The term virus spans across a variety of fields and disciplines and has particular relevance in the ecology of media theory. Three specific fields will guide this discussion, the way virus relates to biology, the computer, and as a phenomenon in viral media. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term virus dates back to 1599 when used to refer to venom or a poisonous substance. However, the modern biological meaning of any “agent that causes infectious disease” was first recorded in 1728. It was not until 1892 that Dmitri Ivanovski, a Russian scientist, ruled out possible bacterial agents causing disease and helped standardize the definition of a virus as “a sub-microscopic infectious agent that is unable to grow or reproduce outside a host cell” 1. Since then, the term has expanded to include a technical component–that of computers in 1972. While the adjective form viral was coined in 1948, it only recently has entered into a wider understanding as a metaphor for other parasitically-reproducing things, such as videos, blogs, emails, and other technological memes. A brief look at each one will help furnish a complete picture of the implications of a virus in media studies.

The initial understanding of virus as “an infectious organism that is usually submicroscopic, can multiply only inside certain living host cells and is understood to be a non-cellular structure lacking any intrinsic metabolism and usually comprising a DNA or RNA core inside a protein coat” is limited exclusively to the biological processes within the human body. As a biological entity, it is entirely negative in its consequences–a virus is dangerous and often deadly. A virus is neither living nor nonliving. It cannot replicate on its own, so it must hijack another organism to replicate itself. However, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a retrovirus, which also must hijack another organism to replicate, but first must reverse engineer the self-copying process which subsequently cause the mutations to become lethal. This is what is typically thought of the term virus in a biological understanding.

A computer virus, on the other hand, is a program that can replicate itself and infect a computer without permission or knowledge of the user. The OED defines it as “any sequence of code which when executed causes itself to be copied into other locations, and which is therefore capable of propagating itself within the memory of a computer or across a network, usually with deleterious results.” The first known computer virus is known as Creeper and was discovered on the ARPANET (precursor to the internet) in 1972. Although it was contained within the laboratory, each infected machine would display the message “I’M THE CREEPER : CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.” Computers can be infected by a virus in a number of ways or pathways. It most frequently occurs when sent over the Internet via email, on a webpage, or on a removable medium such as a floppy disk, CD, or USB drive. As the methods of infection grew, viruses came to include or to be known as worms, Trojan horses, or any form of self-replicating malware. These types of viruses can be programmed to damage the computer by mutating programs, deleting files, or reformatting the hard disk. Others are not designed to do any damage, but simply exponentially replicate themselves or appear as intrusive popup messages. Users who have never encountered an actual virus on their machine, have still most likely suffered on account of all the anti-virus software which typically consume computer memory or processing power of a personal computer. In summary, computer viruses resemble biological viruses in the way they insert themselves into the replication process and subsequently alter the way the computer functions. They are lifeless until they latch onto an unsuspecting machine. Often, more is at stake than simply a personal computing machine–entire corporations and networks alike can be brought to its knees by a hacker’s virus.

Jacques Derrida in Deconstruction and the Visual Arts describes a virus in relation to his own work in deconstruction as a “parasite that destroys, or that introduces disorder into communication. Even from a biological standpoint, this is what happens with a virus; it derails a mechanism of the communicational type, its coding and decoding” 2. His notion of a virus is something similar to that of noise, or something that inhibits or prevents a sender from successfully transmitting a message to a sender. However, Derrida points out that a virus “is something that is neither living nor nonliving,” and “a parasite which disrupts destination from the communicative point of view — disrupting writing, inscription, and the coding and decoding of inscription,” indicating how viruses can not only disable temporary communication, but the very path of communication itself. This explanation lends evidence to the maliciousness of computer viruses as dangerous threats.

The third use of the term virus extends beyond the biological or technical variety when a cultural object reaches an enormous audience simply by word of mouth, email or blog. Objects such as online videos become viral when widespread attention and popularity are achieved without commercial advertising. Viral media objects have become increasingly common as a result of various social networks such as Youtube and Facebook. The term viral marketing was used by Jeffrey Rayport in a 1996 article for Fast Company entitled “The Virus of Marketing.” Here, he stressed that objects are created so that the “target markets will re-transmit them as a part of their core interests.” Rayport contends that viruses do exactly what marketers attempt to do: make a large impact on your audience, in a cheap, quick and effortless method. The term was later invoked in 1997 to describe Hotmail’s e-mail practice of attaching inline self-advertising in all outgoing emails.

The societal implications of viral media transcend mere advertising tactics. Viral media as a phenomenon have since become an object of study and can be tracked in a variety of ways, such as Google Zeitgeist and Techmeme . These sources indicate that viral media offer a unique look at how ideas are “disseminated by the media and at how new concepts can be injected into the mainstream, altering views about critical social issues”3. Douglas Rushkoff suggests that this new “datasphere” is no longer controlled by the big media corporations anymore, but instead by average people with access to blogs and home video cameras. He suggests that the virus concept is not simply a metaphor for how the media works, but that media themselves are viruses. This seems fitting since some cultural topics replicate more than others. One example comes to mind of a video created on a minimal budget by a band trying to reach a broader audience than average musical outlets generally afford. The band Ok, Go shot a one take video on treadmills for ten dollars for their song “Here it goes again.” The video became the most downloaded music video ever with over 27 million downloads. The video is a typical example of how a simple cultural artifact becomes viral by surpassing its original intent (as a music video) and proceeds to enter into the public sphere of blogs, email, and cultural discussion in general. The object is then replicated by anyone who shares it with (or infects) someone else. As a cultural phenomenon, viral media can take on self-replicating lives of their own, and generate discussion and conversations across boundaries normally not crossed.

While the term virus began as a concept limited to human biology, it now typifies how computers are viewed in a human and living way. What initially referred to human processes, now extends to that of a human technological innovation: the computer. Viruses no longer merely indicate danger and threat, but now constitute a marketing success previously unimaginable. Instead of indicating a deadly disease, viral media can reflect a culture’s fascination and preoccupations. Viral media reveal the evolving shift occurring on the internet landscape where internet stars can be created in one’s backyard for a few dollars. In summary, the examination of virus across biology, computers, and media is paramount to media theory because it both challenges boundaries of the human body and electronic space as well as articulates movements of exchange and interference that can be either destructive or indicative of societal trends.

Daniel Collins


1 Origins of Biological Virus

2 Brunette, P., & Wills, D. (1994). Deconstruction and the visual arts : Art, media, architecture. Cambridge ; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press. Page 12.

3 Rushkoff, Douglas. Media Virus!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.


Brunette, P., & Wills, D. (1994). Deconstruction and the visual arts : Art, media, architecture. Cambridge ; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Rushkoff, Douglas. Media Virus!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.

Oxford English Dictionary