Memes, spam, nodes and moods: Dr Tony D. Sampson on creating super–clusters of attention
The GMC course welcomed visiting researcher – Dr Tony D. Sampson, Reader in Digital Culture at the University of East London, co-editor with Jussi Parikka of The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn and Other Anomalies from the Dark Side of Digital Culture (2009) and author of a new book Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (2012). Our postgraduates got to grips with some new and challenging critical thinking around neuro-culture, attentional marketing, global protest and crowds, contagion on and offline, ‘pass on power’ and the vulnerabilities built into robust networks. Sampson was adept at drawing together a wide and inter-disciplinary range of theories and methodological thinking to create a new framework for tackling the ways in which the social is made and assembled in our increasingly attention-capturing economies. From Tarde, Bergson and Baran to Deleuze, Foucault and Stiegler, Sampson took us on a journey through difficult terrain to show us how propositions such as ‘nudge’ theory, geographies of mood, meme marketing and happenstance viralities emerge and gain ground both in terms of business strategies and political discourse. Our postgraduates come from 19 different countries and bring with them a wealth of experience of working and living in communications and media landscapes, ecologies and environments that are increasingly connected to each other. Sampson was able to explore succinctly the centralised, decentralised and distributed networks of communication (Baran) that afford (or not) connectivity, allowing us to reflect upon our local experiences.
Fundamentally, Sampson asked us to understand the social as never given but always being made and this allowed us to reflect upon our roles, agency and activities in that making of the social. At the same time, Sampson highlighted the different ways in which hierarchies of networks are produced: super clusters and super nodes of attention that produce aristocratic networks that may look more like a decentralized network than the distributed vision that cyberculture theory may have promised us in the 1990s. Oprah Winfrey was a good example of a super node! The GMC postgraduates come from a variety of different experiences of communications histories and practices that do not always follow these patterns of development, so it will be interesting to see what they find applicable in their own local contexts.
Sampson’s presentation of his new thinking allowed us the time to unpack his ideas on virality and digital contagion which was useful for engaging in the areas we are studying: spreadability of media, the politics of fear and anxiety around online culture, the attention economies many of our students have been, are, or will be employed within, and our own desire to tackle inequalities through new communication paradigms. Our students were interested in Sampson’s take on web analytics, how the arts and sciences can work together on these issues, and whether we should continue to fight for a distributed network. There were lots of references to Nigel Thrift’s work in the session and the students learned a good deal about the relationship between media, emotion, affect and the biological. We all went away wondering whether we were sleep-walking our way through the spreadability of media content or whether we were awake and alert to what Sampson defined as the ‘mechanisms of capture.’ For more on Dr Tony D. Sampson’s work then visit his blog.