Can a medium be a genre? If we casually substitute genre for more general synonyms like category, class, or group, then the answer is “yes,” as demonstrated by the information architecture of online super-retailers like Amazon.com. Amazon subdivides its massive inventory first by medium, like “Books” or “Movies,” before incrementally working toward a finer degree of granularity. Taking books as our example medium, we can navigate by sub-genres to find a title in Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Adventure. But this understanding of genre-as-synonym largely ignores the more formal identification process performed within the established field of genre studies. Frow (2005) provides several structural dimensions to use when identifying genre, which include considerations of formal features, thematic structure and content, physical setting, and situation of address. For longer-established genres, like the sci-fi adventure book, say, we could easily recognize several of these dimensions and codify common elements together into a genre. However, do these dimensions provide the same ease of identification for emerging classifications of digital media, like the viral video?
Popular misconceptions, especially online, are often quick to describe any collection of related artifacts as a “genre,” and the discourse of Internet phenomena appears to be no different. As articlecity.com contributor John Heritage attempts to explain:
Viral video is hard to define, but it is quickly becoming its own genre. I had a college professor once, in an attempt to define poetry, say this: ‘Poetry is like pornography. It’s tough to define, but you know it when you see it.’ Substitute ‘Viral Video’ for ‘Poetry’ and you have a definition of the viral video genre worthy of Websters. (2009, para. 17)
Heritage does not elaborate or expand on this idea, and though he remains vague, his approach may have some merit for our task of genre identification. In the absence of more helpful and readily definable structural dimensions—structure of address, formal features, thematic content—that we could find in more traditional literary or film genres, we are forced to determine whether viral videos constitute a genre by looking at which videos have “gone viral” to see what, if anything, they have in common. These common elements are elusive, however, much to the consternation of those seeking to cash in on this digital phenomenon.
Because of their ability to reach a large audience from a grassroots approach, viral videos are of particular interest to marketing firms. And yet, a telling sign of why viral videos may not constitute a genre is the inability of marketing gurus to define a set of must-haves for producing a video that “goes viral,” gaining popularity on its own apparent volition. This doesn’t stop self-proclaimed Internet marketing experts from claiming they know what causes a clip to explode in popularity, using the language of virality as a metaphor to...