Anyone on campus over 30 is likely to think that the word ‘viral’ refers to some kind of nasty affliction. Our students will know that ‘viral emails’ are a twenty-first-century cultural phenomenon including anything from animated political satires to spoof clips, hilarious bloopers and pornographic jokes. They are viewed, laughed at and passed on creating a vast global online comedy club.
In 2006 the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London put on the world’s first exhibition of virals entitled ‘Outrageous and Contagious’. The show offered a peep into the kind of content likely to be hiding in our students’ inboxes. The exhibition was a collaboration between Channel 4’s Ideas Factory, BoreMe.com and the digital agency Ralph and viral promoter Hot Cherry. The organizers maintain that virals represent a democratization of creativity. Through using relatively cheap digital tools like mobile videophones, Photoshop, digital video recorders and iMovie home editing software almost anyone can make a film or cartoon. Like any joke, the acid test of a viral is simply whether or not it is funny.
One of my favourites was a spoof ad that showed a garish portrait of Christ with a beaming smile on his face with the caption ‘IT’S A MIRACLE’ across his chest. Beneath his unperforated palms were tubes of the UniBond adhesive No More Nails. The poet E.E. Cummings said the most wasted of all days is one without laugher. Loud eruptions of mirth provided the exhibition’s soundtrack as individuals crowded around the PCs in a room that was ill-equipped to deal with the level of interest. The hundreds of people who queued through the corridors of the ICA to view the exhibition were not squandering the Bank Holiday.
Virals are coming to the curriculum too as universities are starting to use them as ‘live briefs’ on communication and design courses. They may prove difficult to contain academically if the content of BoreMe.com is anything to go by. We are accustomed to students using their mobiles to text each other during lectures but we might also have to cope with irrepressible laughter. If they are not receiving them already, students will soon be able to have their favourite virals delivered directly to their mobiles. That’s not all.
A group of American viral makers going under the name of Prangstgrüp chose a lecture given by a chemistry professor at Columbia as the location for their ‘viral shoot’. His innocent invitation for further questions is met by a student who stands up and shouts, ‘Hey teach – I gotta question.’ The academic hush is broken. From somewhere in the auditorium the rhythm of an orchestral arrangement strikes up in the style of a Broadway show. The protagonist launches into song: ‘We come to class each day/ It seems we all fall asleep/ We’ve lost our dreams.’ The undergraduate, Jean Valjean, leads a full cast of accomplices through a routine that would rival any stage production. The hapless professor can do no more than laugh it off and join in the final applause.
Mark Twain said, ‘The only really effective weapon is laughter’ and a viral spoof might just be playing in a lecture hall near you very soon.