The Ghost Map, Balloon Boy, and Twitter Trends: Epidemics and Viral Media

September 7, 2011

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson recaps the event that lead up to the massive cholera outbreak in London: how it began, how it spread at an exponential rate, and how it eventually was ended.

When given the excruciating details that Johnson lays out, it is apparent that the situation was ripe for such an immense outbreak, though those living in those conditions where not aware. A few poignant comments that Johnson made directly relate to the way viral media reacts exponentially:

“Epidemics create a kind of history from below: they can be world-changing, but the participants are almost inevitably ordinary folk, following their established routines, not thinking for a second about how their actions will be recorded for posterity.”

When looking at the channels in which viral media travel, namely Youtube or Twitter, the people that create the media, who share it, and who expound upon it are the average population. There is no specific demographic, or type of personality that is more prone to viral media (though it is true that more often than not those who are savvy with the technologies required tend to be younger). Everyone’s interest is different, but no longer is media constrained to traditional boundaries.

“Desire in this case is a matter of ends, not means: the organisms wants a certain environment because the settling allows it to reproduce more effectively than other environments…”

This makes me look at the people who post media specifically with the hopes and intentions for something to go viral. For example, lets take a look at something from a few years ago, the Balloon Boy Hoax:

This was the video that was meant to go viral. And it did, on both traditional and nontraditional media channels. They found the perfect environment for that video, normal people who would be worried for another human being and capatilized on it. Here’s the video from when they announced that it was a hoax:

And as we now know, that whole incedent did not bode well for Falcon’s father.

Furthermore, an important point that Johnson makes regarding the ultimate discovery of the cause of Cholera was how many people, despite the evidence, clung to what was deemed the “miasma” theory, liking the pungent smells of the city to some type of disease that had to be airborne. Despite’s Snow’s evidence on the contrary, arguing that the cause was actually contaminated water, the medical community at the time continued to cling to their beliefs.

“Whenever smart people cling to an outlandishly incorrect idea despite substantial evidence to the contrary, something interesting is at work. In the case of miasma, that something involves a convergence of multiple forces, all coming together to prop up a theory that should have died out decades before.

What strikes me about viral media, especially as it relates to something like news stories or events broadcast on Youtube or Twitter is the propensity for people to believe almost anything, despite actual proof. How we have created an environment ripe for disbelief, with hoaxes all over the internet. And yet we still choose to disseminate information that we know may or may not be true.

At the same time, we are torn in situations where viral media gets to important events first. What about the announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed? Twitter followers discovered it first. Though we didn’t get an actual statement till long after, the point remained and the news went viral anyways. Or how about the recent riots in London?

While I was in San Diego for Comic-Con International this past summer, though I was surrounded by technology, I didn’t have my computer with me, so I was at the same time cut off from a lot of my daily news. After hearing the buzz after it was announced that there would be a Jurassic Park 4, I decided to hop on Twitter on my phone. In trending topics, #jurassicpark was number 1. Right below that was #oslo. Not knowing anything about #oslo, I soon discovered the shootings that were occurring, right as I was watching. While I couldn’t understand many of the tweets on the subject, people were sending in pictures taken on phones of bodies floating in the river. It wasn’t until almost a day later that any news came to US broadcast, and I never saw any of those pictures.

It begs an interesting question, how Youtube and Twitter play in creating viral media. Often we look at viral media as the cute, the humorous, or even the dumb, but it can be so much more. There are equal advantages and disadvantages to receiving our news as one would an epidemic.

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4 Responses to “The Ghost Map, Balloon Boy, and Twitter Trends: Epidemics and Viral Media”

  1. technopaul said

    The news of Oslo caught me off guard and also searching for the truth. When I first heard the news I didn’t believe it because it was Norway. I am Norwegian and have relatives who live in Norway. I have been told numerous times that Norway is a peaceful and low crime rate country. I was allowed, while in Norway at age 9, to wonder the streets of Kristiansand with my friends without fear of kidnapping or any other crime. So to hear the news of a massive shooting I could hardly believe it. It wasn’t until I saw the images on CNN that it became real to me.

    For me to believe something news worthy on Twitter it must come from a reliable source, say AP or CNN. If it is something about #jurassicpark I will take other tweeters word for it. But there are others on Twitter who will believe anything they read. For example there have been multiple Justin Beiber death hoaxes on Twitter. And more than likely a lot of tweeters have believed it. We need to learn to filter what we accept as truth and be cautious to believe anything unless it comes from a reliable source. And this applies not just to Twitter, but the other avenues in which we get our news.

    • creativetaboo said

      But what exactly is a reliable source? Look at the beginnings of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. There was a major gap between what was actually going on (as demonstrated through sources like Twitter) and what “reliable” sources like CNN were not saying. Even now no one is on the same page. In these instances I choose first-hand accounts to be more reliable that the common media sources.

      You can also look at the recent news of Steve Job’s death. There was an odd lag with that news, due to the fact that there had already been a hoax about Job’s death several months prior. So in this case, the “reliable sources” had the right information, but the masses didn’t believe it. A technological tale of the internet who cried wolf.

  2. You make some really interesting connections between outbreaks and the way viral media spreads, particularly your points concerning malicious or intended “viruses”. Just as audiences were upset about the balloon boy video partly because of the makers’ conscious efforts to create a viral video, populations are particularly enraged when viruses are spread intentionally (biological warfare, etc.).
    I do slightly disagree that “there is no specific demographic, or type of personality that is more prone to viral media…”; depending on the subject of the media piece, there can be definite targets. Certain sports videos will most likely be more popular among sports fans, or even in particular countries (soccer videos will most likely get more plays or interest in South American or European countries, for example), and people can use those same expectations to create media that will be more attractive or shareable for particular demographics. It seems to be the same concept that certain areas or individuals may be more proned to viruses due to their behavior or environment. I do think it’s true that just as viruses don’t choose their “host”, even if there are certain targets involved, viral media also can spread in unforeseen ways, breaking molds, and finding unexpected viewers.

  3. Kim A. Knight said

    Good use of quotes from the reading and nice tie-in to the “balloon boy” hoax. I suspect the issue of intent will come up in class before too long.

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