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Digital epidemics and social fields

January 21, 2010

Working on a paper on ‘viral’ digital contents, i.e. those jokes, rumours, videos, photos, etc. that spread like wild fire over email, SMS, personal network sites and so on. Some of the ideas I’m chewing on:

* To study digital epidemics one must take into account both psychological and ecological (social) factors (Sperber 1996, Explaining Culture), that is, both (a) the innate cognitive predispositions that lead individual users to select and forward  certain digital contents and not others as well as (b) the social milieux in which these individual users decide whether or not to ‘pass it on’ (firms, offices, fields, markets, kin groups, peer groups, subcultures, culture areas, etc.)

* A lot of attention has been paid in recent years to those rare digital epidemics that are hugely successful, especially to marketing campaigns that ‘went viral’ and clocked millions of hits, e.g. YouTube viewings. While these pandemics are important, we shouldn’t lose sight of that ‘long tail‘ of would-be epidemics that never spread beyond a small circle of friends and acquaintances.

* My focus in this paper will be on digital epidemics in relation to  a specific kind of social milieu: the field of practice (art, sociology, fencing, political activism, etc.). I will argue that digital epidemics do not simply spread through ‘social networks’. To understand each epidemic’s rates and patterns of distribution we must bear in mind that humans operate within and across moral universes that will vary in the degree and quality of their boundedness and openness. For instance, let’s imagine you work for a sexually conservative religious organisation. I forward you a lewd joke and you receive it on your PC at work. Although you find the joke funny you may decide to delete it straight away without forwarding it to anyone, least of all to your superiors. Had you received that same joke on your iPhone or laptop at home, though, you may have forwarded it to a select group of friends and contacts who you know (or hope) will enjoy the joke without taking offence (some of them may even pass it on).

* Or say you are a sociologist and receive that same joke at home. Whilst you may well pass it on to a few sociologists who are part of your lewd joke list (a list that includes non-sociologists) you probably won’t forward it to your sociological mailing lists as this wouldn’t be appropriate. It is precisely the field dimensions of digital epidemics that I want to concentrate on, drawing from my research on a field of suburban activism in Malaysia. How do field practitioners (sociologists, artists, activists, taxi drivers, political bloggers…) regulate the spread of digital epidemics within their fields? How do they innoculate other practitioners from digital epidemics regarded within the field as pernicious (e.g. slurs and rumours reportedly spread by their political enemies)? What sort of technical (incl. software) and discursive mechanisms are there in place to protect a given field site (e.g. a sociology mailing list) from certain ‘viral’ contents whilst allowing the spread of supposedly beneficial viruses contents?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2010 11:04 am

    “In terms of content, Brazil’s new media production resembles what occurs in the United States (see Lange and Ito Forthcoming), India and China. Viral videos range from commercials, old clips of popular television shows such as Big Brother Brazil, telenovelas and comedy to ones that celebrate Brazilian culture. For example, there are a number of films focusing upon great moments in Brazilian football and football legends such as Pele or Ronaldinho”, see

  2. January 22, 2010 1:59 pm

    Hi John,

    I’d be interested in reading your paper once finished. From your notes it appears that the theme of this paper is related to ideas that I have in my forthcoming book, Insidious Competition – The Battle for Meaning and the Corporate Image. In that book, I explore what I call the “Five Factors of Insidious Competition” within social media, which are some of the elements that contribute to meme propagation.

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