Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures

Keywords: phatic communion, social media, virality, memes, meaning, function, identity


There is a long tradition in which ‘phatic’ forms of interaction are seen as (and characterized by) relatively low levels of ‘information’ and ‘meaning’. Yet, observations on social media interaction patterns show an amazing density of such phatic interactions, in which signs are shared and circulated without an a priori determination of the meaning. We address the issue of ‘virality’ in this paper: the astonishing speed and scope with which often ‘empty’ (i.e. not a priori determined) signs circulate online. We address ‘memes’—signs that have gone viral on the internet—as cases in point. Virality as a sociolinguistic phenomenon raises specific issues about signs, meanings, and functions, prompting a shift from ‘meaning’ to ‘effect’. This effect, we can see, is conviviality: the production of a social-structuring level of engagement in loose, temporal, and elastic collectives operating in social media environments.