For millions of internet users, “going viral” is a goal to be achieved and a coveted symbol of success. For many it has become something of an obsession.
What does it even mean to “go viral”? Generally speaking, a piece of internet content that “goes viral” is one that spreads exponentially. Typically it is disproportionately more popular than the creator’s other content, and it sort of takes on a “life of its own.” If the online content—a video, GIF, tweet, or otherwise—ends up becoming a cultural moment offline as well, that would be an additional sign it’s gone viral. I’ve often joked that if you get on Good Morning America or The Ellen DeGeneres Show because of something you’ve posted online, you’ve gone viral.
But the sort of lust so many people have for going viral can easily careen into full-blown idolatry, and gradually undermine our grip on reality and truth.
Idolatry of Virality
Obsession with internet virality is idolatrous because it seeks something that isn’t God to deliver what God alone can provide. Many pursue viral fame through goofy videos or impassioned rants because they are unhappy and desperate for the luxurious lives of the influencers they follow online.
Part of why virality is so enticing is that it actually seems within reach for the average person. “Rags to riches” stories of viral success do exist. Going viral can land you speaking gigs, book deals, and more. Whether you’re recording a video of yourself in a Kohl’s parking lot laughing in a Chewbacca mask or skateboarding in L.A. holding a jug of juice, going viral can be life-changing in some really positive ways. Even in the “Christian internet” subsection of the web, one viral YouTube video can be all it takes to launch a new productivity, parenting, or marketing guru in a matter of months, provided the person knows how to maintain a relationship with their newfound audience. Going viral is a sort of free pass to the influencer lifestyle so many long to adopt—an illusory promised land flowing with paid partnerships and adoring fans.
But going viral can also ruin your life, especially if your newfound fans dig up information on your past they find objectionable. “Milkshake duck” is a term coined by Australian cartoonist Ben Ward who, joking about the way going viral often blows up in the face of the new celebrity said, “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.” Today’s viral star is often tomorrow’s target for cancellation.
Today’s viral star is often tomorrow’s target for cancellation.
But the main problem with “going viral” is not its irresistibility to so many internet users. It’s that virality is assumed to be inherently good, rather than “neutral” or “bad.” This is concerning. Because if going viral is inherently good, we begin to have a skewed understanding of reality.
Lost Grip on Reality
The algorithms that undergird the social internet are driven by engagement and attention. What gets the most attention and engagement is boosted into more feeds in order to receive more attention and engagement. Viral content appeals to social-media companies because it’s a key way to keep users on their feeds, rather than those of their competitors.
Why is this a problem? Because when it comes to what generates maximum attention and engagement, truth and reality usually take a back seat to the sensational and entertaining. Truth and reality are often pretty boring, and boring never goes viral.
Truth and reality are often pretty boring, and boring never goes viral.
Naturally, then, the equations and algorithms that undergird social platforms accelerate the viral spread of entertaining, sensational, and emotive content more easily than boring-but-true content. This is why conspiracy theories—often entertaining, sensational, and playing to emotions—so often go viral. The truth that debunks conspiracy theories is often mundane and boring, so it doesn’t get as widely shared.
When “going viral” is viewed as inherently good, virality can come to be viewed as validation of veracity. “It went viral so it must be true,” many of us assume. Yet this assumption—that virality equals truth—is exactly what allows conspiracy theories of all kinds to run wild. It’s what leads otherwise smart people to start believing crazy ideas and erroneous facts. If we hear or see something enough times, we start to believe it’s true.
Share What’s True, Even If It’s Boring
In a world where “going viral” is both an idolatrous temptation and an insidious force that can undermine truth, Christians should lead the way in prudent caution. Practically, this might mean we slow down enough to prioritize vetting and fact-checking before sharing that #trending piece of content on social media. It might mean we stop immediately retweeting or re-posting content that gets us emotionally riled up. Maybe applying James’s “slow to speak, slow to become angry” wisdom (1:19) in today’s world means exercising more restraint and a slower pace in what we click on and share.
Christians should aspire to be the people least susceptible to spreading falsehood and most prone to sharing truth, even if that truth is boring and gets less clicks. If we aren’t willing to choose veracity over virality and reality over sensationalism, who will?
The Gospel Coalition