Contemporary history of Europe

“Spread or die”. Online Virality as a Transmedia Phenomenon

Memes (Kaplan and Nova, 2016; McGrath, 2019), gifs (Eppink, 2014), buzz on the Web and social networks are inherent to digital cultures since the very first steps of the Web (i.e., Dancing babies, Hamster Dance). Virality has developed and changed over time through several platforms (YouTube, 4Chan, Twitter, TikTok, etc.), while relying on some patterns identified by Shifman (2014), Milner (2018), Jenkins (2009) and others. Historicizing virality through times, spaces and platforms is at the heart of the Hivi project1 ( While starting to historicize these phenomena, may it be Numa Numa Guy, Leave Britney Alone, Grumpy Cat, the Harlem Shake, online challenges (Ice Bucket Challenge, Fire challenge, etc.) and many others, the transmedia circulations and the role played by “traditional media” in the life cycles and virality of such practices have become more and more obvious.
This proposal aims therefore to demonstrate and analyze how Internet phenomena are transmedia. Building upon several case studies, this presentation will first remind us how virality occurred before the digital (Pinker, 2020) and how previous historical forms were also reused in the digital. We will then analyse the circulation between online viral phenomena and other media, may it be Internet phenomena that are echoed in other media (press, cinema, video games...) or on the contrary the use of media phenomena by digital cultures (see for example memes related to Chuck Norris or Sad Keanu). Finally, the last part will specifically focus on the relationship between online virality and the general press, relying on a vast corpus gathered through Europresse, on which we conducted a diachronic distant reading.
This intertwinement of Media cultures and Digital Cultures aim at highlightening several topics of the call and notably Temporalities of media through digital technologies; Persistence and discontinuities in communication; and finally Digital sources, new practices, tools and narratives in media history.
Eppink, J., “A brief history of the GIF”, Journal of Visual Culture, 2014, 13(3), p. 298- 306.
Jenkins, H., « If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead (Part One) : Media Viruses and Memes”, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 2009.
Kaplan, D., Nova, N., La culture Internet des Mèmes, Lausanne, PPUR, 2016.
MacGrath, J., “Memes”, in Brügger, N., Milligan, I. (ed.), The Sage handbook of Web History,
Los Angeles, London, Sage, 2019.
Milner, R., The Word Mad Meme. Public Conversations and Participatory Media, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2018.
Shifman, L., Memes in Digital Culture, Cambridge MA, Mit Press, 2014.
Pinker, R., Fake News & Viralité avant Internet. Les lapins du Père-Lachaise et autres légendes
médiatiques, Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2020.

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