The opening scene of the movie Contagion begins with an amiable Gwyneth Paltrow drinking a cocktail while on a business trip in Tokyo. She coughs ever so slightly before leaning in to laugh good-naturedly at a friend’s passing remarks. To the casual observer, her cough would be a miniscule detail of the evening. Smiling freely, chatting happily, Paltrow shows no indication of the virus that has taken root inside of her. Ten minutes later (audience-time), the implications of the unnoticed cough become clear as Paltrow suffers a life-ending seizure in her family’s kitchen; a day later, her young son suffers the same attack while the baby sitter puts him to bed. As the number of afflicted people increases with each passing minute of the movie, it soon becomes clear that Paltrow was the catalysis for the viral plague that will sweeps the characters’ world. Whether they are dead from direct contact, are traumatized from losing the ones they loved, or are simply trying to avoid the disease from the safety of their sterilized houses, each character is affected by the virus in some way.
In a similar though less-dire way, the world in which we live in feels the effects of contagious “viral” videos, so named because of how rapidly they spread and affect the conscious minds of millions upon millions of viewers. Although we are not dropping dead like Gwyneth Paltrow or the other half a dozen A-list actors in Contagion, we are affected.
Why, though, do people make these videos? Easy answer: because people watch. As a society, we are intrigued by what we find online or on television because it has the power to inform, entertain, and even horrify us. Critics (mostly stemming from the older generations) may scoff and say that it is lamentable how consumed our generation is by our various technologies, but these same critics seem to forget that the interest that fuels our so-called “obsession” is not an alien one. Didn’t people look forward to gathering in weekly town meetings before radios or televisions could keep us up-to-date? Didn’t people before our time also take pleasure in finding something common to share and laugh about with their friends? The internet, television, and our phones only provide us with more-accessible means to achieving the same pleasures.
Even before the Internet, dances like the Electric Slide gained popularity in the typical monkey-see-monkey-do action. Nowadays, this process is made even easier with the Internet. Memes, for example, are defined in our generation as images that are passed from one Internet user to another. These pictures will often contain a caption at the bottom that people find funny or sardonic or insightful enough to want to share with others. For example, the popular “Philosoraptor” meme always displays a picture of a dinosaur posing as if it is deep in thought, along with a philosophical question at the bottom of the image that – if successful – will make people pause to think for a second before sharing it with their friends. On the other hand, memes by the name of “Awkward Penguin” memes always feature a picture of a penguin followed by a caption describing an awkward daily occurrence, such as waving at somebody in the hall and them not seeing you. Although the Philosoraptor and Awkward Penguin memes are inherently different, they both gained popularity because of their uniqueness and the fact that they captured the attention of a large number of Internet users.
On the flip side, some argue that the way our generation communicates – through online videos or television – is detrimental to our activeness as a society. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of The Worst Years of Our Lives, asserts that “modern people…do nothing that is every shown on television (because it is either dangerous or would involve getting up from the couch).” I beg to disagree. The fact that our generation is so invested in spreading information through our easily-accessible technologies gives us so more awareness for the necessary actions to be taken against issues we see in society. In Bangladesh, for example, a handful of popular, scientific writers were seized from their homes and arrested three weeks ago for voicing non-theistic comments on their personal blogs. After hearing the news, numerous people were curious to see what the bloggers had written that was proclaimed to be so offensive against the government. They came up with nothing. The day following their arrest, prominent international organizations, such as The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, began to publicize the events in an effort to pressure the Bangladeshi government to let the bloggers go. The government is, in fact, caving. It is actions like these that show that the media may be the world’s most valuable asset for inciting action when change and justice are needed.
Countless other examples of ongoing action abound from the awareness the media provides to the general public. Leaders actively try to change gun control policies after hearing about Sandy Hook; publicized hate crimes against homosexuals make for stronger advocates for equal rights policies. Even when the information the media portrays us with is not grim, change is being sought out. Sarah Kay, spoken word poet extraordinaire, uses the internet to supplement her amazing teaching abilities to help people express themselves. In the video below, she mentions how the Internet has been an invaluable tool that has provided her with millions of perspectives that she can share with her students. Just as Kay has realized, one video – whether it be a monologue, a meme, or a CNN news clip – can alter our perceptions and change the world.