“Going viral” has been idiomatic English for quite a while. Just about everybody, or everybody with an internet connection, knows what it means: a meme or image, story or video, goes viral when it’s diffused far and wide through the efforts of individuals. Thanks to COVID-19 many of us are taking a closer look at where it came from — at the literal meaning.

When I heard for the first time that something had gone viral (or registered that I’d heard it), I was mystified for a few moments before I got the gist. It was probably around the time I got on Facebook, in January 2011: plenty of expressions and abbreviations entered my lexicon around then.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (online), however, dates “viral marketing” to 1989: “marketing designed to disseminate information (as about a new product) very rapidly by making it likely to be passed from person to person especially via electronic means.” The concept had clearly been out there for a while, but the rise of social media in the late 2000s multiply multiplied the very in “very rapidly.”

Thanks to COVID-19, we’re being reminded of the literal meaning of “viral.” Viruses go viral. By definition. It’s what they do. Some are slower about it than others; others are speedy. Some, like the common cold, are relatively harmless to most people; others, like Ebola, are deadly. COVID-19 combines the worst of both worlds: it’s highly contagious, and it has a high mortality rate. There are indications that some who survive serious cases sustain damage to kidneys, heart, liver, and other organs, as well as lungs.

Because COVID-19 is so new, there’s as yet no vaccine and no cure. Neither vaccines nor cures come into existence overnight. The inadequacy of testing equipment and uncertainty about the tests have so far made it hard to tell who has it, or has had it, and whether having it once confers immunity against getting it again. That’s a lot of unknowns.

In an online discussion among editors earlier this week, one participant said that thanks to COVID-19 she was having reservations about using the expression “go viral,” although she’d be happy if one of her blog posts went viral.

This brought me up short, in part because I’ve never thought of “going viral” as an unmitigated good thing. For sure there are plenty of instances where a video gone viral has, say, provided important and decisive evidence of police brutality, but there are also plenty of instances where manipulated videos or clips taken out of context go viral, planting distortions and outright lies in millions of minds. And don’t get me started about all those memes that distill complex information into a compact, easy-to-share image, or the sketchy “news” stories that are shared totally on the basis of their often-misleading headlines.

The advent of COVID-19 actually has me pondering just how appropriate the expression “go viral” is, how true to its literal roots, and how the measures being taken to curb the spread of COVID-19 and “flatten the curve” might be useful in curbing the spread of the more mendacious memes, videos, and such.

For one thing, COVID-19 has made us much more conscious of our contact with other people, and with inanimate surfaces. When images and videos go viral, it’s often because hundreds of thousands of people are on semi-automatic pilot. Back in the day, we thought forwarding emails was easy. Compared to photocopying and mailing a letter, it was. But compared to sharing on social media, it’s almost rocket science. That’s so cute! Click. That’s horrible! Click. Can you believe this? Click.

COVID-19 has also reminded even the math-impaired among us of what “exponential” means. You share that outrageous photo with five people. Each one of them shares it with five people, then each one of them shares it with five people. Before long the photo has been shared with 3,125 people — then you learn that the outrageous photo was cleverly Photoshopped and the event it depicts never happened. Can you then reach all 3,125, or 15,625, or 78,125 people and say “Never mind”? You cannot.

As Mark Twain didn’t say, but C. H. Spurgeon did, ca. 1859, “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” This wasn’t an especially novel observation in 1859 because in 1710 Jonathan Swift wrote “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

So I’ll continue to say that this, that, or the other thing has gone viral, but with renewed appreciation for the appropriateness of the metaphor.

Intriguingly enough, when I look for synonyms to “go viral,” the one that keeps coming up is “spread like wildfire.” Now there’s a simile that could stand closer inspection.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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