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What it means when things 'go viral' on the Web

How did we end up with a disease metaphor to refer to the way information travels through society?

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One of the silver linings about an awful event like superstorm Sandy is the contact with friends and family at a distance who get in touch to make sure you're OK.

But distance distorts, and people far away don't always have an accurate picture of just what's happening where.

One street on the other side of town from me near Boston had the misfortune to see two big trees come crashing down, each onto a different house. After the pictures of the scene were picked up widely and "went viral," as they say, I had a call from a California friend worried that big trees were crashing down everywhere around me.

Closer to the heart of the action, in New York, a hero to emerge from Sandy's aftermath was Lydia Callis, sign-language interpreter for New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She didn't say a word, but she upstaged the mayor at his own press briefings. His Honor was the very embodiment of "keep calm and carry on," warning New Yorkers to stay off the streets, to avoid making nonemergency calls to 911, and so on, with only an occasional wave of the hand out from behind his lectern.

But Ms. Callis's telling of the story, as she stood at his side, interpreting it all into sign language, made it all seem much more exciting and heroic. She soon found her fan base, including a Facebook group called Lydia Calas [sic] Can Destroy Hurricane Sandy With Her Bare Hands, and a parody on "Saturday Night Live." She was proclaimed a "viral star" of the superstorm.


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