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Information gone viral [BETA]

“This is why twerking can be good for your health” (Now This on Facebook, 2016)
“You can control this wheelchair by pouting, smiling or sticking out your tongue” (AJ+ on Facebook, 2016)
“This new sports tracking device can diagnose concussions faster than ever before” (Now This Future on Facebook, 2016)
“Mirror can tell you if you didn’t work out” (Insider health on Facebook, 2016)
“The world’s largest hurricane simulator can recreate Category 5 storm conditions, and it’ll save lives” (UpWorthy, 2016)
“This virtual reality film will grant you telepathy” (Virtuality on Facebook, 2016)
“Math genius is the new face of Armani” (Insider Pop Culture on Facebook, 2016)

The above quotes are recent headlines collected from online media and news publications. Any social media user has run at least once into this type of item on their wall feeds. Such online publications are generally short videos or articles describing quirky subjects related to social life, travel, health, food, pop culture, art, design, or science. Relatable subjects are presented in a nutshell, easy to acknowledge when quickly scrolling down a feed. Design and science are often referred to in these bite-sized items, building either the body of the topic or a context that reinforces the truth-value of the article.

Content: everything is everything

Lifestyle bite-sized news recognises a certain bond between design, science, and common trust. Our current experienced reality is built on devices and technologies that stand at the basis of private and social life. Without these devices, many of our activities wouldn’t be possible. In the transition from natural to artificial, design and science have gradually become to be assumed as essential to the production of technology, thus of the experienced environment. For the last generations (List of Generations Chart), the way that early maturity was/is experienced encouraged a direct relation between people, design, and science. Born between the early ‘60s and ‘80s, Generation X embraced the first tech goods as bringers of physical comfort. Design has been the communicator that – through engineering – turns science into near reality. Generation Y, the ‘Millennials’ who were born between the early ‘80s to around 2000, grew up in increased tech communication and mobility. Here, design has been accepted as closer to science in redefining social identity. From the end of the 2000s on, the very little distinction left between natural and artificial opened the digitised environment for Generation Z (born between the mid-90s to early 2000s) to mature in, surrounded by ubiquitous high-tech outlets.

Virtually everything can be controlled with apps, data flows – and thus viral communication – encouraging an unprecedented exchange on every level. The way we report ourselves to the natural- artificial not only amplifies the movement of information but also reshapes behaviour. Online lifestyle channels respond: design is appealing to the large public because it turns progress into behaviour, whilst science is what the public trusts as the verifiable truth of the understood reality. Bite- sized lifestyle media makes use of these features as a relatable drive or reliable source. The proposition is that design and science identities allow these two disciplines to encompass everything: presenting a bioluminescent lamp in a short clip explains that the design part of the object is aided by biology research (Vimeo, 2015); a clip showcasing bionic limbs in a scientific lab (On Air PK on Facebook, 2016) is accepted when answering non-scientific questions.

Viral media uses design and science as umbrella-terms, its goal is to grab attention and entertain. However, just as the disciplinary borders of design and science are blurring, so do other borders. If design and science are portrayed as everything-containers, then everything contains them in turn, so everything has become a bit of everything.

While viral media responds to our familiarity with design and science, these disciplines, in turn, react to such communication flows. Beyond design and science increasingly working together (Journal of Design and Science, 2016), all creative frameworks are left looking at one another for further inspiration and relevance in a digitally entangled social system.

Speed: faster, faster, faster!

Depending on the media, an online post’s lifespan ranges between a few minutes and a few days. It’s difficult to state whether viral lifestyle news is either cause or consequence of content’s short lifespan. Similarly, it’s up for debate if the average human attention span has decreased due to intense exposure to online traffic, or if humanity simply has developed better multi-tasking skills. However, the speed of data movement demands plenty from the news. Online channels have to publish at the speed of consumption – even when nothing relevant happens. Topics must reach enough people in order to avoid bouncing. Lifestyle news is an answer to that and it’s meant to go viral.

The quotes given at the beginning of this article headline one-minute videos, assuring the viewer that there’s enough inspiring stuff out there for anyone to identify with. Be it that viewers find these short clips reassuring, enriching to their facts-and-figures knowledge or reinforcing of their beliefs, lifestyle items have the power to reach people and circulate between large demographics. They summarise activities that celebrate humanity. In all cases, the quirkiness of the topic is set on the notion that all humans can achieve greatness. One mom with no gym time challenges physical mobility standards (Insider Health on Facebook, 2016). Some guy teaches survival techniques by charging his phone on lemons (YouTube, 2016). A shortly summarised medical study explains that drinking coffee may prevent cancer (The Independent, 2016).

People you probably have never heard of before – nor you will ever again after a viral item – are discreetly invested with a scientific or design characteristic because of their curiosity and creativity. In the same terms, very shortly summarised design or science based studies may reveal something about your direct vicinity and behaviour.

As all information gets reduced to bite-size gone-viral formats, the truth-value of any item becomes too time-consuming to verify. There’s no room for exhaustive explanations in a few -minutes scroll- down trip through the Internet. Commonly trusted buzzwords such as ‘design’ and ‘science’ come in handy to provide that extra trust value to an item.

Truth or (dare) entertainment

Many viral news items may seem unbelievable. However, it’s commonly expected that such facts could be true since technology and innovation are omnipresent. It’s impossible to keep up with everything, so outlandish headlines like ‘Smelling farts may be good for your health’ (The Week, 2014) might as well be trusted.

Lifestyle-gone-viral-knowledge allows a fraction of the overall news to focus on inspiration in a cross-disciplinary setup. It allows large demographics to grow tangent to one another, and to the fields of design and science. The fact that everyone may relate to the courage and persuasion of a rehabilitation food truck (UpWorthy, 2015) or a woman living off the grid (YouTube, 2015) is encouraging; it gives people hope in trying – and eventually succeeding. Stimulating hope and potential engagement through lifestyle entertainment is good. But in a context where all humans are presented as special, can success and growth be infinite on a finite planet?

Viral news information is delivered on a microbial scale from the perspective of content and speed. Bite-sized news with design and science subtexts stimulates people to search more into all disciplines. This way, people can get accustomed to professional endeavours and their potential benefits. But compressed content delivered in such a format also forces certain premature conclusions in order to make big statements. That’s why one might end up drinking champagne every day after reading about the five reasons why champagne is healthy (Telegraph, 2015).

Many viral news items invoke years-long studies that at times remain incomplete, are not verified, or defy initial premises. While many viral items (or TV reports for that matter) stay fascinating and fairly true, others digress from the truth in the bite-size compression process. Media has the power to reach people and reaffirm their ego, but it also has the power to alter the message to make it compatible to the greater public. In the context of a blind man challenging himself story (UpWorthy on Facebook, 2016), nuance digression may pass unnoticed. But in the case of “how hugging makes you healthier” (Mercola, 2014) the same digression may be awkward. Scientific studies on oxytocin don’t even get close to prescribing such behaviour (Biological Psychiatry, 2016).

Design and science inspired viral items are educational to a certain extent. With the rate of online movement of knowledge, people wouldn’t stop on one extensive study about humanity’s progress anyway; not when even a longer-than-four-lines email is an undertaking. There is no fault in online publications wanting to be acknowledged. However, whilst viral content is flooding in all directions, think about bite-sized design and science subtext news as such: the human body hosts about 30 trillion bacteria (Biorxiv, 2016) that keep the body healthy and regular; when unbalanced many of them may cause infections or disease.