The question of how and why content “goes viral” is a critical one for communicators seeking to utilize the internet to disseminate digital messages.  This week’s reading attempted to utilize experimental research to better understand the forces that drive virality. Breaking down viral content into emotional factors, authors Berger & Milkman attempted to develop a better understanding the relationship of emotion and “activation” in the decisions of users to forward digital content to their peers.

Intriguingly, despite the thoroughness of Berger & Milkman’s analysis, it seems as though there may be gaps in the research, possibly some problematic intersections of the factors they chose to research. While it was found that certain emotions and content-types were more likely to activate the forwarding of content, there may be dangerous intersections left unexplored in the piece. A troublesome dynamic regarding “viral” content emerges at the intersection of anger (which Berger & Milkman found increased the likelihood of content forwarding) and humor (which was also drove forwarding).  One case which (troublingly) falls into this intersection is the viral conflict between YouTube user Jessi Slaughter and web community 4Chan.

In July of 2010, a series of videos posted by 11-year old Jessica Leonhardt (user name KerliGirl13) exploded in visibility when they were posted to the online forum 4Chan.  4Chan, in particular the /b/ forum, are well known as cyber-pranksters, and when the YouTube rants of KerliGirl13 hit the site, the members quickly decided to teach the girl a lesson in internet obnoxiousness. What started out as a “flame” attack quickly devolved into something more dangerous as 4Chan users collected increasingly personal data about the girl behind the account.  To make matters worse, the public profile of the case actually increased when an additional film of the father of KirliGirl13 screaming nearly incoherently and thoroughly demonstrating a complete lack of grasp of how the internet operates.  Borrowed from YouTube and posted to boingboing, the clip quickly launched the case into “viral” status.

A case of online bullying run-awry turned all the darker as members of the 4Chan group ran down offline contact information about KerliGirl13, posting her address and telephone numbers online for members to extend the online attack into the offline world as well.  When the bullying became death threats, local police had to intervene to stymy potential violence.

The story of KerliGirl13 highlights gaps in Berger & Milkman’s coverage.  While Berger & Milkman observed relationships between humor and anger in viral content, they didn’t discuss the potentialities of content which generates both anger and humor.  What is more, in an online culture that glorifies schadenfreude, situations such as KerliGirl13 can quickly become digital firestorms. It also merits further investigation of how “viral” content affects audience interpretation of the content itself. Here, for example, it seems as though the further that audiences get from the source of content (as in “viral” scenarios) the easier dehumanization of the subject comes. Behaviors that would never be acceptable ordinarily suddenly may become seemingly acceptable in viral situations.

Viral Online Media: When Bullying Goes Mainstream

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9 thoughts on “Viral Online Media: When Bullying Goes Mainstream

  1. I think you bring up a really good point here, that was missing from the analysis in the article — sometimes viral can be a really, really bad thing.

    And I wonder if that has to do with the idea of taking non-public-figures and catapulting them into the public eye, to borrow legal terms. Yes, Slaughter intended on putting herself into some spectrum of public eye, but not the widespread attention she got — even after 4chan bullied her non-stop, the media started reporting on her and her family because of it.

    Sometimes people want a limited audience. And I think the presence of viral-ness in media content now makes actually getting that limited audience kind of a toss-up. Which, I think, maybe acts as a little bit of a chilling effect.

  2. jcrinkley says:

    I also found this to be a point where Berger and Milkman were lacking in their study. In my search for a viral video I was trying to find something funny, but it seems that the vast majority of “funny” videos are based around someone suffering or failing in some way. I touched ever so briefly on the idea of schadenfreude (without landing on the term itself) toward the end of my post, but now that I read your points on the matter, it becomes increasingly obvious that the online community, or at least a large contingent therein, is fueled by this concept. 4Chan I would say certainly represents a population of those seeking enjoyment from the missteps of others, but they aren’t the only ones spreading videos of this nature. It’s kind of interesting what this trend says about humans in general, and it’s curious that Berger and Milkman didn’t recognizing enough for even a brief mention in their article.

  3. I agree with you that Berger and Milkman did not explore the intersection of emotions, particularly the one between humor and anger. I would also ad that some other aspects need to be considered when trying to determine why a particular image or video went viral. In Kerligirl13’s case, for instance, parents may have shared the video not only because it produces anger, but rather in order to raise awareness about the proliferation of bullying, as well as about paying enough attention to children’s use of the internet. Thus, not a single emotion, but rather a multitude of factors should be regarded in order to explain people’s necessity to share content.

  4. yanqunlou says:

    Hi, Jon! I though you brought up a brilliant point regarding intersections of emotions. I think Berger & Milkman made a rather simplistic classification of human emotions and neglect the fact that different kinds of emotions may intersect or interplay with each other to create a rather complex situation of emotional response and conflate with the result of cognition. You also mentioned that the substance of media contents may activate different audience interpretations. I think the research definitely needs to explore the ladder of emotion intensity and how audience with different socioeconomic, cultural, and personal background deal with emotions aroused from viewing viral contents. The viral content you chose to analyze regarding digital bullying and the repercussion effects that the distribution of such contents can have on mass audience just drives me to think about an online-offline transfer of emotions. I think a promising topic for future research on online virality can deal with the issue from a behavioral perspective by looking into the behavior patterns of audience exposed to online viral content.

  5. xiluommc says:

    I think the case you chose is very interesting to me, and I never thought the online bullying of sorts could happen on a young girl in US!However, it is by no means only found in US. In China we call it “human flesh search engine” which refer to a phenomenon that people go together to search for information that can’t be found through a normal research. Often it is as simple as revealing someones real name in a forum, but in some more complex cases, the human flesh search engine come up with results which can even influence judiciary judgement. The search conducted over the internet which intended to have an effect in real-life is controversial in China, because one one hand, it seems to violate private right but it is not illegal on the another hand. I personally curious about the stance of US government on this kind of issues. And is there any online regulation to prevent its occurrence?

  6. sanambhaila says:

    I think it was a different take that you made on the reading this week. It is true that the article does not necessarily cover all the aspects of viraility. The case that you have mentioned has both the elements of fun (humor) and anger. It was a scary one. I think the main highlight of the article is its last three paragraphs where it talks about some “important lessons”.

    The fact that authors have not been able to do the study could have been because such cases are so rare and could be very hard to generalize. Besides, the internet era is just in its young stage. I am sure many more study will be done on issues like this or the one that are even worse than this. However, one thing is for sure – One’s ability to use the internet does not make one an educated/efficient Internet user. We can relate this idea with the video where the kid is crying (obviously scared), her father yelling at the stockers (more or less), and a female (whose voice could be heard in the background, possibly the mother). Had they been educated (in proper internet use) they would be aware that acts as such would only make things worse. It definitely suggests that we still have a long way to go with the Internet – The New Media, and its proper uses.

  7. I think you made a very interesting point that behaviors never be acceptable in ordinary situations may be seemingly acceptable in viral situations. And sometimes these might be very bad behaviors, not always the “positive” ones.
    This made me think of one social psychology book I have read called L’age des foules. It says that when numerous people gather together, they tend to be more merciless because of anonymity. So I think this might be the same in the case of Internet. Numerous people share anonymously. They don’t have to worry of being blamed or criticized in real life. So in the case you selected, I doubt whether there is evil rooted in everyone’s mind.

  8. I agree with you that, in a sense, this case “highlights gaps in Berger & Milkman’s coverage.” However, I would not characterize this as a viral media case. I’m not sure exactly what I would call it, but there’s an aspect of serialization or new content added over time (in the KerliGirl13 case) that I think is absent from most cases of “viralness.”

    Maybe I’m being too literal in thinking a viral media event involves one thing (video or other) that goes viral. The KerliGirl13 case is similar to some others where a kind of lynch mob frenzy develops over time (often very rapidly) and includes a lot of back-and-forth messages, threats, attacks, etc. It’s that mob-violence aspect that I think puts this in a different class.

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