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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