Viral news

February 18,2016

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Any self-respecting news outfit, or any other organisation concerned with outreach, is better off employing an army of community managers and digital prodigies. Without them and their ilk of web designers and social media analysts, no news organisation can compete or get ahead in a predominantly digital universe, a world without frontiers.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that modern media organisations are becoming ever more dependent on these young talents. But the question is, how much is this dependency affecting journalism when, increasingly, viral trumps verity as the metric of success? You see them hanging out around you; clever, curious, and clean. And unmistakably young. Like characters out of a science-fiction mystery, they have their own distinctive vocabulary, syntax and grammar. They are by no means socially awkward, even if there’s a certain teen associability about them.

Communicating with them requires digital literacy; otherwise, you’re exposed to the type of embarrassment you first experience when ordering ‘coffee’ at Starbucks. But they are by no means mathematical geniuses or book worms, and therefore the label geek or nerd doesn’t apply to them. They boast of a unique discipline that they insist shouldn’t be confused with another. As one reminded me recently with a certain dismissiveness, “I am digital, not technical.”

Indeed, they deserve their own title, and I suggest ‘smorgs’, social media orgies specialists. The landscape of the digital world is their field of work. And their objective is neither discovery nor recovery, but, rather, virtual re-engagement and regeneration.

Viral or viral syndrome is, of course, a medical term that refers to fast-spreading infection that causes fever, muscle aches, or vomiting, cough, etc. But in today’s virtual world, the term has lost its notoriety when applied to the digital sphere, referring to the phenomenon of web content spreading fast, like fire in hay.

Digital analysts, like their medical counterparts, make it their business to diagnose the causes of the buzz. However, their mission is not to prevent viral spread, but, rather, to promote digital diarrhoea. And therefore, their objective is to break, not boost, our collective social immunity system. Indeed, their success depends on it.

And it seems at this early stage of the digital evolution that the younger the digital specialists, the better equipped they are to specialise in ‘viralism’. Not so different from how your very young son or niece puts you to shame every time your computer or cellphone goes berserk.

Digital viralism, like derivatives in investment banking, are deliberately complicated to shame any intellectual or economist, not to speak of the everyday Larry and Laila. And in a world where having a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account is no different from having a bank account, digital viralism, like derivatives and algorithms, is all about numbers, not value.

Increasingly, young and inexperienced smorgs choose headlines, determine the duration and at times the very handling of news coverage in order to ensure wider reach. That’s a problem. These data crunchers and #trending watchers may have a say in terms of presentation but not the priorities of a news organisation.

Yes, their role is increasingly paramount for the very survival of a news organisation, but shouldn’t be a determining factor in covering or analysing the news.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Viral syndrome: the disease infecting journalism’.



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