The Chaos of Social Virality

Imagine if our solar system were to have 3 suns. What would happen? Well, if Earth were not equally far away from each of them, then the gravitational forces that hold Earth in orbit would start to pull our planet in erratic ways; the gravitational allegiance of Earth will constantly become compromised, thus allowing for irregular patterns of orbit.

This seems to be analogous to chaos theory, a theory developed by Einstein to explain a three-body problem in which the interaction of three bodies or more leads to their unpredictable behaviour. Brian Massumi refers to this as resonance, in which the not the objects, but the fields of gravity that interact with each object begin to diverge as they overlap, thus compromising their strict adherence to laws. So although they still operate in accordance to Newtonian laws of gravity, they attain a degree of freedom as they begin to behave erratically.

Massumi uses this as an analogy for ‘affect’, stating that “affect is like our human gravitational field, and what we call freedom are its relational flips” (Massumi, 2002; p. 265). So when a video about cats doing something cute is uploaded onto youtube, this video itself contains a “charge of effect” (Massumi, 2002; p. 260), which denotes the video’s potential to interact in particular ways, which are yet unknown. The affect that the video inherently contains is a potential that will allow for connection between other bodies, or Internet users. Anna Gibbs (2010) points to this aspect of innateness of affect describing its importance as “evolutionary… as a motivational system” (p. 337). This innate affective-social quality is what is needed to understand why videos, pictures, or other Internet content, does indeed go viral.

When we talk about media content going viral, there are three essential characteristics that determine movement: “the speed of spread…quantity of views… and the unpredictability of what will spread” (Munster, 2013; p. 277). Just like planet earth if it were to suddenly have three suns, the behaviour of the body would gain momentum as it interacted with these three separate gravitational fields and start to behave in a non-linear way that became unpredictable, yet bound by Newton’s laws. Viral media content behaves in the same erratic and intense way, and allows for a community of people to come together in contagion.

What I mean by contagion is that the content enter a networked world full of potentials for affect and they “make the spread of networking contagious” (Munster, 2013; p. 278). Contagion itself makes the affect go viral, creating the perpetual interaction of affective networking users, conveying the potential power of the virtual content to spread.

Contagion can be understood in terms of biological fear, where the spread of the virus becomes overabundant and uncontrollable. This is what we can understand by “too much connectivity” (p. 291), according to Sampson (2012). The viral spread of content leads to conformity, randomised entities of control, and destabilised structures of order.

However, Sampson does not want us to think of contagion in these terms. We need to understand contagion and virality in terms of social relations. Using an Assemblage theory we are able to more accurately and with more freedom, explain the behaviour of social entities, of relationality and encounter, thus deeming virality a mere sociological phenomenon. This positive definition of virality allows for the erratic behaviour of viral content to reflect positively on our interactions, unlike the Earth being pulled by the forces of three different suns, thus leading it towards an unknown fate. Virality, is rather, a positive force making manifest a social event.


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