Douglas Rushkoff on Deen, Snowden, Zimmerman and the Culture of Contagion (Guest Column)

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From left: George Zimmerman, Edward Snowden and Paula Deen

What would race riots organized on Facebook look like? The best-selling author, who coined the term "viral media" in 1993, says the camcorder days of Rodney King offer insights into the "great viral summer" of 2013.

With stories from the NSA scandal to Paula Deen’s downfall to the George Zimmerman trial, we’re in the midst of what is already destined to be remembered as one of those great viral summers. It’s reminiscent of the summer media frenzy of 1992, when Long Island Lolita Amy Fisher shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco, Woody Allen bedded stepdaughter Soon Yi Previn, and thousands rioted in Los Angeles after the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted.

But in both cases, the cultural contagion and resulting confusion may have had less to do with the stories themselves than the new technologies through which they were being transmitted. When media change, so too does our perception of the world. Everything old seems new again, even though it’s really just a repeat of some earlier trope. Second verse, same as the first … now in 3D!

Back in the early 1990s, we were in the very beginning of the new media age. And by new media, I don’t mean the websites and social networks we’re on today. No, I’m talking about fax machines, reality television, cable news, the VCR, and the camcorder. These new media turned the broadcast universe on its head.

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Not only were office workers delightedly faxing each other “blonde” jokes, but stories that may not have seen the light of day in the old media universe suddenly moved to center stage. Black men in Los Angeles had already been facing police brutality on a nightly basis. But the addition of camcorders into the consumer electronics arsenal made the recording of at least one instance of such brutality inevitable. A private citizen happened to be in the right place at the right time, CNN and other 24-hour news channels couldn’t help but broadcast the unedited footage the moment they received it, and the rest is history.

The Rodney King tape was spread throughout the media overnight not because a black man was being beaten. No, the initial story was simply that such an event had been captured by a camcorder! This was a story about the power of a new medium – so much so, that one electronics company put a full page ad in Rolling Stone featuring a black fist holding a camcorder with the caption, “The Power Is in Your Hands.”

Likewise, the reality dramas of the Amy Fisher trial played out on new cable court television shows as well as in crash-edited television movies put out by all the major networks to run alongside the news-in-progress. This was a new, media-driven sensibility as well. 1992 was the year MTV’s archetypal reality series Real World launched, bringing with it a new television-as-live-surveillance ethos -- as well as an emphasis on tragedy and humiliation. The lines between news and entertainment were blurring: Vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle debated fictional TV news reporter Murphy Brown, and lost.

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In 1993, I came up with the term “viral media” to describe this new ability of stories to reach epidemic levels, mutating and replicating as they moved from person to person, show to show, news to fiction and back again. Our cultural fascinations were changing along with the styles of media we used to consume and spread them. All this contagion seemed threatening at the time, but in hindsight, the era of the slow-motion O.J. Simpson police chase, Beavis and Butt-head, Madonna and Michael Jackson, or even the first computer viruses appear almost quaint.

Today, our social media amplify and accelerate word of mouth to a new level. These aren’t hushed water-cooler conversation about whatever salacious gossip we’ve seen on the news; they are publicly broadcasted pronouncements about who is a hero, who is a traitor, who is a liar, or who is a fraud. In a media culture that values retweets and “likes” even more than money, stories spread and replicate less because they titillate than because they are suitable subjects for loud, definitive, 140-character declarations.

The importance of the NSA scandal to public opinion about security vs. privacy gives way to a polarized shouting match over Edward Snowden’s patriotism. Paula Deen used the N-word, serving as this summer’s mandatory litmus test on racial slurs: Can we forgive her? No. And Trayvon Martin becomes the smartphone era’s version of Rodney King, as jurists try to piece together a narrative from cell calls instead of videotape. We can only imagine, if Zimmerman goes free, what race riots organized via Facebook might look like.

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All along the way, mainstream media news is as powerless to resist the rising tide of Twitter as its predecessors were to resist the “race to the bottom” fomented by Jerry Springer and the National Enquirer. As if desperate to find content relevant to stories that are moving just too slow for the pace of their news shows, cable channels end up reading Tweets and Facebook posts on the air. The trending waves of social media are really the only aspect of these stories that matter to people, anyway. They’re more emotional mirrors -- or at least they are used that way -- than they are actionable news and information.

That’s why when we look at the kinds of stories making the headlines, we have to remind ourselves that the particular characters and events within them are not really so important in themselves. For every “white trash” murder story in rotation on Court TV, there are a dozen more that never make the cut. Even the current NSA scandal is just one of a series of similar leaks and otherwise boring New York Times section-one stories.

Instead, it’s all about timing. Social media is more like a standing wave, just waiting for the right kind of content to fill it. So our anxiousness about big data surveillance -- an idea in the public imagination since Will Smith’s Enemy of the State or Chris Nolan’s first Batman movie -- creates the wave. This latest of many Patriot Act revelations merely fills it.

As Marshall McLuhan would have put it: The medium is the message. Remember that the next time you find yourself wondering why a particular story is trending for no good reason. In an always-on, socially driven media, the readiness is all.

Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist and the author, most recently, of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.