What it means when things 'go viral' on the Web

How did we end up with a disease metaphor to refer to the way information travels through society?

One of the silver linings about an awful event like superstorm Sandy is the contact with friends and family at a distance who get in touch to make sure you're OK.

But distance distorts, and people far away don't always have an accurate picture of just what's happening where.

One street on the other side of town from me near Boston had the misfortune to see two big trees come crashing down, each onto a different house. After the pictures of the scene were picked up widely and "went viral," as they say, I had a call from a California friend worried that big trees were crashing down everywhere around me.

Closer to the heart of the action, in New York, a hero to emerge from Sandy's aftermath was Lydia Callis, sign-language interpreter for New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She didn't say a word, but she upstaged the mayor at his own press briefings. His Honor was the very embodiment of "keep calm and carry on," warning New Yorkers to stay off the streets, to avoid making nonemergency calls to 911, and so on, with only an occasional wave of the hand out from behind his lectern.

But Ms. Callis's telling of the story, as she stood at his side, interpreting it all into sign language, made it all seem much more exciting and heroic. She soon found her fan base, including a Facebook group called Lydia Calas [sic] Can Destroy Hurricane Sandy With Her Bare Hands, and a parody on "Saturday Night Live." She was proclaimed a "viral star" of the superstorm.

How did we end up with a disease metaphor to refer to the way information travels through society?

Merriam-Webster defines "viral marketing" as "marketing designed to disseminate information (as about a new product) very rapidly by making it likely to be passed from person to person especially via electronic means." Insofar as it sounds like a variation on "word of mouth advertising," "viral marketing" seems to suggest that satisfied customers will spread the word about a business as if it were the flu.

Paul McFedries at Wordspy.com gives a definition of "viral marketing" that is not so high tech: "the promotion of a service or product by using existing customers to pass along a marketing pitch to friends, family, and colleagues." He cites a magazine article from 1989 explaining what happened when an accounting firm gave its staff a choice between Apple computers and PCs, and found the Apples all snatched up and the PCs languishing. "It's viral marketing," the article quoted a source as saying. "You get one or two in and they spread throughout the company."

Mr. McFedries offers this speculation on why people turn to viral transmission as a metaphor: "Probably because a biological virus replicates itself by invading a host cell and then using the cell's machinery to create new copies of the virus. So, analogously, a customer acts like a kind of 'host cell' for a company's marketing message, and that customer is used to create new 'copies' of the viral marketing message."

So how do we get from "viral marketing" to things "going viral on the Web"? If social media have made us all "publishers," we end up promoting ideas, videos, other bits of "content," and the like as if they were products or services – even when they clearly are not. I won't be surprised, though, if some entrepreneur brings out Lydia Callis action figures in time for Christmas.

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