On Virality: Valuing Existential Voids in Digital Media

February 21, 2017

Can existential philosophy save us from falling into the black hole of digital media?

Existential media and the value of the void 

Existential philosophy has a renewed relevance in our digital age. In fact, our media are existential in two principal ways.

First digital media are, arguably, all-encompassing. In the words of John Durham Peters: “(d)igital media have become the deep background for life on earth”. No sphere seems untouched by the digital. In their technospiritual offerings, digital media are always there and assume a transcending role. And yet, it is precisely this existential condition of imagined fullness, that begets a need for valuing the existential merits of the void. Inspired by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers I will in this text stress the importance of silence, communicative breakdown, interruption and contemplation – for human profundity, for grief work and for measured political and ethical judgement. In the face of the emptiness of ceaseless viral buzz, existential voids themselves are in effect invaluable.


Photo: The Italian Karl Jaspers Society

These fulfilling voids are, importantly, also possible in and through mediation, since, second, digital media are existential when people explore and struggle with existential issues online, for instance in support groups and communities of commemoration. In these groups, supportive communication is wrought through the reciprocal and respectful confirmation of charitable presences and absences, in being there – through simple words, hearts and likes – and in withdrawing. People communicate in dire times online in shared vulnerability. Hence, contrary to its individualistic reputation, existential philosophy may offer media studies a perspective that enables an understanding of vulnerability as an ontological given, which applies to all of us as Judith Butler has argued. Today human vulnerability equals digital vulnerability. Latching onto the life link of the internet also implies risks of becoming too attached to the technology itself.  We are thrown, as Heidegger proposed, but we are also digitally thrown, and constantly thrown anew: new applications persistently enforce new habits, our traces are remembered by search engines forever, and our bodies are implicated when sensitive content about us may be exposed if it goes viral.

Viral visibility

Uncertainty and ambivalence are existential conditions to which we are subject, constituting values which seem antithetical to virality itself. Virality runs instead on a fuel of overinflated assurance. In the political moment we are now thrown into, one example haunts us all. One analysis might suggest that with the pivotal help of overexposure in profit hungry news networks and outlets of naïve legacy media, which made a troll seem legitimate through sheer visibility (regardless of his vices or messages), and then with the daily access to millions who manifolded his bizarre and affect-laden presence through Twitter virals, a bigot was elected president in the USA. Was it in fact inevitable? If one examines some of the metaphors currently in circulation, such as the media ‘ecology’, ‘virals’ and ‘Twitter storms’ they carry a naturalizing bent, that perhaps has an effect on our understanding of their status? Inscribing virality into scenarios of natural ‘disasters’ and ‘forces of nature’ both stamp it as a natural occurrence and as in effect potentially uncontrollable. But perhaps it is when humans intersect with the viral, that its dangers are most in the open?


Photo: Eric Fischer. Flickr/CC 2.0

This idea is featured in Wally Pfister's Transcendence with Johnny Depp, which is a transhumanist fantasy of conducting a cybernetic download to save the soul of a dying man. The download leads to an escalating nightmare, when he goes viral and threatens to take over the entire internet, and the whole world. Should we, as inadvertently the films does, be reflecting more on the naturalizing language and what the consequences may be of this usage? Probing virality critically seems inevitable on all counts.


Photo: Transcendence (2014)

John Postill prophesizes “the coming of an era of ‘viral reality’ in which the news agenda is set by both professionals and amateurs”. It seems a keyword here is visibility. John B. Thomson asked in “The New Visibility” in 2005: “What are the characteristics of this new form of visibility that has become a pervasive feature of the world in which we live today? How does it differ from other forms of visibility and what are its consequences?” He answered this question by suggesting the rise of the new visibility is inseparably linked to the new forms of action and interaction brought about by ’new media’. Mediated visibility can be a weapon of the weak as it can disclose power abuse (as in Abu Ghraib). But viral reality seems to offer something different. While interaction is still a key virtue, it is a reality that seems to make us less into actors than to reactors. It is an automated technological phenomenon that produces a visibility that demands affective responses and forges affective publics.

In this context I think it’s also worth reminding ourselves to critically address from where we receive our norms for high public visibility, accessibility and compulsory connectivity. These are norms enculturating ways of being-in-and-with-the-digital-world. But as Ganaele Langlois has argued astutely, our entire lifeworld is sieged by powerful agents of immaterial capitalism, including software itself. These create our needs and protocol our very sense of being, meaning and value. To ‘go viral’ is potentially to increase value. To be virally visible in this context means to be potentially recognized for some, and extremely powerful for a few. But for those powerless or exposed, viral visibility may imply being hated, stalked and bullied. It may cause despair, disruption and even death.

Anxious indifference?

Another possible ethical and emotional consequence of virality is quite paradoxical. In societies where media are all-pervasive, in the words of Richard Dienst, talking about television: “(t)he old existential anxiety to see or be seen is transformed through total visibility into a matter of anxious indifference. The hypervisibility and hyperconnectivity of digital life may work in similar ways and may produce such complex mundane lived experiences of accepting the tides of virality (including its dark sides of bullying and hate) indifferently – ah well they come and go...– and with heightened anxiety – beware! – at once.

This type of anxious indifference as a sickness within a whole culture is the theme of the Black Mirror Episode “Fifteen Million Merits”, where the citizens of this future dystopia are trapped in the iron cage of a gym and a screen-reality where their main task is to cycle on an exercise bike, to produce energy and gain Merits – the currency of this world. They can’t ignore being interrupted by advertisements, without financial penalty. Their only way out is to perform before a jury (not unlike the one we are used to on the show ‘Idol’).

In this deeply melancholic world, sparkles of hope are rapidly quenched and replaced by new indifferences, when one learns that the way out leads nowhere but to a new form of exploitation.

In the slow field

Where is the counter movement to all of this? Let me suggest it resides within the limit-situation of for instance loss. Here one can claim that there are innate aspects of the process of grief that challenge this temporality of instantaneity. Echoing a lineage of existential philosophers and a particular position among philosophers of technology (the one of Byung-Chul Han for instance), it could be argued that existence itself and existential duration is in important respects adversative to the pace of digital temporality, to ceaseless updates and the to the hypervisibility of everything.

In my work on death online and the existential predicaments of digitalization I discern contours of an alternative. The practices I study are part of the broader developments of digital media culture, and reflect some of the general traits of social media, but they both affirm and complicate some of the more general features of digitality. What we would describe as immaterial forms of capitalism bleed into the vulnerabilities of bereavement online. Yet they do not exhaust the matter. No doubt, in their predicament, in searching for support and relief online, mourners are forced to negotiate these technological affordances. So while the number of likes is important on the memorials, the value of the support exceeds ‘value accumulation.’ While some use these spaces to pour out themselves, the practice of supporting each other cannot be reduced to any self-branding exercise. And what is shared online in confidence in the closed communities, very often defies virality. The very point of it all is quite different: it is the value of just being there for one another that is key.

Working with virtual mourners, and placing them at the centre of media studies, may produce a shift. This is a ’slow field’, not only because it must be approached with great sensitivity. It requires attuning to the pace and ethics of the existers – the mourners – to human pace.  


Photo: Dekcuf. Flickr/CC 2.0

Beyond hyperbuzz

When thinking about the dominant media forms of our day, however, I have often found myself thinking about sound rather than vision or pace. Perhaps I feel, in line with Laurence Scott that the rumble of life – of existence itself – is being overrun, drowned and emptied out by the noise of digital media, leaving us with impoverishment (and indeed with hate, racism, sexism, bigotry, fake news and alternative facts) at the core. In that sensibility, I have worried about digital destitution. There is more to life than this!

It seems to me that there is an aspect of old school anthropology, for all its flaws, that may be important for all of us right now. The idea of ‘stepping out of a field’ seems crucial yet very difficult in the digital ecology that encompasses everything 24/7. Who is ever a stranger here? And also, does viral reality – by which I also mean the rapid pace at which we are expected to express ourselves in reacting – foster good judgement? Could stepping back and out of the buzz, by practicing restraint, be a good or virtuous move? Could such self-possession or composure sustain a reflective stance valuable also for understanding the very virality of media?

In light of the latest political developments, the prospects of an era of viral reality is curious and frightening. Its discontents are painfully clear as we speak, but the problems are not limited to the extremely serious hazards when conmen seize power through tweets and hypervisibility. They go to the very heart of those values that are promoted by compulsory connectivity. Our techno-existence may seem then like a desolate desert. But in being human in the digital age we have no other option than to look for other role models and find value and guidance somewhere else. Something can here be learned (a phronesis of sorts) if we follow the mourners, whose communicative and ethical practices involve a different kind of meaningful presence, the mutual respect for diversity, and the option of withdrawal into silence if that is what is needed. From this perspective, what makes communication fulfilling, is ultimately and perhaps surprisingly, the value of the void.