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Making A Virus

by James G.

A story is a possibility. That’s all it is. But that’s a lot. Now: What is a virus? There is a lot of talk about all things viral (videos, marketing campaigns and so on) but if you ask how to make such a thing, that’s when it gets quiet. A virus is just a piece of code or information, an idea with the capacity to adapt to changing circumstance and needle its way into our brains, our thoughts, our perceptions.

My favorite virus is toxoplasmosis. It infects mice and makes them more daffy or courageous (depending on how you look at it) and as a result they’re more likely to be eaten by cats. And when a cat eats the mouse with this virus the cat gets the virus. That’s a clever virus. Of course, this virus is the real thing and not a metaphor, but the same rules apply to both the viral and the virus. In both cases the virus needs a host (the brain of some person) to survive. It needs to use the resources of the host to spread it.

A viral idea—now we’re back into the world of persuasion—is one that so resonates with people that it spreads of its own accord, with little or no outside help. People at agencies dream of making such things. But is it possible to consciously, intentionally make such a thing? Many will say no, and not without reason. Most wildly “viral” things (10,000,000 views on YouTube, for instance) are usually genuine, serendipitous and not the product of an agency. Such things are inherently unpredictable—anyone who says otherwise is pulling your leg. But can you reduce that unpredictability? Yes. Can you greatly increase such a thing’s chances of contagion? Yes.

So how do you intentionally design a story or idea so that it will be passed from one person to the next? That one person will see and then, of their own volition, send to another? The place to begin is with the host. How does the virus enter the host? How does it get the host to pass it along? How contagious is it? What will elicit some feeling from within a person? What goes on in the chaos of thoughts and feelings before a decision is made or an action taken? And how does the host interact with the web and other places where they might catch the virus?

Start by asking, What ideas survive in our minds? The answers to this question reside in a lot of places—psychology, drama, game theory, people you meet in elevators—and it can take some digging to find them. It also helps to make sure an idea features one or two of a particular list of ingredients: 1) Inversions: Will Farrell & his tiny landlord, 2) A thing followed to its logical end, 3) Things pulled out of the subtext and amplified but never spoken: Mitt Likes Music, Including This, or 4) A thing some person wanted to say but just didn’t know how to say it: “I’m mad as hell and can’t take it anymore”.

In the right hands, most stories can be adapted to different forms. It’s not very difficult to take a story from one environment (a speech) and put it into another (a Twitter campaign or a web photo gallery or a series of videos on YouTube). But this ability to morph or be morphed is not sufficient to make a thing viral. It’s necessary, but it’s not enough.

A digital landscape makes transmission of the virus easier. But it’s how the thing hits our ears that matters most. Stories can drift from one forum or form to another. They can be implied in a sentence or a picture or a reference or phrase. Or they can be expanded into a great epic or a series of episodes. But if the story can’t find a host then it’s not going to go very far. And, yes, even though serendipity and authenticity can thwart all efforts to consciously and intentionally build a guaranteed knock it out of park viral hit (10,000,000 views on YouTube, for instance), there are things that you can do to reliably get a base hit or better.

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