Here come the viruses

Our language says a lot about us, doesn’t it? This is especially so for the language we consciously adopt to describe our evolving culture. So it’s particularly telling, I think, that we (“we” being the users, creators and squatters of the www) have chosen the adjective viral to characterize internet memes that explode in distribution, that almost literally take on a life of their own.

Because they do spread like viruses, don’t they? From person to person, picking up speed, and eventually ‘infecting’ entire populations.

More often than not we apply that word, viral, to videos; viral videos are the ones that stand out somehow, that inexplicably shoulder past the innumerable rest to capture our attention, or elicit our laughter, or tug our heartstrings.

By now you’ve surely heard of Karen Klein, the grandmotherly bus monitor so cruelly treated by a group of middle-school boys. The video of her being ‘bullied’ (and that word might be apt based on the behavior, but it feels weird to use when the victim is five times the age of the perpetrators) has not only gone viral, it has generated a bewildering windfall for Mrs. Klein.

The fact that the video went viral, and has sparked such sympathy, isn’t all that surprising. She’s a sympathetic figure, stuck in a harsh circumstance.

And her tormentors, rotten bullies though they might be – well let’s face it, they’re 13 year-old boys. We might wish they didn’t act this way, we might even all agree they’re deserving of some punishment. A summer without Xboxes might teach them the lesson they’re sorely in need of.

But are they the inhuman monsters this virus is portraying them as? Or are they 13 year-old boys, acting like 13 year-old boys always have, who happened to do in front of a camera and in the age of viral communication?

A notable percentage of viewers (I’m looking at you, 4chan)┬áhas reacted (without a shred of conscious irony), by bullying the bullies. The harassment of the boys has included death threats, anonymous calls that have brought police to their doors, and more cyber-bullying than we’ll probably ever know (and that will probably go on for months, or until something else new and shiny distracts 4chan’s attention).

Thousands of other viewers decided to take a more constructive path. Coordinated through Reddit, it began as a modest campaign to raise enough money to send Mrs. Klein on a nice vacation. That goal seems a bit random, but the intent was clearly good. But then the campaign took on a viral life of its own, with donations pouring in. At last check they’ve topped $600,000. Mrs. Klein, understandably, is thinking about retiring.

It’s a nice outcome for her, and food for thought for everyone with a YouTube account. How many camera phones are at this moment being clicked on, with the intent of generating a windfall? How many people are making the saddest videos possible because the case of Mrs. Klein has proved that’s how you win the lottery?

What comes next is all but inevitable: a slew of heart-tugging videos, with concerted efforts to kickstart the viral phenomenon. Call it viral-engineering: greedy people are now incentivized to take the randomness out of the way we select our memes.

Here come the viruses. Our online culture is about to change once again, and not at all in a good way.

About editor, facilitator, decider

Doesn't know much about culture, but knows when it's going to hell in a handbasket.
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