George Tarr

Anatomy of a Viral Tweet

The commodity of social media is dopamine. And for certain valuable pieces of data – the diamonds of the digital economy – social media will wire you a tremendous supply; a waterfall of pleasure, rivalling humanity’s many two-faced highs. Viral posts: Like Medusa, the power they wield is drawn from the eyes of those who see them, eyes which multiply exponentially in the rich agar of cyberspace.

But only rich for some. If we slice a viral tweet in two, what do we find?

First, we find that we are not performing an operation, but something closer to a post-mortem. A viral tweet is, in an important way, dead. Or, like viruses themselves, we could say they don’t quite meet the conditions for life. Dead in that they do not speak back, they are often frozen in time, screenshotted and past forward, separated permanently from their dynamic origins; their meanings assuming all the responsiveness of a tombstone carving, for which mis-interpreters have little recourse.

Second, we find that they died of a very serious disease. What exactly causes the tweet to go viral? For what do its tweeters receive their rush of dopamine; for what are they rewarded? In short, the answer is conformity. But this is not the broad conformity, which gives a brief list of uncrossable taboos and sends you on your way. Nor is it the gentle conformity, which orbits a kind and agreeable heart. It is something far more sinister and is directly responsible for the death of its subject.

The viral tweet, in tone and take, is rewarded the more exactingly it tracks every tremor of the tribe it targets. Virality is an exercise in syncing; the more direct the sync, the more viral the tweet.

But stay yourself: surely virality rewards novelty? In fact, it does. But only if the novelty flawlessly mimics the kind of novelty that the target tribe has primed itself to accept. If it challenges you, it challenges you in precisely the way you wish to be challenged; it presses on what you have cultivated yourself to see pressed. When it makes the leftist question “what you previously thought neutral, is in fact racist”, or the right-winger discover “what you previously thought safe, in fact cloaks conspiracy”, it does not in fact shift anything fundamental in you at all. It sweeps an area of your mind which is already spotlessly clean; it stacks an additional copy of an existing book on your shelf. The “oomf” that the tweet offers to its readers derives from the exacting precision of this conformity; the perfection with which it captures that with which the readers already wholeheartedly agree. Not simply in content, but in tone, in spirit, in feel, in syntax. The more dimensions along which the tweet conforms, the more virally it spreads.

And the death is in this: that when a waterfall of dopamine rewards syncing take and tone to every subtle tremor of a greater tribe, the capacity to reason falls entirely apart. Almost no cognitive clarity can survive the process intact. No true dissent can ever attain reward, because dissent of the real kind – the kind for which people are unprepared, the kind which challenges what people really think – can ever go viral. And if there is no prospect for its virality, its reward is small. In the process, reason dies.

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