Going Viral!

Many posts to Facebook and other social media are said to be “Going Viral” when their view counts are rapidly increasing. What is the essential attribute of a virus that distinguishes it from other phenomena? Bacteria and nuclear chain reactions can have exponential growth, just as viruses do. What distinguishes a virus from bacteria is that a virus lacks a replication mechanism and must infect other organisms in order to reproduce. The viral DNA or RNA (for a retrovirus) has enough information to hijack the nucleus of the victim organism and then to replicate itself.

Why say it is going viral as opposed to going bacterial or nuclear? How about a nuclear chain reaction? We should use the term “exponential growth”.

A linear growth rate could be 1, 2, 3, 4 or 10, 20, 30, 40. An exponential growth rate could be 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, etc., doubling every so often.

It would be more accurate to say something is growing exponentially.

A computer virus program that infects a computer and uses the facilities of that computer’s operating system to send the infection to other computers is a good analogy for a virus. The virus might use the local email address book to select where to send copies of the virus. The virus propagation might grow linearly or exponentially. A virus that arrives as an email attachment could be mislabeled as something innocent (innocent.txt) but when clicked would be executed because it is a program (virus.exe). Do not click on unknown attachments!

The coronavirus infections are growing but it would be redundant to say a virus is going viral. The news reporters are saying it has exponential growth. This is a self-correcting instance. I wonder if the “going viral” idiom will fade away.