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Fire Your Virus

And other detritus of the net

By Annalee Newitz

I DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I've gotten about a zillion emails over the past several weeks with "Fire Your Boss!" in the subject header. The body of the email--which is inevitably formatted weirdly, either with poorly centered text or little blurts of undigested HTML tags--will say something like, "Earn ten thousand dollars a day working from home! This isn't a pyramid scheme!"

OK, great. Now the Silicon Bay region can turn the menacing epithet "viral load" into a double entendre. Viral communication, the sinister yet Internet-friendly term for word-of-mouth, has reached an exhausting peak. It's become as ubiquitous as junk mail, if slightly more entertaining. Everyday, I have to check my email box for its viral load.

Sometimes the viral load is up, but many of the viruses themselves are not so bad: a nifty event from Scott Beale's Squid List or Hannah Doress' grrly Hanarchy List, a bit of underground political news, or a press release for some movie/book/widget I actually care about. But generally a high viral load in the email box is pretty much what it sounds like. There's a dangerous escalation in the intensity of my communication infection. The fabulous queer beatnik William S. Burroughs once said that "language is a virus." It may even be from this phrase that we get the idea of viral communication, or perhaps it's just from that pseudo-academic book Douglas Rushkoff wrote back in the early '90s about the wild new communities being spawned on the Internet by viral marketing.

It's when marketing goes viral that you really have to worry, because of course it's in the nature of viruses to transform everything into versions of themselves. Case in point: last week, the dotcom rag Fast Company (kind of like Cosmo for the net set) held a viral advertainment event: Herman Miller chair hockey, played in a San Francisco parking lot on fake wood paneled floors. This tawdry burst of corporate festivity was the marketing equivalent of Ebola, which often jumps from host to host through gooey, virus-packed blood vomited up by the stricken individuals.

Well, maybe that Ebola detail was a bit much, but imagine what kind of virus-ridden PR team came up with the idea to advertise a magazine in this seemingly senseless way.

Although Fast Company is based on the East Coast, I couldn't help but think this was yet another only-in-dotcom-country (i.e. the Bay Area) moment. Having just recently gone back east, I have firsthand evidence that our crazed info-economy culture hardly exists in places like New York and Boston, which have their Silicon Alleys and Route 128, respectively, but view technology as only one source of insta-cash.

While I was in Boston last week, I tried to communicate using an old-fashioned virus: talking. I had been invited to give a presentation at MIT about "public intellectuals of the Internet generation." Most of the lovely Slashdot boys were there--Jeff and Rob and their entourage of alterna-geeks who seem to exist solely on the MIT campus--as well as punk-rock academic Stephen Duncombe. Jeff and Stephen talked about their fears that free expression on the Internet is about to be curtailed severely. I talked about how dotcom gentrification is changing the physical and economic spaces of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Although you would think that the crowd in this MIT theater would be wired into every damn trend out here--especially ones related to dotcoms--most people seemed surprised to learn that the term "dotcommer" had become a nasty put-down, and that the Internet economy was destroying historically low-income or ethnic neighborhoods throughout the Bay region.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all information viruses seem to get replicated--sure, this crowd was in the viral loop with "fire your boss" emails, splashy hoaxes and even electronic news from Chiapas. They did not, however, realize that an entire geographical region in the United States is being rewritten right now, its actual physical landscape infected by money and technology and information that have the power to kill off neighborhoods and populations.

"Isn't space irrelevant on the Internet?" one professorial type asked me, "I mean, there's infinite space out there." No, there isn't. Not even online, which is after all merely the sum total of whatever memory we can allocate with our machines. In the Silicon Bay, we live with that knowledge everyday, when we check the viral load in our mailboxes or our bodies or our social systems.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose virus is located at www.techsploitation.com ([email protected]).

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From the October 5-11, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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