The world has gone fully viral – for better or for worse

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Thomas Osburg, March 2020  //

In 1996 the two Americans Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith programmed a free e-mail service. At the end of the messages they added an automatic text: “Get your free e-mail at Hotmail.” By clicking on the sentence, the recipients of the messages were immediately directed to the corresponding login screen. The trick worked: After six months the service had one million users, a year later it was already twelve million. In 1998 Bhatia and Smith sold Hotmail to Microsoft for 400 million dollars.

Bhatia and Smith’s trick is now regarded as the first successful example of viral marketing: the art of making users and consumers so enthusiastic about products, texts or videos that they are happy to pass them on to friends, acquaintances and relatives, thus contributing to mass distribution.

And if you like, a development began back then whose consequences we are all currently feeling. The worldwide spread of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19 for short, is further proof that we are finally living in the viral age. With all its advantages and disadvantages.

In recent years, terms from epidemiology have found their way into our everyday lives. Cultural products “go viral”, on Youtube and Instagram “influencers” give tips for fashion, sports or raising children. But perhaps we have forgotten the negative, harmful, sometimes deadly origin of these terms, despite all our enthusiasm for these digital phenomena. Companies and solo artists have been more concerned with how they create viral success themselves – and less with how they prevent viral spread.

It’s no wonder that the sudden switchover is still hard for many people. If everyone, really everyone on earth, were to isolate themselves completely for three weeks, the problem would quickly disappear. But that’s not the way the world works anymore. We are far too networked for that, both digitally and physically.

Technology can be a blessing and a curse these days. On the one hand, it contributes to the spread of conspiracy theories and fake news. On the other hand, it also brings people together, alleviates loneliness, at least temporarily, and gives us the feeling that even in social isolation we can at least find digital connection.

“A virus knows no morals” is the title of a film by Rosa von Praunheim about the AIDS epidemic in the mid 1980s. The same applies to technology. It is always only the vicarious agent of the user. It has never been so important to use it in a meaningful and beneficial way.

(Inspired by Miriam Meckel)