Below is a block of black words, a terrifying monolith of time-sapping doom. What could I possibly have to say that requires so much scribble! Surely all these glyphs are just an elaboration of the title, pointlessly labouring your word-weary mind?
This is surely how we all feel when we gleefully click on a link shared by a friend, intrigued by its title, only to find an essay of words and even more links to even more words. Maybe you’ll read the first line … scroll down … read the last line … get the gist.
Maybe, after a while, the title is enough on its own. You stop bothering to even open the article, and, confident in your ability to infer the article’s content from its title, you’ll “like” the link, and maybe even re-share it yourself.
Herein lies the basis of much of social communication, wherein links to other sites have become a necessary supplement to any statement in any “status”. Posts on Facebook especially demonstrate this, where speaking is linking. You don’t write happy birthday, you link a youtube video of someone singing it; you don’t react with words, you copy a response gif. And, most of all, articles, especially those with a political stance, have become vehicles for self-identification: sharing a feminist article shows I’m a feminist: I link therefore I am.
We’ve become re-archivists, librarians of digital volumes, copying and restacking like Jorge Luis Borges’ nightmarish vision in The Library of Babel. In this short story, every possible book has been written, and so no one does anything other than cite extant volumes, cocooned in a honeycomb of library corners. We too simply re-copy videos, pictures, and gifs from sites that have also simply copied those videos, pictures and gifs, the origin of which is untraceable and irrelevant. And on a larger scale, even blogs like Hype Machine and Viralnova do not actually produce their own content, but merely collate extant material that is proving popular.
This new social activity, of re-archiving and replicating, has been the focus of the avant-garde Canadian poet Kenneth Goldsmith. What he has christened ‘uncreative writing’ involves transcribing extant material, from sports commentaries to traffic reports. He doesn’t actually engage with any content, only with the process of re-contextualisation. His artistic precedent is easily identifiable in Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, but Goldsmith rejects any level of transformation through re-contextualisation, just as sharing links doesn’t alter content. As even he concedes, this means you don’t actually have to read his poetry: just by understanding the concept, and therefore the process, you get the point. The title is enough; I don’t need to explain his book The Weather – you can guess what it is. (I do, however, recommend googling him, as he does have a click-worthy moustache and incredibly snazzy blazers.)
Given that websites depend on advertising, this means, consciously or otherwise, content is catered towards replicatability, because when the article gets a click, the advertisers get their fix. Hence we see (a rather crude) attempt at digital fertility in the link ‘German Banker SECRETS: Norberts [sic] Video Course Teaches Regular Guys How To Exploit A Loophole and…’, accompanied by a picture of a man who is presumably Norbert. You may be smugly content with the confidence that you would never fall for such a rouse. But what about ‘36 things you never realised would make your 20s the best decade of your life!’? This title is carefully designed to exploit a website like Buzzfeed’s mid-twenties demographic, offering the prospect of hope in a dismally gloomy decade. Enough to squeeze a click from your emaciated index finger, you see, you share, you replicate.
The Internet has therefore become the idealisation of Dawkins’ theory of the meme-pool, where memes, replicatable cultural units, fight for their survival by encouraging replication. This is what we do when we copy and paste, back up our data, reference books and share links in statuses. We re-archive, replicate, and propagate these memes. This is why the term ‘viral’ is so apt: like a virus, videos, articles and websites are sustained by our replication of them. They colonise our online profiles, and we host them like we do parasites, passing them on from person to person.
This might just seem a humbling, if not belittling, reduction of human significance, as if we merely serve to facilitate the propagation of memes. But rather than an ego-check, if we understand various forms of cultural units to be quasi-life forms, subject to a Darwinian process in the fight for survival, we can begin to consider whether we want ideas to survive. Which memes do we actually want to replicate through our sharing and linking and copying and pasting?
This is the idea taken up by the anonymous writer of the article, ‘Feminists Need to Shut Up, For Their Own Sake‘: ‘ Next time you see an article that hates on women, don’t share it. Don’t comment on it. Don’t voice your outrage. Roll your eyes and move on. Because if enough of you do, those types of articles will cease to exist.’
If you’re anything like me, it’ll take you a bit of time to work out whether this is an instance of modern digital insight or backward, ignorant misogyny. My personal feelings are that it leans towards the latter, and as is so unfortunately typical of men writing about sexism, the responsibility is lumped in the laps of women. But the writer does raise an important point: rather than proliferating ignorant or even offensive ideas, we should be more considerate about the information we replicate and therefore rescue from extinction.
Take an example. Linda Camac has written a petition to ‘STOP COOKING LIVE ANIMALS’, which, if shared on a social media platform like Facebook, shows only the title and this disturbing photo:
This is the only information many go on before happily signing the petition, thereby replicating it as participation automatically notifies your Facebook friends (many of course will also manually replicate the link via a status or sharing). This petition, due to its high fertility, has received almost half a million supporters. But what is it that they’re supporting?
At a closer look, something quite nefarious. The description provides no information as to the prevalence of this alleged cooking technique, and yet deems it fit to smear the entirety of China, a quarter of the world’s population. It refers to Korea as a nation, when it is actually region divided into the astronomically different North Korea and South Korea. Unsurprisingly, this has encouraged some exceptionally racist comments, the top rated of which reads ‘What the hell is wrong with you China? … God WILL punish you on Judgement day!!!’. Admittedly, this is so absurd it may appear to our liberal eyes as merely comical, but this has been liked 486 times, and clearly reflects the views of many. Seemingly innocent and even politically progressive petitions such as this (an easy analogue resides in the infamous Kony campaign) can actually be vehicle for proliferating uninformed and racist ideas.
But many who replicated this petition will have done so in complete ignorance of such bile contained within it, welcoming it like a Trojan horse. Worse still, much digital content intentionally exploits the tendency towards snap judgments, realising that a contentious title or an offensive point of view can achieve viral replication at an extraordinary rate. Our traditional software-based concepts of ‘computer viruses’ evidently require reassessment.
Take Katie Hopkins, for example, who has clearly mastered the art of digital self-replication. She was smugly offensive on a day-time TV show in the morning, and copies of her scary, bulbous face were all over the internet by the afternoon. And then she did it again. But she didn’t do any of the copying herself: we did. She manipulated us all into serving as hosts for her own replication like a virus, as we enabled her rise to fame. And so it is with Ryan Air marketing schemes, and spontaneous acts of bigotry: we provide the platform for those we may wish to keep most quiet.
It is indeed a humbling prospect that we are merely the replicating machines of parasitic memes that live or die by their ability to make us copy them. And in the end, it may merely amount to a way of thinking. But it helps us take control of the proliferation of ideas, and render intelligible the seemingly anarchic and arbitrary viral spread of certain links. Some ideas are worth engaging with, and many more crucially require spreading in order to be highlighted and criticised. But if we want to be anything more than mindless replicators, we must actually read and think before we copy, because sharing isn’t always caring.