How “going viral” became a meme

This surprisingly old expression has taken on new meaning in the age of NFTs
March 3, 2022

Last September, a non-fungible token (NFT) of Side Eyeing Chloe—a toddler giving her mother a disapproving look when told she was going to Disneyland—was bought by a music company for $74,000. A video of a little boy high on ketamine, David After Dentist, fetched $11,500. A photo of Disaster Girl, a four-year-old looking over her shoulder with an evil smile while a house burns in the background, sold for $500,000. “People who are in memes and go viral is one thing, but just the way the internet has held on to my picture and kept it viral, kept it relevant, is so crazy to me. I’m super grateful for the entire experience,” Disaster Girl Zöe Roth, now 21 years old, told the New York Times.

Stored using blockchain technology, and traded online using cryptocurrency, NFTs began in 2017. Most of the highest earning NFTs rely on social media to set their value—the more viral a digital asset becomes, the higher its value. So how viral is viral? To fetch a decent price, you need at least five million likes or views. You get the most money if people take your image and make it their own—Disaster Girl was photoshopped thousands of times onto different disasters (the Hindenburg blowing up, the atomic bomb, Britney Spears doing a calamitous performance).

The word viral, pertaining to a virus, is younger than you might expect, first appearing in 1948. The expression going viral is older than you might think. It was coined before the internet took off, in the 1980s, by marketing managers who came up with the novel idea of relying on customers to spread information about a product. Why invest millions in an advertising campaign when your customers could spread the message for you? By 1995, when the world wide web was adopted into broader public usage, viral marketing had found its dream habitat, and the rest is history. The expression going viral has begun to be replaced by becoming a meme. Hence, the people who have sold their viral videos and images as NFTs all say, “I became a meme” rather than “I went viral.” In the world of NFTs and cryptocurrency, it seems you need to be a countable noun, and memes that sell for thousands of dollars are countable indeed.