Why Viruses Spread Faster Now

We all know that viral marketing is the new term for what has been known as “word of mouth” for years. It is the idea that you can make or do something so remarkable that people will voluntarily pass it on to their friends. So it spreads organically, friend to friend, like influenza or any other virus. And since people trust their friends’ opinion more than a TV ad or spam email, it is among the most effective ways to market. It’s also one of the least expensive, since the spreading of your message is being done by other people instead of you purchasing airtime or email lists.

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The thing is, it’s been around for years, but the velocity has increased remarkably. The reason? It’s easier to spread the virus now.

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Remember chain letters? You would receive a letter in the mail from someone you may or may not know. The missive would urge you to make copies of it, and forward it one to some number of other people. They were a kind of virus. Sometimes they were benign, sometimes criminal. They might promise good luck will follow if you send it on to at least 10 recipients, for example; or it might be part of a pyramid scheme where you send $5 back to the letter’s sender with the expectation that all the people you send it to will send money back to you.

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In the years BX (before Xerox), this was a somewhat onerous thing to ask of someone. Re-writing even a short letter 10 times could take half a day by the time you address and stamp the envelopes. But with the dawn of photocopiers, that time was reduced to half an hour. Fax machines further lightened the load in the mid 80s. And the coming of email brought the time in which you could forward something to many people down to a few seconds. So funny or provocative or thoughtful or spiritual messages could spread very quickly.

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[Aside: The idea to write this post came from an email conversation I’m having with my friend Bill. He was a Webmaster (in the days before email could actually infect your computer with a virus), and he had to constantly explain to people that simply opening an email could not possibly harm their PC. There was an email going around in 1994-6 titled “Good Times” that told people that if they received a message with that subject line, they must delete it immediately without opening it, or their hard drive would be wiped out. It also specifically urged the reader to forward this warning message to anyone they “cared about.” Well-meaning but technologically impaired people fearfully sent this email around the world many times before it died off. The irony is that, while it warned people of a virus spreading through an impossible mechanism, it itself was a kind of self-replicating virus.]

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And now we’ve come to Web 2.0, where you can instantly share an idea or a message with potentially millions of people almost instantaneously. Facebook, YouTube, Digg, Reddit, Twitter, etc. all contribute to the speed with which interesting content proliferates. So back to my first paragraph, where I said that it’s a cheap and effective way to market, especially these days: why, then, isn’t it used more? Simple: it’s really, really, really hard. Creating material with the necessary cachet to “go viral” is very difficult. But it makes for interesting stuff out there, like this video from the band OK Go, where they dance on treadmills, so I’m glad that people still try.

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