c. ClearStory/BBC

Following the screening of Richard Clay’s latest documentary “How to Go Viral” last night, I wanted to share my thoughts on the film. We touched briefly on the programme in my recent interview with him and although the subject matter might initially seem different to his earlier works, there are similar threads running through all of them. Broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘Anniversary of the Internet’ strand, the programme sets out to explore how memes are created, how they succeed or fail, their history and what deeper meanings there might be. The documentary comes complete with a Very Long Title – “How To Go Viral: The Art of the Meme with Richard Clay”; but I think for convenience we’ll just call it Viral!

Unlike Richard’s earlier documentaries and in line with its subject matter, Viral’s appearance is much snappier, with rapid fire presentation, snazzy graphics and animations, memes and subliminal blips dropped in all over the place, and plenty of silliness – well, the subject *is* memes. However, lest all this sound trivial, be assured that it really isn’t; Viral is vastly entertaining but underneath the shiny surface there are some really serious issues at play.

The Two Richards – Professors Dawkins and Clay! (image c. BBC/ClearStory)

The word ‘meme’ was coined by the marvellous Richard Dawkins (who makes a rather wonderful appearance in Viral, and as Clay says is obviously a national treasure). Definitions of our modern terminology are given; however, the whole concept behind the idea of something that spreads like wildfire is actually nothing new, as the Prof goes on to demonstrate. So he ranges far and wide in his exploration of his subject, from a pivotal interview with the aforementioned Dawkins, through the ubiquitous LOLcats, with their own distinctive vocabulary to memes in advertising. From earworms to emojis, nothing is missed; and what soon becomes clear is that memes have been around for far longer than you might imagine, involved in the shaping of our lives and thoughts for centuries. For example, who knew that there was a craze for captioned cat postcards in the early part of the 20th century?? Or that Wittgenstein invented the emoji?? It seems that signs and symbols and their use have always helped form our world; what’s changed is the speed and method of their dissemination. It’s the same as the way a craze would take off in the playground or socially in the past, but simply spread in a different way and infinitely more rapidly – well, instantaneously, really. Let’s be honest: memes may have only been named in 1976, but they’re certainly not a modern phenomenon – just think of all those advertising jingles that passed into everyday life and are still there (I bet you have plenty of them stuck in your head!)

The Claymoji! 😀 (image c. Clearstory/BBC)

The Prof goes on to discuss what makes some memes “sticky” while others just disappear into the ether; he has a go at creating his own with the help of online experts; and even has own emoji created (how cool!), as well as soliciting some useful advice as to how to get rid of those pesky earworms! 😀 However, the programme goes on to draw in the political aspect, revealing how in our polarised world both sides are using the language of memes to try to influence our minds and views. The dizzying and sometimes alarming array of statistics demonstrates just how important an aspect of propaganda internet memes have become; and this also left me wondering – with the amount of stuff we do online, however do we manage to exist in the real world? Intriguingly, some of the scientific experts consulted make claims for memes having a strong role in shaping our evolutionary progress, an idea which left me wanting to explore more and go out and buy any number of scientific books…

A little bit of arty iconoclasm… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

Laudably, Viral doesn’t shy away from tackling the darker side of the Internet, from trolls to death threats, and the interview with investigative journalist Jessikka Aro is particularly sobering; the internet, like the world, is not just grinning cats and dancing babies… Discussions of online fake news lead inevitably to the Orwellian conclusion that *all* news is fake owing to its selective nature. As Richard reminds us early on in the programme, the Internet is unregulated which inevitably leads to conflict, as one person’s humour is another person’s offence; and ever more controversial memes can be guaranteed to get their makers millions of views. Mainstream media is very filtered (and biased…) nowadays, and so the democratic and unrestricted nature of the Internet has led to a surge in dank humour which can often be offensive and divisive. However, in the Trump era, memes can be an effective way of transmitting an uncomfortable truth and become a means of protest; and as I saw with Mark Steel’s “Vive la Revolution“, you can get a very fine political point across using humour.

Yet, memes can be useful; as well as communicating ideas rapidly round the globe, they can act as a release, an anti-stress and survival tool – certainly when my kids are having a bad day, they’re all over WhatsApp demanding more memes from each other! The sharing can have a positive effect, giving us a sense of belonging which may have been lost nowadays. We live in an increasingly fragmented world, one in which we’re constantly bombarded by signs and symbols competing for our attention, and it *can* become exhausting (although probably less so for younger people who are most used to this world and are no doubt evolving as we speak to live within it). Indeed, Richard takes a short but necessary time out with his art historian hat on to consider that the continuing popularity of art galleries may reflect a very human need for some quiet, one-to-one time with a single picture or sculpture, away from the constant visual chaos around us. I’d definitely concur with that view!

Richard bravely has a go at planking… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

One aspect I found particularly fascinating in a programme that fizzes with ideas was the exploration of the different elements of culture and how they affect us; drawing in the addictive element of music was perhaps unexpected, but very rewarding. Viral had several little nods to Richard’s previous documentaries and most notably (when looking at the flexibility of symbols and memes) squeezed in consideration of one of his pet subjects, sign transformation (i.e. how the meaning of objects around us changes according to context and our particular viewpoint at any given time). In fact, the Prof has become increasingly adept at sneaking semiotics and signs on to our screens (although as well as bringing some much-needed erudition to mainstream TV, he’s happy to balance it with plenty of that humour and even gamely has a go at planking – although sensibly avoids the ice bucket challenge…) And there are plenty of little asides to catch the eye and amuse, from the ‘404 not found’ result for a certain missing image to a sneakily winking cat, both of which made me smirk. However, to prove memes have a serious purpose, our somewhat subversive semiotician ropes in the work of no less than Roland Barthes to prove how crucial text is to those memes, and how an image on its own is not so effective; it’s heady and stimulating stuff.

Needless to say, Viral was a massive hit at the Ramblings; the amount of mental stimulation it’s caused my brain is pretty huge and I’m trying to restrain myself from rushing off to explore all sorts of different ideas, as well as reading everything Dawkins has written. TV is more often than not a dead medium for me nowadays, starved of interesting ideas and discussions; which makes something like Viral even more of a breath of fresh air, a beacon of intellectual provocation in a desert of soaps and reality stars. This is the kind of exemplary programme that leaves you with dozens of ideas buzzing around in your head; its multi-faceted and multi-layered approach cleverly sneaking in its ideas under a playful exterior. Like it or not, we live in this modern world of instantaneous signs and symbols; so Clay’s efforts to help us decode that world, as well as to understand and negotiate it, are timely, celebrating just how creative humans can be in their methods of communication. If you’re in the UK Viral is here on the iPlayer and I strongly recommend checking it out while you can. If you’re in the rest of the world, I hope it makes it to your TV screens sometime soon. Viral is a hugely entertaining yet deeply thought-provoking piece of television and is most definitely going to be my Documentary of the Year!

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