Every so often, something happens that just makes you think about the world we live in today—this brave new net-connected world, a billion keyboards and screens tied together with filaments of light. It’s such a remarkable system for putting people in touch with other people, or disseminating the news moments after it happens. And the dissemination isn’t just one-way, either; we have search-engines and news aggregators to let us reach out and find what we want on our own. There’s just so much information out there, and it travels so fast.

But this rapidity can have unexpected consequences, as a friend of mine found out the other day when he posted about a bad experience he’d had on his way to work that morning to his LiveJournal. He was basically just letting off some frustration to his friends (that’s what most personal LiveJournals (including my own) are used for, after all—posting events in your life for your friends and family to see, sort of your own personal me-newsletter) and chronicling the ways in which he found his home being changed by new political realities. He didn’t expect anyone outside his circle of friends to be interested in his bad day that morning, and he certainly didn’t expect what followed. Someone passed the URL of his journal entry on to a widely-read journal, some of its members passed the link on to other places, and before he knew it he was the lead story on BoingBoing and spattered across Metafilter and a variety of other journals and blogs (including this one). Startled and chagrinned by this unexpected (and unwanted) fame, my friend elected not to make any more public LJ posts for a while.

My friend had been completely unaware of this when he posted the tale, but his story struck several major “geek chords”—that is, it hit some particular hot-buttons readers of those sites share—and it was the sort of thing that those people would see and immediately want to spread the word. And since it was a public post, well…they did. (I’m only surprised he didn’t hit Slashdot…but then, given how long Slashdot’s article-approval process tends to take, maybe he did and it just hasn’t shown up yet.) And this is the unexpected consequence of our speed-of-light ‘net: it is possible to have a bad experience in the morning, and be a minor Internet celebrity for it by the evening of the same day.

But the Internet is all about this kind of spread of ideas. Not usually on such a startling scale, but we interact with it in a million small ways every day. Read very many LiveJournal entries and you’ll invariably come across somebody putting a web quiz into their journal. What character in a particular book or movie are you most like, what kind of personality do you have, what is the placement of your LJ friends on a graphical chart, and so on. (And I’m as guilty as the rest in this respect.) Often called “memes” after evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins’s writings, these are little ideas that get passed on because people just think they’re neat and want to take part in them, and then other people see them and pass them on.

Seth Godin, in his book Unleashing the Ideavirus, calls this sort of thing—a story or idea that people want to spread—an “ideavirus.” The book is all about how to use them in marketing, from a marketroid’s perspective, but it’s still quite fascinating; Godin was among the first to recognize and write an organized book about the spread of ideas in the Internet era. “Ideaviruses” have always been around, but the Internet gave them the first really effective means to spread rapidly—which caused them to catch the eye of marketroids. (After all, if there’s anyone who has a professional stake in studying and explicating how ideas spread, it’s the marketroids.)

The first “ideavirus” marketing gimmicks were things like Internet greeting cards, referral links on websites, and and beamable apps on PDAs, but recent years have seen them expand into complicated projects like the recent AI and Halo 2 webgames that form entire communities around investigating and learning stories that are in some way related to the product being advertised.

Back when USENET was the primary medium of discussion on the Internet, it was harder for ideaviruses to spread. Messages on a USENET group were ephemeral and hard to find amid all the other messages, and the process of accessing USENET was somewhat arcane to the uninitiated. Websites required more expertise than the average person had, so while they could be a source of ideas, they didn’t usually participate in the spread of them so much. However, with the dawn of the blog (and now even Seth Godin has one) and blog search engines and trackback and so on, even the average person could have his own printing press…and millions do. And most of those presses seem to be largely devoted to echoing what other presses have already said. Thanks to the weblog, a viral idea can be more contagious than ever before.

Dawkins’s original definition of a “meme” was that it was a building block of ideas in much the same way a gene is a building block of life. With that in mind, it would not be stretching a point too far to suggest that whenever we sit down and write, stringing ideas together into a coherent thesis, we are engaging in “memetic engineering.” What my friend found out is that, just as an act of genetic engineering might accidentally create a virus, an act of memetic engineering can accidentally create an ideavirus.

There is a “bright side,” however (at least for my publicity-shunning friend): just as an ideavirus can spread at Internet speeds, it can also die out the same way if no action is taken to keep it alive. As stories age off the sites that once posted them at the top, readers move on to other, newer stories (that themselves spread at Internet speed) and forget the old. If we all used to have our “15 minutes of fame,” now it’s closer to 15 seconds.

Collectively, we are voracious consumers of information; it’s just in our natures. We try to find out more about the things that interest us, and then knowing more, we want to tell others what we know, and they want to find out just as much as we want to tell them. And then we move on to other interests. The Internet didn’t invent this process, but it sure did speed it up.