Arie Altena

Communication in a Digital Age
Viral Communication

Arie Altena

On April 13th 2010 I was live blogging at the conference Viral Communication, organised by the Piet Zwart Academy in Rotterdam, more specifically the 'communication in a digital age' research programme. This is a copy of my posts, almost unedited, as they can also be found at

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The second Skype presentation is by Douglas Rushkoff, who wrote the book Media Virus back in the early nineties (it came out in 1995). He still thinks that the idea of media viruses is partly misunderstood. He goes back to the era of faxes, which were used for sending long ridiculous jokes around, and when, end of the 1980s, the media space was slowly becoming interactive. If this space would become more turbulent, emergent characteristics would appear from the chaos. As ideas spread through biological apparatuses, similarly ideas could spread through media spaces. The quintessential media virus being the Rodney King tape, which spread uncontrollable through the media, partly because it was a story about media. It was a story not about a black man being beaten by cop, but a video about what was captured on camera. He makes a longer biological analogy. There's the shell and the ideas inside the shell. A virus needs both. It needs virulent memetic code inside it that provokes a response that we cannot escape. Describes advertisers and marketeers as people who operate in the mythological space, where social relations are replaced by myths, namely instead of buying cookies from persons, buying them from a mythological company (a brand). Social marketing is therefore an oxymoron. (In fact he rages very much against this, and against companies, and with reason). The question instead is: can we promote memes that are beneficial to the world? Especially in the US this is about putting on a battle against non-beneficial memes, against stupid ideas. (I miss a layer here I think, Rushkoff was presenting this in a more complex way). Also he refers to stories as the way through which we created values. Stories operate in a linear way; memes instead do not operate linearly, they one could say operate in a fractal space, multi-dimensionally (not Euclidean).

What has happened between 1992 and now? According to Rushkoff 'they' (the would-be cultural controllers) still do not understand how cultural viruses function. They do not understand the 'memetic' landscape and therefore do not even know which memes to create and propagate. Because they do not understand the non-fiction memetic space, culture -- and how it functions and could be made better.

There is a pronounced political message 'behind' Rushkoff's talk -- the question is to create alternative political ideas and implement them -- be they gay marriage, sustainable energy, taking away the stupidity, the rampant commercialism. He does blame the marketeers for a lot of the stupidity.

During the discussion also he emphasizes that USENET and the Well were not real-time environments, that comments would take a day to get in. More playing chess by mail and less immediate. In fact the internet, technologically, is asynchronous. The marketeers instead emphasized the real-time idea and sold this to us, the always on-idea. He hates to admit that literary culture might be coming to an end. He actually connects literary culture to books and the press (mentions Walter Ong). I would like to stress the transformation of literary culture. But yes, that also needs that we steer away from the 'the constant chasing the moment', that we learn to concentrate again, that we develop different interfaces, other ways of interaction. HTML was replaced by Facebook, and homepages by the multiple choice identity Facebook give us.

The 'cultural controllers' are doing that, says Rushkoff, selling us the 'real time' and its interfaces. (He btw. doesn't use the term real time). A lot he mentions connects directly to the recent criticisms in the first part of Jaron Lanier's book You are not a gadget, as well as to a couple of things Nicholas Carr on Roughtype has been writing about (from a slightly different perspective).

(And maybe I should mention here that I just finished an article about the transformation of literary culture for the Dutch magazine De Gids which touches on some of these issues. It will, hopefully be in the next issue. It pleads amongst others, for the creation of 'tools' which facilitate concentrated reading and reflection, instead of instant response. It's in Dutch. It's why I pretty much forget to report on Rushkoff's use of the terms meme and memetics, and stress these points, which clearly Rushkoff is very passionate about).

The internet Rushkoff got to know was an education space. Our interfaces now instruct us to be users, consumers, experiments in perpetuating consumer culture. It makes producers into the new consumers. That is, indeed, a 'bad' thing. Computers have become modeling tools, instead of being machines to create models.

Florian asks of we have arrived at the moment of resignation that media theory reached with Baudrillard in the 1980s? The time of 'the depressed postmodernists' as Rushkoff terms them. The difference is, says Rushkoff, is that we now can create ourselves, which is a reason for hope, as well as the fact that we are actually connected to people across the internet. rather than just deconstruct for ourselves, we can deconstructed for the others as well, and can be done in real time, on the networks and interfaces that are looking to monetize the networks. So there is… hope… beyond the LOLCATs.

17:00. The call with Rushkoff is ended, the conference too. And without correcting I'll upload this text.

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Simon Pummell -- head of the lens-based media at the PZI and filmmaker -- gives a critical view on virals in video culture. His background of his talk and ideas is film culture -- which means that, in the financial sense, it connects to television and cinema. He starts with the 'Eye vagina' from chatroulette and the Red Army scene from Tarkovsky's Mirror (see: (Here's the short description at the youtube-page of the Mirror-scene: “This is a famous scene of “Mirror” by great russian film and theater director, screenwriter, a poetic visionary Andrei Tarkovsky. Mostly because this scene he faced troubles with authorities. The chief of the State Cinema wanted to take out the newsreel piece of the Soviet Army crossing Lake Sivash, Crimea, in November 1943. It had been filmed by an army cameraman who had been killed on that same day. After The Mirror Tarkovsky considered giving up the whole business. At a meeting of the State Institute of Cinematography and the Union of Cinematographists, his colleagues condemned his work as ‘elitist’. An engineer from Sverdlovsk wrote in a letter to Tarkovsky: “One can only be astonished that those responsible for the distribution of films here in the USSR should allow such blunders.”) Both are successful memes, but in different ways -- I would say in different time schemes.

Viral success stories are a quick fix -- according to Pummell. And goes back to Burroughs suggesting that it is a virus: they force something on you against your will, it does not care about the host, and also goes back to Burroughs' comparison between consumer culture and being hooked on drugs. Suggests that this is exactly what Facebook and others, who want you to be your special friend, can be compared to. And goes back to how television was financed (selling eyeballs to advertising), the ratings et cetera, and how television was subsequently criticized, more or less after Burroughs' virus idea.

On the other hand Tarkovsky’s movies also functioned as a parasite (or virus) on the dominant state culture of the Soviet Union. In a sense then movies (intellectual, artistic) function as a virus inside the media. So he asks: what is the second level parasite inside viral communication culture.

In the discussion he actually states that he is not entirely sure he really means what he says, it's more that he never hears anybody say something like this. Hmm -- I wonder, that probably has to do with what one follows, what one looks at, who one listens to. He is looking for the pockets of resistance in an against the discourse of the viral communication. I'd say they're everywhere. Especially in the traditional arts btw. But I'm not making this remark. I actually have a problem to follow what Pummell is actually after -- film and certainly big budget and arthouse film not being my topics. But if it is about the idea to make sure that a cultural product gets 'out there'… well. Hmm. But then, I'm not so afraid we will see a future of just LOLCAT videos on the one hand and Avatars on the other and nothing in between. But then, in terms of literary culture things might seem more bright?

Of course, and this is what I am very much in agreement with, Pummell primarily criticizes the real time, instant culture of 'the viral', whereas we also cherish longer time spans.

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Then it's on to the first Skype session, the one with Tim Hwang – combining actually his presentation plus Skype. (Nice to see it's all run from a Debian mini netbook). He talks on ROFLcon. He also works on the Awesome Foundation , blogs here, and a couple of more things that you can easily find through the aforementioned links. ROFLcon was an attempt of getting internet celebrities together in physical space (celebrity as in being a celebrity just for well, doing something which is quite meaningless, but created a meme).

Btw., he made a nice list of the most boring questions about memes online.

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AMOS (Alexander Maximilian Otto) Serrano, creative director of VM-people specialized in viral marketing and Alternate Reality Gaming, is the next speaker. Stresses that there are users and administrators. Web is a dark forest for companies. And we're into viral marketing -- beyond sending out funny video's that are forwarded by users -- because we like 'word of mouth'. They take the 'viral' metaphor literally -- as did Burroughs, and many contemporary marketing companies -- "construct the virus and enable the spread", by systematically talking to 'influentials'. Claims that we still talk more in 'real life' than on the digital social networks. The idea is to speak to people, and have those people (influentials) speak about you. In the end it is about arranging and choreographing conversations -- without giving anybody the feeling they are being used or controlled. The trick is "be worth talking about". Okay I think -- so the trick is to create good products, spread good ideas, good ideas will be spread, good products will be talked about. Hmm. Content has to be 'embeddable' and 'spreadable'. Pull marketing. But one can't book the direct channel to the minds of peoples. The web represents the connections between people -- follow those. He then gives a very strange analogy: the collection of folk tales by the Grimm brothers as active storytelling. (Because the book they made was so successful?) For companies the social networks are dark forests remember Hans & Gretel) -- and the tasks of viral marketing is to alleviate the fear of companies for the dark forest. Then it's Alice in Wonderland's White Rabbit that we have to follow to different realities to expand our consciousness. In any case, I conclude,: viral marketeers are telling us fairy tales. (Take it positive, or take it in the negative sense).

Of course companies like this one actually create some very powerful stories, and very powerful formats through which to tell our stories -- especially the Augmented or Alternate Reality Games (ARG). Apparently nowadays it is possible to create such stories with advertising money, and some of those are very good, showing much care, and much research -- for instance the one VM-poeple develops to promote a book by Cunningham (see this Spiegel text and this vimeo account); whereas it seems to be much more difficult to create such stories for the sake of the story… On a positive note one could say that creativity and artistry have migrated to the marketing departments; but what does this mean for the story? As finally the cross-media story, the alternate reality game, is there to, what? promote selling a book? Or is there another meaning, for the players, which in the end more important? The concepts are of course pioneered by Blast Theory. Actually the concept for the ARG for the Cunningham book pretty much copies the Blast Theory concepts of years ago… It is impressive. But then, what is stressed in this presentation is the numbers, the audience reached, the number of involved players, reaching rank 40 in Amazon's bestselling list. It works as advertising yes, but why not have such AR stories without selling the book.

And in a different way, this is the story asked. The answer "As long as the story is good, and people have fun, you don't care that it is for selling a book". Of course these ARGs are only one examples of ARGs -- the scene is much larger, consisting also of 'amateur content' (geeks playing RL stories, using also wikis and blogs). Of course a book or a film or a dictionary are nice, content-driven 'products' to advertise via an ARG, via storytelling, though the example of selling a video projector through an ARG -- creating a scientific story behind a new feature of the projector -- suggests one can create involved stories for any product. It is all about finding ways to advertise which still work.

Still, storytelling is at the center of advertising and viral communication -- not just the creation of links (says Florian Cramer). Storytelling, namely, is seen as the form which connects to our lives 'deeply'. But this brings up the question of the tension between narrative and games -- having to keep a certain momentum for the players to keep the players going. It brings up the question of how contemporary stories are influenced by video/computer games, with its ideas of levels. Amos states that he would like the ARG stories to evolve more towards a complexity that we know from book culture, moving away also from puzzle solving.

When will we arrive at the point where the book becomes the tool to promote the ARG? -- asks Florian Cramer. Again trying to get to the point, in a sense, of the meaning of a particular story, as a story which is not used for selling something else.

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Bill Wasik -- senior editor at Harper’ s, author of the book And Then There's This -- is the first speaker -- introduced as the inventor of the work 'flash mob'. "The internet documents how things spread" -- and that is what is truly revolutionary about the internet, according to Wasik -- next to the the increase in speed of communication. We can go back to the giant database, which shows how ideas develop and spread. "If it doesn't spread, it's dead", he quotes Henry Jenkins; who would prefer to use 'spreadable' instead of 'viral'. The trouble with the work viral, says Jenkins, is that is casts consumers as passive, and causes message creators to overestimate their creative powers, and overlooks how much messages are remixed by consumers.

'Spreadable' as a term also comes with troubles…

'Viral' puts forward the internet as a locus of macro trends and experimentation -- a cynical scientist view --, whereas 'spreadable' is more idealist and humanist, and puts forward the internet as a locus of micro connections and community. In fact these are two distinct ideologies of the internet. Viral emphasizes the possibility of content distribution, whereas spreadable emphasizes content creation.

Recapitulates the history of the flash mob phenomenon, which started in the summer of 2003, and had become a fad in september 2003. Okay, wikipedia link. Another example he gives is the LOLCATS videos.

What 'viral' gets wrong according to Wasik, is that spreaders are curators, not vectors, viral content comes from caring creators, that come from creative communities, online and offline (but interestingly, mainly from offline, acc. to Wasik)

What 'spreadable gets wrong, according to Wasik, is that most participants are forwarders, not makers; real creative community online is rare; and even remixers want to go viral.

(The question is, does it make sense to distinguish online creative communities from offline -- when creativity is facilitated by digital tools anyway).

After Bill Wasik’s talk, the discussion keeps coming back to the effect of the internet on communication, namely that it has increased the speed of propagation of for instance sound bites (or stupid videos, creating a viral) -- the technology enables this, enables quick reaction and instant forwarding. People are participating in this, an participating in it is social, is being in touch with your friends. Yes, true -- this is how the world has changed. And then? We -- and communication companies -- have become quite adept at it. So…?

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"Today the whole day will be about memes and social communication in a broad sense" is how Florian Cramer kicks off the second day of the Viral Communication conference at the Piet Zwart Institute. He dedicated the day to Malcolm McLaren -- deceased last week, one of the inventors of viral and guerrilla marketing, one could say. His 'genius' being that he was completely open about the fact that how he was publicising the punk movement and the Sex Pistols was a 'swindle'.

The metaphor of the virus for communication of course derives originally from William S. Burroughs: who in his 1970 short book The Electronic Revolution made his theory of language as a virus explicit -- which one can find already in his earlier books like Nova Express.

The idea spread to popular culture through Laurie Anderson's song, but even more through the reception of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, which introduced the idea of a 'meme', as a communication unit which spreads like a virus. A 'meme' is anything that can be copied from one mind to another -- which is one short definition of meme one can find on the internet.

(I am following Florian Cramer's examples from his introduction).

Cramer emphasizes that such an idea might be very successful, many know it, but it is not a definition which coheres nicely with contemporary linguistic theory. He raises the point if a meme might not be the same as Peirce's 'semiosis', or rather a special kind of 'semiosis' -- namely one that concentrates on the propagation of an idea.

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