Monday, May 17, 2010

The virus alert virus

Nowadays you (or at least I) rarely get emails forwarded from family members and people you barely know, with ten screenfuls of other people's email addresses at the top showing a long chain of forwardings, and a breathlessly panicked subject line about the latest terrifying computer virus. But it used to be common (at the same time as you often got other mass-forwarded emails with other things, like banal "inspirational" poems). I'm not sure why this went out of fashion. My rose-colored glasses aren't thick enough for me to imagine that people got wiser about either how viruses work, or how mass-forward emails worked; more likely, they moved this to other media (people are probably mass-forwarding twitters and Facebook updates now, though I don't see the virus scares on Facebook, so maybe not), or they just took me out of their mass forwarding.

Back when it was common, I would dutifully look up the relevant facts on Snopes, Mcafee, or other sites, and send back the inevitable "this is a hoax" message, but there was no joy in it. The person who sent it out always came back feeling stung and defensive, insisting that they were just playing "better safe than sorry," and at best, unapologetically blind to the fact that indiscriminate panic actually undermined that safety. I might also try to explain how, the moment they sent that email, they were sitting in front of the largest, easiest-to-use, and most up-to-date library of information ever compiled by mankind, so isn't it sad they couldn't spare a few Googleseconds to check on something before forwarding it? This rarely won me any converts.

Once in a while, though, I would try to explain something to them just because the idea tickled me so much, even though I could never get it across. The idea is this: that warning is itself a virus. It's not the computer virus that lives in a computer, and tricks the computer into helping it make copies of itself in other files or on other computers. Instead, it's the kind of virus that lives in a person's mind, and tricks the person into helping it make copies of itself through email to other people's minds. A meme-virus, in other words. So in the effort to help stop viruses they were actually becoming the mechanism of spreading what was effectively, at the time, the most widespread, most successful "computer" virus in existence.

I suppose it's just the self-referentiality of it that amuses me. But the fact that I don't think I ever once successfully explained this to any of the perpetrators, to the point where they really got it, kept it fresh. I always wanted to find the three-sentence explanation that was clear enough that it would lead to that a-ha! moment, but I never found it. And now, those virus alerts have gone all but extinct, so it's a challenge I never will meet.

Of course, whenever I was trying to explain it to them, wasn't I just creating a virus alert "virus alert meme" meme? Unfortunately, this meme never took root, so it couldn't propogate. Good thing, because then this very paragraph might have spawned the virus alert "virus alert 'virus alert meme' meme" meme...

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