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New protest movements and viral media

March 26, 2012

Last updated: 9 May 2012 (no. 11).

In previous blog posts I have written about the viral aspects of Spain’s indignados (or 15-M) movement – a precursor to the international Occupy movement – and explored how a media epidemiographic (epidemiological + ethnographic) approach may be developed to study such movements. I have also suggested that we have entered an era of ‘viral reality’ in which our understanding of current affairs is increasingly shaped by digital contents ‘shared’ with fellow users of social media and mobile devices.

Here are some further speculative thoughts beyond the Spanish case study, jotted down in the spirit of blogstorming. (Warning: regular blog readers will find below old thoughts mixed in with the new, but that’s okay – it’s all for a good cause). Your feedback is very welcome:

  1. There’s nothing new, of course, about sharing information; that’s what humans have always done. But the communicative media landscape has changed dramatically over the past five years, esp. with the double boom in social network sites and smartphones. Hundreds of millions of users around the world now have the ability to ‘like’, retweet, paste, mix, remix, etc, a vastly expanded output of digital contents. The ability to spread or inhibit digital virals itself has gone viral.
  2. For instance, we are by now so used to ‘sharing’ contents via social media – or should that be viral media?- that we overlook the steep learning curve that got us here. For hundreds of millions of us, social networking sites have been informal viral training camps where we have learned through experience and social control to Like or retweet certain items and ignore the rest.
  3. These viral control mechanisms can be subtle – a Facebook friend has in the past jokingly objected to a certain genre of digital content you have Liked; you decide to half-consciously avoid that genre in future and stick to safer ‘shared’ contents.
  4. Shared contents are too important, too integral to our daily rounds of mediated activity, to be left to viral marketing gurus or to be dismissed offhand; we should all – including social scientists – take an interest in virals big and small, general and niche, ephemeral and enduring.
  5. Mainstream media are indeed taking an interest, but so far this has been focussed on sensational viral videos such as Kony 2012 or Susan Boyle at the expense of  the ‘long tail’ (Anderson) of thousands upon thousands of medium- and small-sized virals (not just videos, also stills, audio, texts, slogans, etc.) that circulate every week through our personal networks, organisations and social fields.
  6. First we must overcome our distaste of the very idea of a viral. Viral is just a shorthand for ‘distributed digital content’; we should keep our value judgments out of this fledgling research area.
  7. How do protest movements spread in the current era where most activists and millions of citizens have smartphones, social media and other digital tools at their disposal? I would suggest we look not only at videos, slogans, or hashtags but also at the spread of protest scripts (cf. social scripts) or schemas, e.g. the schema of a consensus-seeking assembly, or the schema of distributed leadership.
  8. Or is API a better term, as suggested to me by @jimmerricks? Alexis Madrigal writes:

    The most fascinating thing about Occupy Wall Street is the way that the protests have spread from Zuccotti Park to real and virtual spaces across the globe. Metastatic, the protests have an organizational coherence that’s surprising for a movement with few actual leaders and almost no official institutions. Much of that can be traced to how Occupy Wall Street has functioned in catalyzing other protests. Local organizers can choose from the menu of options modeled in Zuccotti, and adapt them for local use. Occupy Wall Street was designed to be mined and recombined, not simply copied. […]

    API is an acronym for Application Programming Interface. APIs allow data to be pulled from an online source in a structured way. So, Twitter has an API that lets app developers create software that can display your Twitter feed in ways that the company itself did not develop. Developers make a call to that API to “GET statuses/home timeline” and Twitter sends back “the 20 most recent statuses” for a user.

    What an API does, in essence, is make it easy for the information a service contains to be integrated with the wider Internet. So, to make the metaphor here clear, Occupy Wall Street today can be seen like the early days of Nearly everyone accessed Twitter information through clients developed by people outside the Twitter HQ. These co-developers made Twitter vastly more useful by adding their own ideas to the basic functionality of the social network. These developers don’t have to take in all of OWS data or use all of the strategies developed at OWS. Instead, they can choose the most useful information streams for their own individual applications (i.e. occupations, memes, websites, essays, policy papers).

  9. The mainstreaming of geek practices cannot be reduced to its viral dimensions, but without an understanding of folk digital epidemiology we’ll be missing out on some crucial developments.
  10. Viral reality: Paul Mason Manson in Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere (2012) suggests that real-time (or slightly delayed) citizen footage of uprisings and protests beats both virtual games and anything the mainstream media can produce; social media, he argues, give viewers direct access to reality as it unfolds. The risks of recording and sharing how an establishment tries to put down a rebellion are real, not imagined.
  11. writes on 8 May 2012:”I interviewed Mina after she spoke on a panel titled “Global Lulzes” at this weekend’s ROFLCon III, a conference here in Cambridge dedicated to memes. (Also present: Tron Guy, Paul “Bear” Vasquez, Antoine Dodson, New York Times GIF enthusiast Jenna Wortham, and many other Internet-famous.). The panel, moderated by Ethan Zuckerman, reminded us that Western meme culture is America-focused. Try showing lolcats to people in China: “They have no idea why this is funny,” Mina told me.  Mina was joined on the panel by Bia Granja of Brazil, who founded youPix, which is apparently the world’s largest conference about memes; and Anas Qtiesh, a U.S.-based Syrian blogger who has studied the memes of Syria’s bloody uprising.”

To be continued…

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2012 12:59 am


    Good word! 🙂

  2. March 27, 2012 1:42 am

    Rather than ‘overcome our distaste of the very idea of a viral’, why not adopt a term that isn’t defined as exploitation of a host – use ‘organic’ or ‘fruitful’.

    See my or posts about this

    • March 27, 2012 8:40 am

      These alternative notions are all new to me in this context, many thanks Kevin. A serious discussion on viral/organic terminology is needed. However, perhaps what we need is not so much to replace one killer concept with another (e.g. viral with fruitful) but to develop a whole new vocabulary to track the spread and appropriation of digital forms?

  3. March 28, 2012 2:06 am

    Interesting points, all very relevant. Good technical coverage as well. Here’s my somehwat more qualitative take on Kony and the increasing virulence of social media. Not to mention the brazeness of deleting hundreds of thousands of comments on YouTube:

  4. July 1, 2012 9:22 am

    Thanks !! very interesting points ( Kevin as well on organic/viral distinction )
    FYI here is a “curation” i ‘m doing on the topic i have named “spreading phenomenons” or “propagation organique” in french (50% in english 50% in french ):

    • July 9, 2012 2:47 pm

      Thanks Marc for the info. Sorry about my slow response, I’ve gone into writing mode so I’m a bit cut off from the real Web.


  1. COMM 3342 “Viral Media” Spring 2012 Schedule of Readings :
  2. EMAC 6372 “Viral Media” Spring 2012 Schedule of Readings :

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