For years we’ve been using the phrase “gone viral” to describe something that becomes wildly popular on the internet. But it strikes a different note in the middle of a global pandemic, especially when the viral content is about an actual virus that is killing people. It’s even worse when you’re talking about “viral” content containing dangerous misinformation and conspiratorial thinking about such a virus—like Plandemic, the documentary that got millions of views on Facebook and YouTube last week before the platforms started removing it.
These past few months I’ve started catching myself whenever I write or speak about something “going viral,” searching for another way to put it. A couple of weeks ago, I started wondering whether we should even be using the word in this figurative way at all anymore. Turns out I am not alone.
“I’ve stopped myself with that expression,” Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer and editor at large at the dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster, told me. Then Sokolowski asked one of his colleagues, computational linguist Ben Mericli, to help figure out whether other people were pulling back on using the internet sense of “viral” as well.
To do that, Mericli picked four phrases that usually refer to biological viruses (viral disease, viral infection, viral load, viral fever) and four phrases that usually refer to internet content (go viral, viral video, viral post, viral photo). He looked at their frequency in a large database of news articles from January 1 to April 30 this year and then compared that with the same period of time in 2019.
The results were pretty clear: figurative use of “viral” has clearly decreased this year as literal uses of “virus” have gone way up. “Since the outbreak, viral has just been used more often in general, with the increase owed entirely to literal use,” he said in an email. “So in that sense I suppose it’s even more striking that the figurative numbers are down.”
Although it seems logical, this decrease isn’t actually a given: plenty of words with medical or epidemiological origins are able to cohabitate in our language with their original or literal meanings, Sokolowski said. For example, both laughter and a disease can be “contagious” or “infectious.” Sometimes people don’t even realize they’re using a word with such roots.
“When people say vitriol they don’t know they’re echoing a chemical compound that burns human skin,” he said (vitriol was originally a term for sulfuric acid). But “viral” is different; the meanings are related but not the same. We have viral stories about viral infections, and we know what both mean. “It’s possible that these two words are used in such similar contexts in similar writing that it is a bad choice,” Sokolowski said.
But as I spoke to other people about their own usage, I realized that whether the current situation lasts or not, there are other reasons to question whether “viral” is appropriate language for content on the internet.
“Viral” outrage, “viral” videos, “viral” posts,