Viral internet culture is, for the most part, frustrating. At times, though, I must admit I am grateful for anything from political revelations to “world star” moments. A personal favourite of mine was an article that Buzzfeed ran on a senior in high school from a town about two hours from my own who took his senior pictures in a tuxedo … at Taco Bell … with a taco and a Baja Blast. This is one of the more harmless examples, however, of what internet virality is capable of.
There are two frustrations that virality brings out of the nooks and crannies of our culture pent up in bedrooms in front of computer screens. Firstly, virality is, as was explained to me through various articles, a reward. A person’s comments going viral gives that person power and influence, while a behaviour or incident that goes viral catapults the subject to infamy instantly. In the age of judging a person online by numbers – number of followers, likes, or views – it’s not always a bad thing to be infamous. While it’s up to us, the consumers, to determine whether the subject of a captured moment should be heralded or decried, it’s no secret that antisocial behaviour can move someone up in status, in opportunities, or even wealth. The phenomenon of “social media influencers” has, in my opinion, definitively boosted this. Influencer culture is a more trusted form of communication in marketing by our generation and the millennial generation. There might be a few here in St. Andrews who consider themselves influencers. Our perceptions of what is ordinary is shaped by media platforms, from the glamour that we want to highlight to everyday soundbites and ten second videos. By extension, what we aspire to appear like and see is also shaped through this, which in turn shapes what on the internet is marketable content for our entertainment – and there is much reward to be gained in marketing.
This leads me to the second frustration, which is that the focus of our appetite for entertainment on the internet is directed toward dysfunction and drama. There is a certain amount of detachment that we acknowledge when we see content online and, to me, this can this can make us feel dangerously invincible. We sometimes indulge in seeing our privileges and preconceived opinions online to the effect that it inflates our own sense of personal righteousness. A stark example of this is the recent video of the kids in MAGA hats facing a peaceful Omaha elder as, well as the apparent provocation by Black Hebrew Israelites near the Lincoln Memorial. There was outrage in defense of both the high schoolers and the Omaha elder, a Vietnam War veteran, largely over the issue of who confronted whom. The video rapidly circulated from a handful of views to the headlines on CNN, giving anyone involved in the video a springboard to infamy, and giving those online just as much an opportunity to feel some of the fame. By posting a comment or sharing, one digitally links oneself to the event in a discernible capacity.
Some folks may even feel an element of heroism when boosting or spreading a viral internet artifact alongside their own opinion, however serious or comical. Anything from a silly one-liner (a personal favourite is anything on the “People of the MBTA” Facebook page) to a critique of gender in western culture (many an angry male reacting to Gillette’s infamous new advert) can be seen as defending the status of a certain demographic, or even giving some a place in our culture by punctuating the relatability of a situation online.
One of the beauties of the internet is that it makes things like politics accessible to many people, as should be the case. Some kind of drama goes viral, though, and makes it easy to lose some faith in the population you belong to. The sentiment that remains at the end of the day, though, is relatability and feeling a part of the select bytes which are circulated most popularly. I circle back now to the Taco Bell kid. He made an ironically viral mockery of the candor we are drawn to in viral internet posts, making the ordinary absurdly relatable. At the end of the day, virality tells us more about the people who consume it than the subjects of the memes and videos we scroll through.