ESSAY- Going viral: Connecting to dots in the digital age

Bathed in the glow of my monitor, I'm swinging from one swine flu link to the next. With revved-up heartbeat, I scan the text as fast as I can, interrupting my husband's reading every now and again, as I come across a choice nugget of information.

"It says here that in 1918 ... are you listening?"

"Mm, hm." Harry's face is still in his book.

"It says that the people who got the flu during the first outbreak in the spring were the lucky ones, because it acted like a vaccination when the virus mutated into a wicked strong version a few months later."

He gives no appearance of being astonished by what I have found. So I follow with, "Isn't that something?"

"It's something." He doesn't even look up.

Undaunted, I leap ahead to the next shiny link. 

I'm thinking about chicken pox, and how I've heard of chicken pox parties that parents have for their kids, inviting a child who's infected, so they'll hurry up and get the disease, already, and be done with it. 

Should we have swine flu parties now, to infect ourselves with this mild strain of the flu in case it mutates into something stronger next fall? 

I consider running this idea by Harry, but unless I take the book out of his hands, grasp his chin and make him look up at me, I don't think I'll have his full attention. 

That's when it hits me: Oh my God, I'm enjoying this. 

We have an epidemic on the verge of becoming a pandemic: people sick, people dying. And here I am happily clicking around the Internet, my brain abuzz with ways to deal with this threat, enjoying the thrill. And enjoying the threat.

A less excitable person (for instance, the one I'm married to) informs himself, takes reasonable precautions, and gets on with his life– and his book.

Apparently, this works for him. But for me, tracking down information about something horrible like this– be it a pandemic, a threat to our freedom, or a hurricane– makes me feel connected, part of something bigger than myself.

I suspect this is the same emotional current that comes into play when we're headed toward a war: We all (okay not all of us, but enough of us) want to get caught up in it and unite against a common enemy. We're hungry to feel part of something larger. 

And it does, indeed, feel good when we turn our attention toward this shared threat. Feeling bad, together, feels good. Better than if the bad thing didn't exist at all. Sounds irrational, but there you are.

The feeling is, you might say, infectious, and I've got a full-blown case of it. Unlike my spouse, who appears to be immune from this particular form of viral obsession.

But may I say, in my defense, that this collective impulse– this emotional thrill that arises in people like me when something threatens us all– is an impulse that fosters group survival. If it didn't feel good, we'd all just turn away from it. We'd all just get back to work– or get lost in a book– and the hurricane or the enemy or the flu would bear down on us and wipe us out.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to the Internet– back to saving the human race.


Janis Jaquith once helped turn back a state move to kill a road maintenance station in Free Union.