September 04, 2007

Viral marketing is a language from inner space

Yesterday I promised to write something about how viral turned into a good thing. In the first place, I need to confess that it's not entirely true. When I search Google News this morning for the word viral, the top 20 topics include 12 about dengue fever and hepatitis C and meningitis and viral gastroenteritis and so on, and only 8 about things like these:

A viral campaign that spiralled through social networking site Facebook has forced HSBC into a humiliating U-turn over its decision to scrap interest-free overdrafts for university graduates.
Viral evangelism seems to be working because Firefox continues to gain market share worldwide.
"B2B companies weren't in early because they presumed the kinds of things that went viral weren't mature and respectable enough to be appropriate for business customers."
Perlico, Ireland’s leading alternative provider of phone and Internet services has announced that its viral marketing campaign has met with immense success.

Still, by this crude count, viral has become 40% good (if you think that a method for spreading information about politics and products is good, as the writers of those sentences clearly do). This is a natural development, but there may have been a bit of impetus from William S. Burroughs by way of Laurie Anderson, and perhaps a second push from Richard Dawkins and other memeticists.

The term virus originally meant "venom", but by 1870 or so it was used to mean "agent of infectious disease"; a "filterable virus" was an infectious agent small enough to pass through filters that trap bacteria ; this term was shortened in common use to virus, and the structure and function of viruses was gradually clarified during the middle of the 20th century.

The OED's earliest citation for the adjectival form viral is from 1948:

1948 Diagnostic Procedures for Virus & Rickettsial Diseases (Amer. Public Health Assoc.) 15 Viral agents belonging to the psittacosis group.

More recently, viral has undergone the same sort of change that long ago added to infectious the meaning that the OED glosses as "Of actions, emotions, etc.: Having the quality of spreading from one to another; ‘catching’, contagious", with glosses from 1611 onwards:

a1611 BEAUM. & FL. Maid's Trag. I. i, She carries with her an infectious grief, That strikes all her beholders. 1700 DRYDEN Palamon & Arc. II. 313 Through the bright quire th' infectious virtue ran. All dropt their tears. 1828 WHATELY Rhet. in Encycl. Metrop. 300/1 Almost every one is aware of the infectious nature of any emotion excited in a large assembly. 1866 G. MACDONALD Ann. Q. Neighb. xi. (1878) 200 How hearty and infectious his laughter!

We wouldn't talk about "viral laughter" (at least I wouldn't, though Google finds 27 pages on which someone thought differently), but starting in the late 1980s, marketing types began to use viral to talk about the spread of information rather than disease:

Chiefly Marketing. Of, designating, or involving the rapid spread of information (esp. about a product or service) amongst customers by word of mouth, e-mail, etc. to go viral: to propagate in such a manner; to (be) spread widely and rapidly.

1989 PC User (Nexis) 27 Sept. 31 The staff almost unanimously voted with their feet as long waiting lists developed for use of the Macintoshes... ‘It's viral marketing. You get one or two in and they spread throughout the company.’

Why coopt viral rather than extend plain old infectious -- or contagious, which has been used in a similar way since 1660 or so? If you're going to take over another word, why not bacterial or fungal or microbial?

I speculate that the use of terms like viral marketing in the late 1980s may have been influenced by Laurie Anderson's popular 1986 performance piece "Language is a virus", in which the phrase "Language is a virus from outer space", attributed to William S. Burroughs, is projected behind her.

I haven't been able to find that particular phrase in Burroughs' works -- if you know where it's from, please tell me -- but the virus metaphor was one that he used often. The earliest use that turns up in a quick web search was in his 1959 novel Naked Lunch, where the character Dr. Benway says (p. 112 in the 2004 Grove Press "restored edition"):

Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer. A bureau takes root anywhere in the state, turns malignant like the Narcotic Bureau, and grows and grows, always reproducing more of its own kind, until it chokes the host if not controlled or excised. Bureaus cannot live without a host, being true parasitic organizations. (A cooperative on the other hand can live without the state. That is the road to follow. The building up of independent units to meet needs of the people who participate in the functioning of the unit. A bureau operates on the opposite principle of inventing needs to justify its existence.) Bureaucracy is wrong as a cancer, a turning away from the human evolutionary direction of infinite potentials and differentiation and independent spontaneous action to the complete parasitism of a virus.

(Benway is not necessarily speaking for Burroughs here -- but someday, someone should track this attitude from Burroughs and the Beats to Reagan and the Republicans.)

What inspired Ms. Anderson more directly was probably the virus theme in Burroughs' Nova trilogy: for example, the passages like this in his 1967 novel The Ticket that Exploded:

The "Other Half" is the word. The "Other Half" is an organism. Word is an organism. The presence of the "Other Half" a separate organism attached to your nervous system on an air line of words can now be demonstrated experimentally. One of the most common "hallucinations" of subjects during sense withdrawal is the feeling of another body sprawled through the subject's body at an angel . . yes quite an angle it is the "Other Half" worked quite some years on a symbiotic basis. From symbiosis to parasitism is a short step. The word is now a virus. The flu virus may once have been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the lungs. The word may once have been a healthy neural cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word. In the beginning was the word. In the beginning of what exactly? The earliest artifacts date back about ten thousand years give a little take a little and "recorded" -- (or prerecorded) history about seven thousand years. The human race is said to have been on set for 500,000 years. That leaves 490,000 years unaccounted for. Modern man has advanced from the stone ax to nuclear weapons in ten thousand years. This may well have happened before. Mr Brion Gysin suggests that a nuclear disaster in what is now the Gobi desert wiped out all traces of a civilization that made such a disaster possible. Perhaps their nuclear weapons did not operate on the same principle as the ones we have now. Perhaps they had no contact with the word organism. Perhaps the word itself is recent about ten thousand years old. What we call history is the history of the word. In the beginning of that history was the word.
"The Venusian invasion was known as 'Operation Other Half,' that is, a parasitic invasion of the sexual area taking advantage, as all invasion plans must, of an already existing fucked-up situation [...]

And so on, including related stuff in the (even more incoherent) follow-on novel Nova Express.

A collection of Burroughs' works published in 1998 was called Word Virus, and includes (p. 311-312) a selection from 'Electronic Revolution' (1970-71) telling us that

A far-reaching biologic weapon can be forged from a new language. In fact such a language already exists. It exists as Chinese, a total language closer to the multi-level structure of experience, with a script derived from hieroglyphs, more closely related to the objects and areas described. The equanimity of the Chinese is undoubtedly derived from their language being structured for greater sanity. I notice the Chinese, wherever they are, retain the written and spoken language, while other immigrant peoples will lose their language in two generations. The aim of this project is to build a language in which certain falsifications inherent in all existing Western languages will be made incapable of formulation. [...]

I have frequently spoken of word and image as viruses or as acting as viruses, and this is not an allegorical comparison. It will be seen that the falsifications in syllabic Western languages are in point of fact actual virus mechanisms.

I don't know enough about Burroughs to guess whether the "Venusian" fantasy and the "Other Half" image are somehow connected to his eccentric and extreme sexual politics, as exemplified in these passages from The Job, 1968, p. 116 and p. 122:

Q: How do you feel about women?

A: In the words of one of a great misogynist's [sic] Mr Jones, in Conrad's Victory: "Women are a perfect curse." I think they were a basic mistake, and the whole dualistic universe evolved from this error. Women are no longer essential to reproduction as this article indicates: ["Oxford Scientists Reproduce Frogs From Single Cells" , By Walter Sullivan, NYT] ...

Q: What do you think of American women?

A: I think they're possibly one of the worst expressions of the female sex because they've been allowed to go further. This whole worship of women that flourished in the Old South, and in frontier days, when there weren't many, is still basic in American life; and the whole southern worship of women and white supremacy is still the policy of America. They lost the Civil War, but their policies still dominate America. It's a matriarchal, white supremacist country. There seems to be a very definite link between matriarchy and white supremacy.

Back in the world of reason, the idea of using the term viral for certain marketing strategies-- those that rely on peer-to-peer transmission rather than mass media -- may also have been seeded by Richard Dawkins. Specifically, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, he tried to reconstruct cultural transmission and development as "memetics", on the analogy of evolution by descent with modification in genetics.

Although Burroughs was out there first, with a similar idea about words and ideas and organization as viruses, all tangled up in the rest of his crazy theories about sex, drugs and society, I don't think there's any reason to think that Dawkins was influenced by him. In fact, the idea of cultural evolution as descent with modification predates Darwin, in the form of 19th-century theories about the historical development of languages, which Darwin explicitly cites in The Origin of Species as a model for his own theories of biological evolution. And Burroughs' idea about "the word" as a viral infection is an example of cross-species transmission, not tree-structured evolution.

[ Cosma Shalizi sends a link to a passage from André Siegfried's Germs and Ideas: Routes of Epidemics and Ideologies (1965; translation of Itinéraires de Contagions: Epidémies et idéologies, 1960, American title Routes of Contagion): Part Four, ``The Spreading of Ideas and Propaganda,'' Chapter 7, `"Conditions under which ideas spread, and factors determining the choice of route.''

Cosma comments:

There is actually a fairly long history of the idea-infection analogy, and the idea-evolution analogy, among scientists. I once thought of writing a paper about it, but abandoned it to actually make some progress in graduate school. I could dig up some of my notes, if you're interested.

I think the idea of the language virus coming from outer space is indeed in Nova Express, though the formula "language is a virus from outer space" may be Anderson's.

In the graphic novel series The Invisibles (Grant Morrison et al.), urban, technological civilization is a virus from outer space; this is slightly more plausible because you do, after all, need advanced technology to have a space program and go off to infect another world. Given the other material in the books, I'm pretty sure this idea is derived from Burroughs.

This history is implicit in the 17th-century extension of infectious and contagious to refer to emotions, attitudes and ideas. I guess that it wouldn't be a surprise to find that some third-century Romans saw Christianity as a plague, or that the rest of the world saw Islam that way during its phase of expansion.

One thing I wonder: it's pretty obvious to treat the spread of some disliked ideology or religion or social group to the spread of a disease. When does this analogy start to apply to positively-evaluated information or attitudes or groups? ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 4, 2007 05:30 AM