Image from Evans US Army Hospital
A little while ago Seth Godin proposed the fantastic model of the IdeaVirus; the notion that ideas are propagated through the population in much the same way as viruses. In 1976 Richard Dawkins also introduced us to the concept of the meme; one of its features being (as with a virus) the ability to mutate. With the advent of digital technology, this characteristic of ideaviruses and memes has perhaps become ever more pertinent. After all, according to William Gibson, “the remix is the very nature of the digital.” Mutation, in other words, is an integral part of digital culture. “Today,” Gibson notes “an endless, recombinant, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of creative product.” Sites like Youtube are veritable breeding grounds for constantly mutating ideas.
Viruses mutate for a very important reason; to survive, viruses need a steady supply of fresh hosts. And in order to get around the problem of host immunity within a population, they mutate, changing their surface proteins (or antigens). The digital world allows ideaviruses or memes to do much the same thing very easily.
Viruses mutate in two basic ways:
1) Antigenic drift is the gradual mutation of surface antigens as the virus moves through the population. (The digital equivalent of this is ‘the remix.’) The virus is ‘recoated’ with different surface proteins – a process not dissimilar to the kind of remixing of tracks and commercials that we see in the digital world today. JAKAZiD’s remixing of the Cillit Bang ad is a great example of this kind of antigenic drift – the virus, the message itself is still the same (Cillit Bang cleans the penny) but its outer surface, the packaging surrounding it, has mutated. And in doing so the message is then able to spread to a totally different segment of the population, normally largely immune to this virus or message. We see this too with music tracks – Youtube is full of examples of classic songs from the 80’s that have since been remixed and repackaged in order to appeal both to a new generation of the population and of course to re-infect those that once listened to the original tracks.
2) Antigenic shift is when two viruses from two different species mix to form a hybrid and a completely new virus. (The digital equivalent of this is ‘the mash-up.’) Trailer trashing is a great example of this kind of mutation, where two film trailers (or two genres of film at least) are meshed together to form a completely new idea or plot; like Point Brokeback a mash-up of Point Break and Brokeback Mountain for instance, or Sleepless in Seattle the horror version, which fuses genre cues from films such as Fatal Attraction with the original trailer. These new, hybrid ideas then spread to a whole new population – or again, are able to ‘re-infect’ the same population they once did but in a new mutated form. Google Earth is another good example of an ideavirus that has been mashed with countless applications in order for hybrid strains of it to spread into different segments of the population. It is, as a result, now a virtually pandemic idea in many respects.
Mutation is a key part of viral longevity; Budweiser’s ‘Wassup’ virus for instance, still has sporadic, mutated outbursts. Consumer-created content isn’t just about issues of customisation and consumer ownership. It is in fact a fundamental part of the ideavirus lifecycle in the digital world.