THE BLOG
03/26/2013 07:18 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2013

Book Review of Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks

The rise of the network society is a reality -- though certainly not everyone around the world is participating; but at some point it is likely that most will be because the growing market of information-exchange depends on it. Consequently, the dependence of communities on networked information demands a contemporary evaluation of crowd behavior in both physical and online social spaces.

Tony Sampson contributes to this emerging horizon with his book Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (Minnesota, 2012) by revisiting, or as he states "resuscitating" the work of Gabriel Tarde, a French sociologist who was contemporary of Emile Durkheim. Sampson's book is relevant in various fields of research including media studies, communication, media archeology, and sociology to name just a few. Sampson's biggest contribution, arguably is to a small niche in cultural studies known as assemblage theory, which is largely defined by the theories of Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher who developed his principles of non-linear ontology (nature of being) based in part on Tarde's research of crowd behavior during the end of the 19th century.

The book consists of an introduction and five chapters, which are organized to delineate Tarde's contribution to early sociological studies of crowd behavior, in direct relation to Deleuze's interpretation of Tarde's work, and the rising ubiquity of viral networks in current times. Contemporary media theorists are cited throughout the chapters including Bruno Latour, Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, among others. The theories on multitude by Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri are of particular importance to Sampson's argument.

Chapters one through three read more like summaries of important ways in which Tarde's ideas have become relevant for contemporary analysis of social media, for both the private and corporate world as well as academic and research communities. It is in the last chapters, four and five, where one can find Sampson's position more pronounced, although, his interest in making a case for the importance of Tarde's theory for viral networks leaves one wanting to read more of Sampson's voice. I suspect such voice will become more evident in later publications now that Sampson has worked through Tarde's ideas in Virality.

In the last two chapters key arguments are introduced, which will push anyone well-acquainted with network theory to rethink how the flow of information functions. Some already existing concepts are revisited by Sampson under different names. For instance, Adorno's regressive listener, who is willing to consume passively finds its parallel in Tarde's somnambulist. It should be noted, however, that Tarde's concepts had been developed well before Adorno started to write his own theories on mass culture. The point here is that Tarde preceded some of the issues of crowd control that would turn out to be of great interest to cultural theorists throughout the 20th century.

Sampson argues that the contemporary subject of networks (the somnambulist) functions in daily life as though he or she is asleep. The somnambulist is never off the grid, even when actually asleep, given that with mobile media, corporations can know where consumers are at all times. To understand how the somnambulist functions one must understand Tarde's three laws of Imitation, Repetition, and Adaptation. These three laws explain how human beings go through the process of socialization.

Sampson examines various ways in which these laws give rise to crowd behavior in offline and online networks. At one point he considers how Antonio Negri's theory of viral love can be an alternative to solidarity within crowds aligned with rigid disciplines of stoic behavior. However, Sampson points out that it is by revisiting Tarde's arguments on viral love (empathy becoming the means of contagion) where one can find a theory with greater potential for the time of networks. Barack Obama's first presidential election is presented as an example of this type of viral love (mass empathy) -- but one with limitations on what Tarde would call spontaneous revolution.

Given the three laws, the question inevitably arises: If we are people who imitate, repeat and adapt, then how does real change come about? This question is dealt with at the end when Sampson points out that Tarde is critical of mindless imitation; Tarde theorized that one should not strive to react directly against imitation -- given that when one opposes something, one is actually accepting the very thing that is being challenged. Instead, Sampson promotes Tarde's concept of non-imitation, as a form of resistance which falls somewhere between outright rejection of influence and mindless acceptance.

The challenge that Tarde's theory faces in the time of networks, the time of contagion (to use Sampson's own term), however, is its relation to the concepts of hybridity and diversity; which are well accepted not only among intellectual circles but also in cultures invested in difference as a cultural binder around the world. Tarde's concept of non-imitation demands that a culture keeps others out -- that it resists contamination of something from the outside, and byway develops a critical position that will lead to new paradigms of change that rupture with the past; needless to say that this position inevitably leads to some abstract concept of purity which plagued modernism (the time when Tarde wrote his theories). Sampson tries to resolve this apparent limitation in Tarde's theory by placing non-imitation in an in-between space that may allude to some type of threshold where real "spontaneous" change may happen. This attempt, however, does not successfully reposition Tarde's theory in line with global cultures' current acceptance or at least tolerance of hybrid states of constant flows. Admittedly the world's current hybridity does come with conflicts as the clash of cultures have led and still lead to violence or outright war.

A better resolution might be to acknowledge that Tarde developed his ideas on society and culture during the end of the 19th century, a time when he surely could not have conceived of diversity as we do in our time; and then take this moment as a point of departure for a theory of contagion that becomes autonomous -- and, most importantly, ruptures with Tarde's own theory to become something truly new. But Sampson does not do this, even when he clearly could when citing more recent theories of viral love such as Negri's; this may have to do with his fervent investment in updating Tarde while not acknowledging that his theory does have some limitations. And this is what appears to keep Sampson's own voice less pronounced throughout the book.

Sampson's book, ultimately, is an important interdisciplinary contribution to the understanding of network cultures not only because it puts into historical context how crowd behavior has been studied for the last hundred years, but also because it helps anyone interested in attaining a more in-depth understanding of Gilles Deleuze's philosophy; thus, Virality is a real contribution to assemblage theory and its relation to media archeology in terms of network analysis. For this reason, it is a book that anyone interested in understanding how social media functions at the beginning of the 21st century should seriously consider reading.