Hail to the Viral Overlords

Part of a longer piece I wrote and half-scrapped inspired by reading the following New Yorker article (and 20 similar articles of other similar people over the past 2 years)

Let’s talk about creating something.

Real influence has to be incubated. An artist can toil away for years in total obscurity until the universe grants them their moment of recognition and notoriety. In most cases, that never comes, but without that investment there can never be a chance to wield true influence.

Virologists, in the social media, web 2.0 sense of the term are like your sleight of hand magicians who impress us by pulling rabbits out of their top hat with metric obsessed gimmickry and unfettered plagiarism, where as the original creators in the world, almost all of which will never enjoy the suffocating reach the ardents of viralism tout, are the Gandalfs and Dumbledores to their Gob Bluth.

On paper, you can’t argue with the value in being able to spread things like wildfire. There is value. The problem is that they couldn’t spread an original idea, merely flint sparks in a drought-dusted forest.

Why, still, are we treating it like the holy grail?

Instead of condemning these people for blatant, rampant theft, and sociopathic obsession with breeding greater numbers, we laud them. We build cult after cult of personality. We want to hire them. “Find us the next code cracking savant!”

Yet, there is nothing definitive that leads us to conclude that the virologists have any long-term staying power.

The true ability of the virologist is the ability to swiftly identify patterns that are popular on a sub to microcultural level and amplify them to a point that the echo chamber obliterates our mental filter much in the way ‘turning the amp to 11’ mutilates ear drums.

While obesity and an addiction to fatty-sugar-laced foods is near-universally ridiculed as the issue, statistically, reaches epidemic proportions, we further slog our collective conscious with greasier, fattier, and sweeter tasting junk food of the mind. And more of it, too.

Tirelessly, we ferry an infinitely long train of drivel into a consciousness already struggling with bandwidth issues.

Sometimes when I see a dog obsessively trying to dig for nothing into a couch, I wonder if maybe, just maybe, the beast is performing an interpretive dance of the masochistic human cycle of information ingestion.

The mass-connected mobile world of metrics and A/B tests has given the virologists true power to hone in on the social pulse to the point where they have amassed so much sludge and grime off the floor that, as we iterate from Huffington Post to Buzzfeed to Upworthy to Dose to whatever is next, we’re left alone with a monstrous sludge golem, each one more terrifyingly imposing than the previous.

Real influence, real ingenuity is taking something that the world is neither familiar with nor quite ready to ‘get’ and turning them on to it.

Most ideas that make the most dramatic changes to the world are the riskiest.

My problem isn’t so much with the Church-state of Viralism as much as it is with the misappropriated reverence. A virologist takes oxygen and brings awareness of its existence to any mope they find who already relies on the stuff with each breath.

We already knew, throughout all of human history, that we love cats. We love dogs. We love animals, We love pets so much and everyone should love ours as much as we do. We love grumpy cat. I don’t know if we loved or hated the Taco Bell chihuahua, but the little guy’s burrito sales numbers take Alec Baldwin’s character from Glengarry Glen Ross and transform him from closer to loser.

Inherently, we knew, yet it wasn’t until we had an instantaneous connection to billions that we had a way to show everyone just how much we loved the little furballs that we understood — to the point where it is ruining it for everyone else.

I don’t believe that virology as we know it can sustain. A couple times a year, we get a new exposé on the newest viral wunderkind. We’ll take a peek into their quirky offices, their lavishly funded, just-barely counter cultured businesses that plan to shake the world up with their latest big ideas, and over time they’ll come and they go.

If anything, we can recognize the Church of Viralism for what it is (in most cases), a stepping stone for high-wired minds that are always looking for the next piece of the world to tap into and hack. Though, for every Jonah Peretti out there, there will be 10 more Eric Baumans (and even Jonah hasn’t proven that he will take Buzzfeed from Viral megachurch to something greater, but I guess I’m putting my money on him ahead of all the others).

Things will always spread, and with the Internet’s Borg-consciousness, we will always have use for the farmers who can best spread it, but when time comes to create something original and spread that, let’s accept that they are no better than anyone else.

In the interim, maybe we could tone down the obsession with the Internet’s equivalent of the Monsanto board.

I’m not happy with how blogging and it’s mutated cousin, virology, have hurt the integrity of journalism and turned the news cycle into an institution full of premature ejaculators. Others weren’t happy with what the 24-hour news cycle evolved into. Or Cable TV. And so on.

I accept that there is a large degree of inevitability, and I will likely be wrong on a lot of things, but those of us who push back on the inevitability of the current state of things are part of the same inevitability that molds the future. The old soul in me will lose a lot more than he’s currently ready to concede, while gaining a lot.

Until then, I push back fiercely and without rest on the broad implications that The Church-state of Viralism has on a sociocultural level. I invite anyone else who feels similarly to push in whatever direction they feel led. I’ll see you, a bit trampled, at the end of the stampede.

The irony of Robert Johnson’s soul-selling, guitar playing piece of mythology in American folklore is that you can’t really play the blues with no soul. In the same sense, all those who sell their soul for mass reach might help bring us interesting things or mere distractions, but let’s at least try to tip our hat to those who held on to their soul, grinding it through the wheelhouse in order to originate what others merely spread without proper credit.

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