In the relative blink of an eye, we have culturally swallowed a crazy idea: that the capacity to grab people’s attention is more important than what is being done to grab their attention.

We have, in other words, bought into the myth of “going viral.” I see press releases every week touting a band’s worthiness based on the apparent viral success of its latest video. If I am not too late, I would like to suggest a massive reboot on the matter.

Because the plain fact of going viral actually says nothing whatsoever about the worthiness of whatever it is that which has gone viral. To take the viral-ness of something as a de facto sign of value is lunacy.

Remember, it’s called viral for a reason. Either online or offline, viruses are things we know we need to avoid, are things that are insidiously unhealthy.

How the viral thing started is easy enough to see. Because the online world is open to one and all—such a difference from the “old media” model of one-to-many broadcasting—an intractable problem facing anyone who seeks an audience is how to get anyone’s attention. Thus has the very idea of getting people’s attention risen to a value in and of itself.

And yet, removed from the addictive context of social media, we understand as human beings that simply because something has wrested our attention away doesn’t require it to be either good or true or meaningful in any way. Valuing the viral is like being guided, for entertainment, from car wreck to car wreck, while the art museums and theaters remain empty, waiting for patrons.

Valuing the viral for its viral-ness overlooks the fact that there are many things that grab our attention unduly. Valuing the viral for its viral-ness also overlooks how shallow a connection is being made here. All someone has to do to “participate” here is click. This is not a big commitment, clicking. How much does it cost in time or energy or money to click? One million clicks on a free video has none of the weight and importance of one million products or services or experiences sold for actual money. I think we forget this, seduced by apparent quantity that actually reflects nothing of what quantity in the physical world may reflect.

(And never mind the fact that even in the physical world quantity is hardly a flawless measure of quality in the first place, but that’s a separate can of worms.)

In off-screen life, things are not valued merely for the fact that they have grabbed our attention. It’s actually rather silly, if you think about it, especially considering that most of us are aware that the things that most easily gain our attention are things that simply loudest or shiniest, or things that are merely abrupt or unexpected.

In on-screen life, it should be no different. A viral video may in fact be charming and original and worthy of your time, or it may not be. The mere fact of its “going viral,” however, is no indication of its worthiness. All a viral video has done has hijacked our attention. Truly, this is not much of an accomplishment.



  1. Eugenia on Monday October 31, 2011

    The OK GO band has a number of viral music videos, but both their sales and their music are mediocre. I think they’re the best example about viral meaning nothing.

  2. JJ Engel on Friday November 4, 2011

    Great post! I agree as well that valuing the success of an artist by their viral video presence is completely illogical. There are plenty of better metrics and ways of measuring your success that provide a more informative view of your overall performance.

    -JJ Engel
    jjengel.wordpress.com