a Myth

It seems like every day I see an article on Facebook or Yahoo exclaiming how some Youtube video or story just "went viral." The implication is that this indicates some kind of grass roots, democratic effort where "you: the people of the internet" decided what video, image, or story was worthy of our collective attention.

Well, allow me to offer something a little cynical: virality is a myth.

You should not feel any compulsion to click on anything simply because some greater news source indicated that it has "gone viral." There may have been a time a decade ago when virality was real and there really were items brought to our attention through natural selection, but that time has long since passed.  Sooner or latter all natural processes are absorbed by the segments of the media that are controlled by big dollars.

If you wish to defend the concept of virality, then you're going to have to explain how on any given day there are three Yahoo articles about what Kim Kardashian just had for breakfast. I know a dozen writers who are producing tremendous work and who would get an enormous boost from a single mention on Yahoo to the betterment of all humanity, so it's frustrating to see a daily triumvirate of articles dedicated to some talentless Kardashian (especially when I've never met anyone in person who claims to be a fan of that clan).

I don't mean to come across as a conspiracy theorist, I'm just stating the obvious fact that the media is highly manipulated. Sure there are cases where people without connections break through and find enormous success, but those instances are the exception. Take, for example, a list of your favorite actors. If you do some digging you'll find that a high percentage of them come from families with a lot of clout in the industry. This does not mean that those people do not have talent, but it is an indication that their success was not based on talent alone.

There are hidden gems out there that deserve to be discovered, and the concept of "virality" is an indication that the mass of humanity is seeking such things. People delight in finding quality pieces of work that shake up the collective human perspective by offering something new and brilliant. However, it's hard to find these things because there is lots and lots of mediocre talent out there with tons of money that is able to monopolize the spotlight through bribery. Sometimes I worry that there is a collective negative effect on our whole art culture simply because it's so hard for legitimate new talent to break through, but such an effect would be impossible to measure.

Perhaps the saving grace is that the true artists in our population are dedicated to their craft and nourished by perfecting their art for its own sake. It could be argued that these artists don't even seek attention since that could become a distraction to their purpose (although obviously enough notoriety so that they can make a living is necessary). Finding such talent takes effort on the part of the consumer. The good stuff out there hasn't "gone viral," and it probably never will. That being said, there's probably no point in clicking on articles boasting the discovery of the latest "viral" sensation. 

The word "viral" is just another marketing phrase which we have not yet learned to regard with suspicion.