“Chilled Out ‘Lazy Cat’ Goes Viral” read a recent Huffington Post headline.
This use of the term “viral” is now commonplace, i.e., something that suddenly becomes very popular and circulates quickly from person to person, especially across the Internet. Viral marketing, viral videos, viral political messages, viral cute cat pictures… They all share the common metaphor of a virus: first catch the virus, then spread the virus.
It is ironic that businesses and others have embraced this concept so completely, since it brings to mind some the worst stereotypes of business practices:
A virus takes over a host cell’s creative capacity and uses it to make copies of itself and perpetuate itself, usually at the expense of the host. Do big chain stores entering small towns spring to mind? Or the fact that you can’t go anywhere in the world without seeing a McDonald’s?
I’m usually a fan of using nature analogies as a way to free one’s imagination to consider new strategies or organizational structures. But this one leaves me, well, a little sick. (Pun intended!)
There’s no question that viruses are one of the most successful parts of our web of life. But is that how you want your enterprise to be thought of? Half parasite, half disease? I doubt it. We all like thinking that we create a positive value in the world. Are there better analogies than viruses?
My favorite is the lowly mitochondria.
Rather than taking over a cell, mitochondria put themselves in service to the cell, providing an energy source so that the cell can be more successful in its own endeavors. The mitochondria only gets to the next generation if the cell gets to the next generation. The relationship is not parasitic; it’s symbiotic.
To me, this is a much more interesting metaphor for inventive enterprise strategies and structures: putting the enterprise in service to people, planet and other enterprises that are doing the same.
I just wish “mitochondria” wasn’t such a mouthful. It would be easier to talk about if it were only a couple syllables long.
Why did “virus” get all the luck…