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Digital epidemics and forwarded genres

November 10, 2008

A few days ago I received a copy of the excellent new book by Nicholas Gane and David Beer, New Media: The Key Concepts. In this textbook it is suggested that six key concepts ‘are pivotal for understanding the impact of new media on contemporary society and culture’: network, information, interface, archive, interactivity and simulation.

I’ll have more to say about this book, I’m sure, in future blog entries, but for now just a quick note about a concept that I think ought to be added to the list: epidemic (short for digital epidemic). How can we possibly understand, I suggest, digital media without taking into account the epidemic nature of many of their contents? I am referring to the epidemic – sometimes pandemic – spread of computer viruses, urban legends, hoaxes, rumours, jokes, and other ‘small genres’ (Spitulnik 1996) from users to users.

I am interested in how internet and mobile phone users decide what to forward and what not to forward to their contacts (often in a matter of milliseconds), and in the informal practices that have emerged whereby some users educate others about the nature of certain forwarded genres. I am particularly keen to understand the internet epidemiology (cf. Sperber 1996) of urban legends, hoaxes and the like as a way of getting at less obvious items and genres that tend to escape detection, e.g. unsubstantiated rumours about the risks of taking a certain medical drug, religious delusions, fashionable nonsense, faulty inferences, etc.

An applied anthropology question. How can we use the epidemiological propensities of the digital technologies to ‘innoculate’ users against the more pernicious small genres? For instance, how can we use these technologies to fashion and spread critical analytical tools that will protect us against nonsensical ideas?


Sperber, D. 1996. Explaining culture: a naturalistic approach, Oxford: Blackwell

Spitulnik, D. 1996. The social circulation of media discourse and the mediation of communities. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 62, 161-187.

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