A few days ago I got a message from my brother on Myspace:
Subject: I want 12 and 15
Message: Tom is offering top 12 friends and 15 pictures to anyone who passes along this message. Send this message with "I want 12 and 15" in the subject line to everyone on your friends list within 15 minutes and Tom will change your profile to allow you to show your top 12 friends and 15 pictures! (the default settings only allow a user to show 8 favorite friends and 12 photos on their profile.)
Tom is one of the founders of Myspace, and with 44,368,809 friends, he is nominally the most popular person on the planet. The message was a hoax, and was deleted later in the day, but not before being spread by attentive Myspace users eager to get their picture allowance expanded by three. In the early days of email's popularity, chain letters were spread about Bill Gates needing to test the internet, offering $1000 in exchange for quick forwarding of his message to see how fast it could get around the world. In both cases there is a well known public figure offering a share in limited resources in exchange for the rapid spread of information. But Tom wasn't even supposed to be offering cash, just the chance to make *yourself more popular* by including more people in your favorites list and showing more photos.
There are two strange aspects to this: the first is that this kind of thing goes completely unnoticed in a forum like Myspace. The first thing users do when they fill out their profile is list their favorite music, books, movies, and TV shows. Those lists become clickable search terms that can be used to find other people who like the same things. The bulletin, (which goes out to all of the people on a user's friends list) and the comments, (where users leave messages on each other's pages that anyone who loads the page can view) are full of quotes from mass media and popular culture. Whole conversations take place in the comments that don't consist of anything other than quoted movie dialogue, or photoshopped screengrabs and animated gifs from TV. People are always posting links to quizzes: "Which character on 'Friends' are you?" "Which member of the Wu Tang Clan are you?", and chain letters circulate like tag through the bulletin and message boards: "Pass this on if you have a crush!" "Whoever breaks this chain will be cursed w/ relationship problems 4-10 years!" Tom uses the bulletin and his connections to push Myspace Records Vol 1. Interesting hoaxes like "I want 12 and 15" can easily get lost in the background noise.
It's like a weird corrollary to the old "information wants to be free" internet slogan: "cultural and media references want to be spread". The strangest aspect to all of this communication going on is the fact that most of it has no content. What is the point of constructing a hoax like "12 and 15"? It earns the person who originated it nothing but the satisfaction of having spread a virus, and watched it draw enough attention from the Myspace moderators to get deleted. Doug Rushkoff has written about these things as "Media Viruses", applying to marketing the work that was done earlier By Richard Dawkins on memes. A meme (rhymes with "dream") is the unit of cultural transmission and evolution, a counterpart to the gene. Rushkoff's insight, published in an excerpt from his newest book here, is this: "People don’t engage with each other in order to exchange viruses; people exchange viruses as an excuse to engage with each other." The content of the message *is* that other person's name showing up in your inbox. A tag, a shoutout, a flirt: the message or reference itself is just a means to that end.
Human Botnets I
Human Botnets II
Human Botnets IV
Human Botnets V