On Friday the fifth of October, a painting by the elusive political street artist known as Banksy ‘self-destructed’ the moment it was sold for 1.4 million pounds at an auction in London. The following Saturday the artist himself posted a video online of the painting being shredded by a mechanism within its frame as shocked bidders looked on. Within several hours the video had been viewed two million times both on Instagram and Youtube, and the story of the prank spread far and wide across social media as hundreds of online news outlets and individuals alike reported and shared Banksy’s latest stunt. By the end of the weekend most of the global online population knew about it. By historical comparisons the incredible speed at which this story reached the world is unprecedented – for example, twenty years ago it would have taken more than a couple of hours for a news story to make itself known to a population – but not uncommon in the context of the twenty first century. In 2018, we are living in the age of the internet, the age of increasing online communication, of globalised conversation, of continuous giving, receiving and sharing of information digitally. It is only getting easier and easier to project one’s self to the world stage. In this essay, I will examine the concept of online virality in depth looking at its influence upon young people, the media and its worrying consequences, of which there are a few.
Social Media and Virality
Essential to understanding the nature of ‘going viral’ online is understanding the platform on which virality is born. Out of the approximate 3.8 billion internet users worldwide 2.8 billion actively use social media – that is 37% of the entire population of the world (Kemp, 2017). Every single day, people from nearly every corner of the globe connect with family, friends, acquaintances and the rest of the world on social media sites and apps; the most popular being Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat (Smith and Anderson, 2018). Access to social media, and therefore to the online ‘world’, is instantaneous and easy thanks to the development of the smartphone; a phone that functions as a ‘mini-computer’ in that it hosts internet access and can download content. Going viral, in an online sense, is very much supported by social media. In fact, one could say achieving global exposure is a main function of social media. Most sites allow content posted by users to be ‘liked’ or ‘shared’ by other users to either a small or large audience depending on privacy settings. The more users interact with a post the more other users will come into contact with that post on their own social media feeds; this is the algorithm that many social media sites operate. The way in which a post, whether it is in written, audio or visual form, becomes viral can be described as a ‘snowball effect’ as it travels across the internet, often from one site to another, the number of users coming across it increases exponentially. The Banksy video began on Instagram and Youtube and rapidly made its way across to Facebook, Twitter and several other media sites in a matter of hours thanks to a large proportion of two billion social media users exercising their ability to share, like, comment and ‘tag’ their friends on anything that crosses their social timelines. In this age of the internet virality has taken on a new meaning; in order to be ‘popular’ or ‘trending’ you must reach a substantial proportion of the internet-using world. It seems like a difficult feat if one doesn’t consider the fact that this entire audience can be located on your tablet, laptop or phone, and that given a few hundred thousand shares or so, can discover you in your living room.
Youth Culture and Virality
According to the United Nations ICT agency 830 million young people are online, the largest population ever using the internet regularly (2017). It comes as no surprise then observing that social media is mostly used by, and often geared towards, this demographic. Online activity is a large part of contemporary youth culture in 2018 and plays a significant role in shaping the culture itself, most of what is topical or trending amongst teenagers comes from the internet, whether it is a meme, video or tweet. Often the subject of viral content involves young people – a video of a ten year old boy yodelling in Walmart has been retweeted more than 50,000 times – and often, the content is bizarre (as in the case of the ‘Walmart Kid’) and funny. Although things go viral online very quickly their ‘relevancy’ tends to fade just as fast as the internet moves on to the next trending topic. Yet these fifteen seconds of fame can sometimes lead to lasting privileges; the Walmart Boy was featured on Ellen and invited to perform onstage at Coachella, one of the US’s biggest music festivals. For this reason many young people strive to become ‘Internet Famous’, to be shared and retweeted and liked on as many platforms as possible so that one day they may end up on Ellen or get sponsored by a brand and become an ‘influencer’. It has never been easier to achieve this level of fame. Recent trends suggest that many young people will do whatever it takes to go viral; eat a Tide Pod for example. This challenge swept the internet earlier this year in which young people took to Youtube to film themselves biting into laundry detergent pods to gain views, likes and shares. This subsequently led to children being hospitalised. Performing ridiculous and dangerous stunts in the hope of going viral is a trend in itself and has resulted in several deaths and serious injuries. Pedro Ruiz III died in June 2017 when his girlfriend shot a bullet through a thick book into his chest, believing the bullet would be stopped by the book and that this death defying stunt would bring them online stardom. An 11-year-old boy was left with severe brain damage after mimicking a viral Youtube challenge that involved being spun around a roundabout using the rear wheel of a motorbike. Perhaps every generation of young people is characterised by bizarre trends that are incomprehensible to older generations, but the emphasis placed on going viral by any means possible has been proven to be an extremely dangerous trend, and should not be considered harmless fun.
Online Media and Virality
Young people using the internet recreationally are not the only ones interested in viral culture. A quick google search will display countless guides to achieving maximum exposure online for businesses and advertising agencies. In the age of the internet likes and shares seem to have replaced billboards as one of the most effective ways of broadcasting your message to as many people as possible. News organisations are particularly interested in harnessing this power, and rightly so. Individuals on social media are most likely to share news content (Ahmed, 2018). As more and more media organisations either move or are launched online there is an increased focus on generating as much traffic (people using an individual site) as possible, as this leads to advertisers paying higher prices to the organisation to be featured on their site. This pressure to draw ‘clicks’ has created a new term in online journalism; clickbait. A recent report found that the online magazine Slant paid its writers extra based on how many people opened their article (Murtha, 2015). Slant is not an outlier. Frampton (2015) reports that numerous online news sites are setting ‘click targets’ for their employees. Frampton observes a change in online reporting because of clickbait in which short, snappy headlines that may obscure or exaggerate fact are desirable as they draw more attention and so have more of a chance of going viral. According to Frampton, both positive and negative consequences can arise in this situation; the positive being the introduction of video, infographics and short explainers as news items that can be consumed on the go, and the negative being the prioritisation of trivial stories that garner more attention than potentially more serious stories. Perhaps the most concerning threat of clickbait is the spread of fake news or altered facts, as researchers have found that falsehood travels six times faster than fact across the internet; it is more likely for a fake news story to go viral than a genuine one (Vosoughi et al, 2018). The implications of this have already made themselves clear. In 2016 a man opened fire in a restaurant after reading and believing a fake news story claiming the premises concealed a child sex ring run by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. There is evidence to suggest that fake news stories tailored to specific political views – for example in the instance mentioned above the story appealed to anti-Clinton supporters – could influence voting behaviour (Stecula, 2017). Although the mechanics of social media discussed in the first section can be a force for spreading information; these algorithms generally don’t separate fact from fiction, and it is essential that we are aware of this.
In conclusion, the phenomenon of the internet has created a new way of gaining global prominence. Through the platform of social media sharing sites online content can travel rapidly across the world and is generally not impeded by time zones, borders or broadcasting authorities, unlike information sharing processes of the past. This accessibility to worldwide attention must be treated carefully, however. Serious consequences face those who attempt viral trends and those who create them in the first place, mainly young people. The attempts of news sites to generate virality can also be considered an issue, especially concerning the ‘popularity’ of fake news. In critiquing the digital world, having an awareness of these implications is important as we move towards a future dominated by the online world.
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Meadhbh Hayden is currently an undergraduate student in the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway