VIRAL seminar. Programme 2022-23

During the 2022-2023 academic year, the VIRAL seminar will continue to focus on the many ways we may think about online virality and analyse the circulation of born-digital content. 
The seminar will offer an interdisciplinary overview of virality, digital cultures, circulations and traces. It includes three main presentation types: analysis of corpora, methodological considerations, and historical or socio-technical approaches.

The seminar will take place approximately once a month, and all sessions will be held from 17:00 to 18:30 (Paris time).

If you would like to register for one or more sessions, please email


  • Thursday 22 September 2022, 5.00 pm-6.30 pm (remote session) 

“Viral journalism, is it a thing? Strategies, tactics, concerns” by Anastasia Denisova (University of Westminster, London)

If memes and gifs can reach millions of people, would it be useful for journalism to employ similar formats to engage the audience? Different from clickbait and marketing, viral journalism means diversifying content and understanding emotions. Quality media in the UK (think The Economist, Times, Financial Times etc.) are trying viral technics – but can they turn against the master?

Discussant: Valérie Schafer (C2DH, University of Luxembourg)

  • Friday 18 November 2022, 5.00 pm-6.30 pm (remote session)

“From Busting Cults to Breeding Cults: Anonymous Hacktivism vs. QAnon” by Gabriella Coleman (Harvard University, USA, and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society)

First emerging from the anonymous imageboard 4chan, Anonymous found its activist sea legs in 2008 during a worldwide protest campaign against the Church of Scientology. Not long after, Anonymous surged in visibility and popularity as hackers used the name to lay claim to high-profile hacktivist actions. Other groups and individuals used it to coordinate dozens of political operations, often supporting social justice movements. A decade later, after Anonymous activity waned, different movements and currents, like the anonymous far-right and the conspiracy theorists QAnon had sprung forth from similar anonymous imageboards. Like Anonymous, these movements and currents played integral, even outsized roles in various political arenas. In contrast to Anonymous, they often worked against the cause of social justice and, in its stead, supported reactionary, racist, conspiratorial or fascist political planks. How are we to understand this radical metamorphosis and the relationships between these currents and movements? In this talk, I will examine the role of critical events, translators, and larger political forces in accounting for their differences and address issues around anonymity, the difficulties in researching anonymous quarters of the internet, and popular journalistic accounts in meshing together aspects of these movements that should be pried apart. In so doing, I will make a case for careful historical analysis in media studies work and to call for the end of a class of categories, like Internet activism, that fails to capture the dynamics and importance of online tools for political movements today.

Discussant: Antonio A. Casilli (Institut-Telecom Paris, France)

  • Wednesday 7 December 2022, 5.00 pm-6.30 pm (hybrid session, on site at the Aquarium, 4th floor of MSH, and online)

“Semiotics of virality, 2013-2023: An appraisal” by Gabriele Marino (University of Turin, Italy) 

The presentation reconstructs the origins of the notion of “contagion” within social sciences in the late XIXth century, the notion of “meme” within cultural evolutionism due to biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 and the rise and spread of this metaphor in public discourse, with special attention to marketing between 1990s and 2000s; the myth of a “formula of virality” was elaborated within digital marketing in these years. By “Internet memes” we identify pieces of media that spread online “virally”, being mainly playful catchphrases, captioned pictures and videos. Semiotics may help in the systematic understanding of such cultural contents; it is possible to: distinguish between the viral spread (of a single ready–made content; i.e. token) and the memetic, or hypertextual (in a Genettean sense), one (the practice of creating new contents on the basis of a pre–existing model; i.e. type); articulate their components through the semantic (featuring a figurative, striking element), syntactic (featuring a template) and pragmatic (users may appropriate contents in different ways and according to different degrees of agency, for different purposes) dimensions; shed new light on the ways we interact on social media (stressing the phatic function and identity value of communication). There is no such a thing as a “formula of virality”; in fact, virality itself embraces the forms of formulaic communication, wherein each single user may express themselves idiosyncratically: by either letting themselves being “infected” or contrasting broadcasted messages, in order to participate in the flow of online discourse.

Discussant: Albin Wagener (Université Rennes 2, France) 

  • Tuesday 17 January 2023, 5.00 pm-6.30 pm (hybrid session in French, on site at the Aquarium, 4th floor of MSH, and online)

“La mémétique des chats nazis : humour décalé au service du racisme ou de l’antiracisme ?” by Justine Simon (Université de Franche-Comté, France)

Dans la double dynamique des travaux portant sur l’analyse du discours numérique et la culture participative numérique, l’objectif de cette étude vise à comprendre les différentes formes de réinterprétations du nazisme au prisme des chatons mignons. Le caractère viral des publications de chats sur les réseaux socionumériques n’est plus à démontrer. Mais il est plus difficile d’imaginer la masse d’images de chats associés au nazisme circulant sur ces espaces soi-disant démocratiques. Un corpus de 446 publications a été construit à partir de Twitter, Instagram et TikTok pour analyser ces formes d’anthropomorphismes. Accompagnées des hashtags #Chadolf ou #Kitler, des images fixes, des iconotextes ou encore de formes remixées plus élaborées (pratique du mashup sur TikTok) représentent des images de chats à la petite moustache noire et/ou à la patte avant-droite levée. Les chats nazis font partie d’une pratique mémétique caractérisée par le partage d’images reprises telles quelles (principe de réplication) et par la réappropriation de visuels déclinés de manière plus ou moins créative (principe de variation). L’assimilation au personnage d’Adolf Hitler, au salut nazi et au nazisme de manière plus globale nous interpelle fortement : s’agit-il d’humour ironique dénonçant le racisme (engagement antiraciste et lutte implicite contre les discriminations) ou au contraire d’engagement idéologique affirmé (pratique raciste voire néo-nazie) ? La dimension humoristique des mèmes est parfois difficile à saisir : était-ce juste une blague ou le chat est-il un moyen implicite de banaliser le racisme et la haine ? Dans un contexte sociopolitique national et international marqué par la montée des idées d’extrême droite, une analyse approfondie apparaît essentielle pour saisir les enjeux de ces pratiques sociodiscursives participatives.

Discussant : Gian Maria Torre (University of Luxembourg) 

  • Tuesday 7 February 2023, 5.00 pm-6.30 pm (hybrid session, on site at the Aquarium, 4th floor of MSH, and online) 

” ‘Based and redpilled’: The weaponization of online discourse” by Daniël De Zeeuw (University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

From so-called “meme magic” and “redpilling” to “dog whistles” and the “Overton window”, radical right-wing users of platforms like 4chan and Reddit operate on various assumptions of how language works online: how, why, and where it takes root, evolves, and spreads across platforms, and by doing so may influence people (their ways of thinking, ideological attitudes, and ultimately their behavior). But beyond a general understanding of language as strategic, there is no consensus (on the part of users as well as academic researchers) as to why or how language can play this role. For example, will the use of the term “globalist” by the mainstream media prepare the general “normie” public to accept right-wing conspiratorial and antisemitic talking points down the line? Or will this instead neutralize the term’s radical contents by being detached from its original discursive context? In this seminar we will discuss how users of 4chan and Reddit imagine (and discuss among themselves) the ideological workings of vernacular discourse in a complex digital ecosystem. To this end, I will present a digital methods-based genealogy of the slang term “based” that became a staple of the Alt-right in the mid-2010s.

Discussant: Nelly Quemener (CELSA, Sorbonne-Université, France)

  • Tuesday 21 March 2023, 5.00 pm-6.30 pm (hybrid session, on site at the Aquarium, 4th floor of MSH, and online) 

” ‘Meme-ing’ social resilience in Northern Ireland: exploring the everyday politics of internet memes about the Belfast riots of December 2012 and April 2021″ by Martin Lundqvist (Lund University, Sweden)

This study is concerned with how the 2012 and 2021 Belfast riots are represented and made sense of in everyday life; with a specific focus on how social resilience is fostered (or hindered) through internet memes about said political violence. While a substantial amount has already been written about everyday practices in conflict-ridden Belfast there remains a significant research gap on how online, everyday, narratives represent and make sense of the recent outbursts of sectarian violence there, and what the implications of these narratives are for the building of social resilience in the city. This is problematic as it is increasingly acknowledged by scholars that online practices may be both a driver of disinformation and polarisation, as well as a tool for building more socially resilient societies. The present study addresses this lacuna through an in-depth exploration of how the recent Belfast riots are represented in internet memes; and how these memes are in turn made sense of – and potentially acted upon – by the city’s inhabitants.

Discussant : Michael Kurzmeier (University of Cork, Ireland)

The VIRAL seminar is organised by Fred Pailler and Valérie Schafer at the C²DH (University of Luxembourg). It is part of the HIVI research project about the history of online virality (, funded by the FNR – C20/SC/14758148).