Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Emperor’s New Virus

What causes something to go viral on the web?

I assume that lots of folks have lots to say about this matter, but I’ve not read their ideas. And I have no trouble believing that there are various factors involved. But I’m interested in one factor and have one suggestion to make about it.

I make my suggestion by way of the Hans Cristian Anderson tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Here’s how the Wikipedia tells the tale:
A vain Emperor who cares for nothing hires two swindlers that promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or "hopelessly stupid". The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects, who play along with the pretense, until a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession.
In this tale what goes viral is the knowledge that the emperor is naked. Of course, as soon as he starts on his march everyone knows that he is naked. But, so my point goes, that knowledge has not yet “gone viral.”

It only goes viral once the child says that the emperor’s naked within hearing of everyone. Of course, the child isn’t telling anyone something they don’t already know. But they’re not communicating their knowledge with anyone else because of the particular social circumstances which make it prudent to keep quiet. When the child cries “he’s naked” they all hear the cry and know that everyone else has heard it too. At this point there’s little point in pretending not to see what’s obvious, so everyone shouts “he’s naked!” the child’s cry has now gone viral.

Logicians and game theorists know this as the distinction between common knowledge and mutual knowledge. When the emperor steps out in public the knowledge of his nakedness is mutual (or shared). Everyone knows. When the child breaks the silence, that knowledge becomes common. Not only does everyone know, but everyone knows that everyone knows.

In that it is public, the web provides a venue in which mutual knowledge can become common knowledge. When some bit of mutual knowledge is distributed over large numbers of people the rapid conversion of mutual into common knowledge is the phenomenon of going viral. That is to say—and here’s the point of all this—virality presupposes mutual knowledge.

Of course it’s not just about knowledge as such. It may also be about sentiment, attitudes, and other fuzzy things. LOLcats, for example, has nothing to do with knowledge, but everything to do with . . . well, with what?

I’m inclined to think that the really interesting cases involve this vague category of stuff.

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