Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley
Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013: 175 pp. Book.
Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley’s data-driven analysis, Going Viral, explores the socio-political implications that viral events have on individuals, societies, and institutions at large. While many persons can easily identify a viral medium by pointing to videos such as “Gangnam Style” or “Tiny Hamster Eating Tiny Burrito”, the difficulty lays with unpacking virality’s presence as a global phenomenon. Nahon and Hemsley carve out a niche within the larger discussion of virality by complicating the colloquial understanding of virality with the exploration of nuanced aspects such as the “remarkable” features a viral medium possesses and by pinpointing the (un)predictability of a viral event. The authors delve into complicated questions such as “What features do viral media have?” and “What makes something go viral?” with a theoretical framework drawing from a hybrid of methods. Their use of qualitative and quantitative methods cultivates a robust foundation to propel their argument forward: the impact of viral events can reproduce and even transform social norms and behaviors (20).
The trajectory of the analysis coincides with a viral event’s life cycle. In chapters one and two, the definition of virality is situated doubly within its historical and current colloquial context. The three subsequent chapters provide an in-depth illustration of a viral event’s “prime” by responding to a question frequently asked on the topic of viral media: “What makes something viral?” The trilogy of chapters each focus on a particular dimension of a viral event; chapter three: gatekeeping; chapter four: public intrigue of viral media; chapter five: the “viral” net. Nahon and Hemsley’s analysis concludes with the two remaining chapters’ exploration of the end and afterlife of a viral event.
Part One, Chapters 3-5: “What Makes Something Viral?”
Chapter one “Virality of Pets and Presidents” and chapter two “What Virality Is” contextualize virality historically and within its present colloquial perception. Virality is not a new phenomenon; Nahon and Hemsley point back to Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955 as a viral event, yet contrast that specific event by exposing unprecedented characteristics of current-state virality: the speed, frequency, and the “dynamic social infrastructures” (e.g. Twitter and YouTube) in place (20). The connectivity among social media infrastructures serves as a prominent theme for the first half of the book. The second chapter moves the analysis forward with a guiding question to frame the next three chapters: “Is the viral process driven organically by those who view and spread content; in other words, is it a bottom-up process?” (39).
Chapters three, four, and five examine three perspectives in response to the loaded question: “What makes something viral?” Chapter three notes the role a gatekeeper can play as a force both disseminating and regulating information in a top-down fashion. Gatekeepers have conventionally exercised their power by discerning which information to pass on (117). Undermining the power of the gatekeeper, chapter three also exemplifies Keith Urbahn’s famous viral tweet, “I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot Damn.”(67). The viral tweet demonstrates occurrences where gatekeepers (such as the White House) can be circumvented. Chapter four, “What is Everyone Looking at”, builds upon the top-down movement of information by discussing the behavior of information moving in the opposite direction: in a bottom-top trajectory. The chapter particularly addresses the latter with a focus on the interactions between persons and the sharing behaviors they exhibit during viral events. Nahon and Hemsley place a finer point on the definition of a viral medium by stating it must be “remarkable” and possess traits such as emotional impact, resonance, salience, and interestingness (223). Chapter five rounds out the trilogy of chapters by unpacking “What makes something viral?” by vetting the relationship between network structures and virality (107). Ultimately, Nahon and Hemsley illustrate virality as a combination of top-down and bottom-up movements (220).
Part Two, Chapters 6-7: Virality’s Impact on Society and Ultimate Decay
The second half of Going Viral considers the influence virality has on individuals, societies, and institutions. Beginning with chapter six, “Networked Changed Societies”, Nahon and Hemsley explore the socio-political effects of viral events with the investigation of three perspectives: the impact of a viral medium’s subject matter, a viral event’s bearing on social structures, and lastly the influence virality has on institutions. Nahon and Hemsley exemplify the UC Davis pepper spray incident as a viral event placing pressure on UC Davis (as an institution) to enact greater institutional accountability (266). The latter event demonstrates instances where a viral event beckons institutions to address the concerns of their citizens and consumers (278). The last chapter of Going Viral is appropriately titled “Afterlife” and explores the tail-end of a viral event’s life cycle by illustrating the natural “decay” of a viral event. Nahon and Hemsley attribute the decay of a viral event to viewers’ attention spans. Warren Thorngate’s notion of “attentional assets” is alluded to in chapter seven to highlight persons’ behavior patterns in relationship to their attention spans towards a viral event (154).
Assessment of Going Viral
Overall, Going Viral is a worthwhile analysis probing the complexities governing a viral event. The strengths of the analysis are indicative of the authors’ intentions to make the book as accessible as possible. With that being said, I have observed the arrangement of the analysis to be a solid strength of the book in regard to the practicality and usefulness it cultivates for readers. As a scholar interested in viral media, I found chapter seven useful in the way it provides a distilled conceptualization of virality for readers to leverage into other dialogues. In particular, the figures found in chapter seven are noteworthy. Specifically, an outstanding illustration (in my perspective, the most important figure of the entire analysis) is located in chapter seven: figure 7.2 “Virality: A Theoretical Framework” (166). The figure provides an excellent summation of the key concepts explored in relationship to one another. The examples are granular representations of the affordances brought on from the analysis’s arrangement. I do want to note that the trajectory of the analysis, on a macro level, lends itself for an intuitive read—as a reader, as questions arose, I found that they were soon answered with the advancement of a few sentences.
Nahon and Hemsley’s choice of methods is also a clear strength of the analysis. Going Viral is a compilation of the authors’ methodological proficiencies: Nahon brings forth her qualitative expertise and Hemsley contributes his quantitative know-how. Although these two methods are often used exclusively, the pair demonstrates a clear handle on the subject matter, providing a seamless integration of the two approaches. Moreover, Nahon and Hemsley leverage an array of past viral events with particular attention to viral events prompting exposure of social injustices. Their exploration of past viral events successfully scaffolds the introduction of nuanced concepts such as gatekeeping. In particular, their investigation of the UC Davis pepper spray incident resonated with me—not only did it remind me of the nausea I felt watching Lt. Pike pepper spray a line of seated students, but it helped to reveal the demand for institutional accountability framing that particular viral event. I found that their use of past viral events helped establish connections between a reader’s familiarity of a viral event with the not-so-familiar concepts they present in the analysis.
Nahon and Hemsley successfully achieve the stated goal of their analysis: to provide an in-depth account for virality’s interworkings while allowing for a transparent, accessible, and understandable conceptualization of virality’s influence to a broad audience (56). Nahon and Hemsley’s analysis provides a comprehensible account on virality for audiences within and beyond the academy. From the macro to micro details of the book, it is evident that “audience” drove the development of the analysis’s conveyance. Purporting the ease of comprehension (without compromising the nuanced complexities that virality maintains) Nahon and Hemsley offer artwork, graphs, and images to complement their argument. The complex tracing of the life cycle of a viral event, from its nascent stages to its afterlife, helps readers to conceptualize virality as a serendipitous, remarkable event. Now with a focus on the advocacy virality purports for institutional transparency and accountability, I am left with a deeper understanding of virality beyond the emotional evocation a viral medium delivers.
Maggie Melo is a PhD student in the Rhetoric, Composition, and Teaching of English program at the University of Arizona. Her current research domains include information motility, the rhetoric of viral media, and civic hacking.
© 2014 Marijel (Maggie) Melo, used by permission
Technoculture Volume 4 (2014)