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Tony D Sampson

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British critical theorist Tony D Sampson. Photo by Jamie Murray permission granted

Tony D Sampson (born 1964) is a British critical theorist and philosopher of media technology who has published extensively on digital media cultures. He is best known for his widely cited and debated academic publications on virality and network contagion. His work is influenced by the 19th century French sociologist, Gabriel Tarde and concerns contemporary analyses of viral phenomena and affective and emotional contagion on the Internet. He has also published books, chapters and articles on neurocultures, affect philosophy and social media.

Current Debates and Comment on Sampson's Virality Thesis[edit | edit source]

In 2012 Sampson published the book Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks, which is described by the media theorist and author Eduardo Navas in a Huffington Post review as “an important interdisciplinary contribution to the understanding of network cultures.”[1] Since its publication, Sampson’s Virality thesis has been “widely discussed” due to its revaluation of the "too much connectivity thesis" and focus instead on "assemblages of affective encounter."[2] Sampson's Virality is a theory of universal contagion that challenges theories, like memetics, that rely on metaphorical and analogical references to biological epidemics to explain social and cultural contagion. For example, in an analysis of how the ice-bucket challenge spread pervasively on social media, marketing researcher and author George Rossolatos uses Sampson’s revival of Tardean sociology, and the "coinage of the virality perspective," to argue for “a more nuanced understanding of how memes propagate in the current networked economy of signs.”[3]

Others have used Sampson's Virality thesis to discuss political contagion. Looking at the case of so-called Obama Love (or Hope) during the 2008 US election of Barak Obama, Laurie Gries' new materialist book on political rhetoric draws on Sampson’s “explications of Tarde’s social epidemiological diagram” to show how Obama Hope “exert[ed] an indirect mesmeric and magnetic force that attracts various entities into relation and induces imitative encounters.”[4] Similarly, in her book Obama is Brazilian, Emanuelle Oliveira-Monte singles out what Sampson calls the “empathic virality of love” mobilized by the Obama campaign to explain the “universal appeal” of Obama himself.[5]

Sampson’s work on Tarde is further discussed in the context of social media. In his work on Facebook, for example, Tero Karppi from the University of Toronto notes how Sampson's use of Tarde to think about subjectivity points to a “convergence in our current social media landscape... [that stresses the] semi-conscious nature of human subjects that ‘sleepwalk through everyday life mesmerized and contaminated by the fascinations of their social environment’ (Sampson, 2012: 13)."[6]

In the area of film theory, Selmin Kara uses Sampson's Virality thesis to set out an "interpretive framework for understanding how documentary hooliganism operates" virally on the Internet. Looking at the possibilities of a viral artivist movement, she describes how ‘affective contagious encounters’ among anonymous crowds, in the artivist practices of Ai Weiwei and Turkish protesters point to the potential of unruly forms of documentation to influence and inspire self-organized mobilization."[7]

In their book, Risk and Hyperconnectivity: Media and Memories of Neoliberalism, Andrew Hoskins and John Tulloch note how Sampson’s work on media and financial contagion adds a “critical kick in the tail” to an old form of media and cultural studies that previously emphasized public empowerment through access to media.[8] As an alternative, Hoskins and Tulloch cite Sampson's discussion on herd instinct and his use of Tarde’s figure of the somnambulist (the sleepwalker) to alternatively describe human users of media systems as mostly docile.[8]

Others have used and adapted Sampson's Virality thesis to support discussions on contagions of new media idiocy,[9] alcohol and drug use,[10] online emotion,[11] viral memorials,[12] Kony 2012, [13] the politics of the selfie,[14] "Je suis Charlie" [15] and so on.

Criticism of Virality[edit | edit source]

Sampson’s use of Tarde to explain the somnambulistic viral tendencies of the contemporary social media user have been critiqued by a number of authors in various fields of study. Christian Borch, for example, notes that the “central theoretical gain from Tarde’s sociology” according to Sampson, “lies it its ‘radical questioning of what constitutes social subjectivity’ and in its ‘concept of an agentless, half-awake subjectivity, nudged along by the force of relational encounter with contaminating events’ (Sampson, 2012: 12, 13),”[16] But Borch argues that Sampson’s work needs to be seen as part of one just account of Tarde that is “too narrow in [its] interpretation of Tarde’s notion of individuality.”[16] Likewise, Lisa Blackman locates Sampson’s contagion theory of subjectivity as an example of an “assumption” in new materialist approaches in which “the phenomenologically experiencing subject is replaced by brain or body, underpinned by a variety of neurophysiological concepts.”[17]

Body of Work[edit | edit source]

Sampson has published extensively on digital media cultures in academic journals, books and chapters in edited collections (see selected reading below). Before publishing Virality, he co-edited the radical new media collection The Spam Book[18] with the Finnish new media theorist, Jussi Parikka, in 2009.[19] In 2016 he returned to Tarde's somnambulist in The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture (2016)[20] which calls for a radical critical theory of neuroculture that operates in the disciplinary interferences between philosophy, science, art, and politics. In a review of this book for the journal AI & Society, Tero Karppi describes how the brain becomes the main figure of Sampson’s work because its "potential is harnessed in our contemporary culture of capitalism." [21]

The theoretical convergence and divergences between Sampson's Assemblage Brain and N. Katherine Hayles' Unthought: The Power Of The Cognitive Nonconscious also form part of a prolonged digital humanities dialogue between the two authors,[22] described by Gregory J. Seigworth, as "theoretically rich...[and] "offer[ring] a more widely conceptualized world of the “doings” for affect studies."[22]

In 2018 Sampson published a second co-edited book on social media (with Darren Ellis and Stephen Maddison). Affect and Social Media: Emotion, Mediation, Anxiety and Contagion[23] draws on the Affect and Social Media conferences Sampson hosts in east London and brings together leading scholars from across disciplinary boundaries to conceptualise radical movements of mediated sociality. Finnish Professor of Media Studies, Susanna Paasonen, describes the work as "a thought-provoking, occasionally scary, and thoroughly fascinating exploration into the complex networked intensities within which we operate."[24] The book includes discussion on the controversial Facebook emotional contagion experiment.

Education and Career[edit | edit source]

Sampson has a PhD in contagion theory from the Sociology Department at the University of Essex in the UK. He is a former art student who re-entered higher education in the UK as a mature student in the mid-1990s after working as a musician in the 1980s. His career in education has moved through various disciplines and departments, including a maths and computing faculty, sociology department and school of digital media and design.[25]

Sampson hosts the Affect and Social Media conferences in East London, an annual interdisciplinary event that brings together internationally known researchers and postgraduate students interested in the nonconscious, emotional, affective and feely aspects of social media interaction.[26] He is on the editorial board of the US based affect philosophy journal Capacious and reviews books and journal articles for major academic publishers in the US and Europe. Sampson currently works at the University of East London as a Reader in Digital Cultures and Communications.

Public Engagement[edit | edit source]

Sampson's activities with the public engagement initiatives, Club Critical Theory and the Cultural Engine Research Group, include co-organizing large conferences with local government authorities and community groups, community focused events on policy, collaborations with arts groups, and informal lectures/workshops in pubs and community centres.[27]

Areas of Expertise[edit | edit source]

Digital Media Cultures

Social Media

Virality/Viral Culture/Viral Phenomenon

Critical Theory

Gabriel Tarde

Affective and Emotional Contagion Theory

Human Computer Interaction

User Experience


Media Philosophy

Assemblage Theory

Affect Theory

Public Engagement

Selected Bibliography[edit | edit source]


Jussi Parikka and Tony D Sampson (eds.) The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn and Other Anomalies from the Dark Side of Digital Culture, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2009. ISBN 9781572739161

Tony D Sampson, Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks, University of Minnesota Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0816670055

Tony D Sampson, The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture, University of Minnesota Press, Dec, 2016. ISBN 978-1-5179-0117-2

Rizosfera: Digital Neuroland. An Interview with Tony D. Sampson (Creative Commons, Rhizonomics – RZN002, 2017) in English and Italian.

Tony D Sampson, Darren Ellis and Stephen Maddison (eds.) Affect and Social Media:Emotion, Mediation, Anxiety and Contagion, Rowman and Littlefield International, July 2018. ISBN 978-1-78660-439-2

Book Chapters

“Cosmic Topologies of Imitation: From the Horror of Digital Autotoxicus to the Auto-Toxicity of the Social,” in Autoimmunities. Editors: Stefan Herbrechter and Michelle Jamieson, Routledge, 2018.

“Tap My Head and Mike My Brain: Neuromarketing and Addiction,” in Are We All Addicts Now? Editors: Vanessa Bartlett and Henrietta Bowden-Jones, Liverpool University Press, 2017.

“The Self-Other Topology: The Politics of [User] Experience in the Age of Social Media” in Boundaries of Self & Reality Online: Implications of Digitally Constructed Realities. Editor: Jayne Gackenbach, Elsevier, 2016.

“Interview with Tony D. Sampson” in The Birth of Digital Populism. Crowd, Power and Postdemocracy in the 21st Century, Obsolete Capitalism Free Press, 2015.

“Contagion Theory: Beyond the Microbe,” Critical Digital Studies: A Reader, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker (eds.), University of Toronto Press, 2013.

With Jussi Parikka, “Learning from Network Dysfunctionality: Accidents, Enterprise and Small Worlds of Infection” The Blackwell Companion to New Media Dynamics, Hartley, Burgess and Bruns (eds.), Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

“Error-Contagion: Network Hypnosis and Collective Culpability,” Error: Glitch, Noise, and Jam in New Media Cultures, Mark Nunes (ed.), New York, London: Continuum, 2010.

With Lugo and Lossanda, “A Prospective Analysis of the Video Games Industry in Latin America: From Banana Republic to Donkey Kong,” FILE: Electronic Language International Festival 10 Years Commemorative Book, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2010.

With Jussi Parikka, “On Anomalous Objects: An Introduction,” in The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn and Other Anomalies From the Dark Side of Digital Culture, Parikka and Sampson (eds.), Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp. 1-18, 2009.

“How Networks Become Viral: Three Questions Concerning Universal Contagion,” in The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn and Other Anomalies From the Dark Side of Digital Culture, Parikka and Sampson (eds.), Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp. 39-59; 2009.

Journal Articles

"Unthought Meets the Assemblage Brain: A Dialogue Between N. Katherine Hayles and Tony D. Sampson." Capacious Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry, Vol. 1(2), 2018.

“Transitions in HCI: From the Information Society to Experience Capitalism.” AI and Society, 2018.

“Cosmic Ecologies of Imitation: From the Horror of Digital Autotoxicus to the Auto-Toxicity of the Social Parallax, Volume 23, Issue 1: Autoimmunities, Guest Edited by Stefan Herbrechter and Michelle Jamieson, 2017.

“Various Joyful Encounters with the Dystopias of Affective Capitalism” special issue of Ephemera, Affective Capitalism 16/4, 2016.

Hungarian Translation of “Contagion Theory Beyond the Microbe” “Fertőzéselmélet a mikrobákon túl”, Apertúra, Autumn(1), 2016.

“Getting the [Care] Deficit Down” A review of Michael Schillmeier’s Eventful Bodies: The Cosmopolitics of Illness in New Formations Issue 84-5, 2015.

Review of Immaterial Bodies: Affect, Embodiment, Mediation by Lisa Blackman in New Formations Issue 79-79 Touches, Traces, and Times, 2013.

“Tarde’s Phantom Takes a Deadly Line of Flight,” Special Issue, Operations of the Global – Explorations of Dis/Connectivity, Distinktion Journal, 2012.

“Contagion Theory Beyond the Microbe,” CTheory Journal of Theory, Technology and Culture, Special Issue: In the Name of Security, Jan, 2011.

"E-Informality in Venezuela: The Other Path to Technology," (with Jairo Lugo) Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 102-118; 2008.

"The Accidental Topology of Digital Culture: How the Network Becomes Viral," Transformations: online journal of region, culture and society, Accidental Environments, Issue 14, 2007. ISSN 1444-377

"Senders, Receivers and Deceivers: How Liar Codes Put Noise Back on the Diagram of Transmission," Media and Culture Journal, 'Transmit', Volume 9 Issue 1, 2006. ISSN 1441-2616

"Dr Aycock's Bad Idea: Is the Good Use of Computer Viruses Still a Bad Idea?" Media and Culture Journal, 'Bad', Volume 8 Issue 1 (2005). ISSN 1441-2616

"A Virus in Info-Space: the open network and its enemies" in Media and Culture Journal 'Open' Volume 7 Issue 3 (2004). ISSN 1441-2616

"A Small Picture of Big Wars: Understanding the Changing Role of Television in Future Warfare," (with Jairo Lugo) in Bailrigg Paper 31 Future Conditional: War & Conflict After Next, Centre of Defence and International Security Studies, 2002 pp. 72- 86.

"A Prospective Analysis of the Video Games Industry in Latin America: From Banana Republic to Donkey Kong," (with Lugo and Lossanda) in Games Studies: the international journal of computer game research, Volume 2 Issue 2; 2002.


Rizosfera :: Neuropaesaggi digitali. Un'intervista con Tony D. Sampson (Rizonomia.RZN002.it). In appendice il saggio "La teoria del contagio oltre il microbo" di Tony D. Sampson Interview with Sampson published on the Italian website Effimera in 2018.

This Is Not a Pipe Podcast: The Assemblage Brain interview with Tony D Sampson by Chris Richardson in 2018.

An Interview with Tony David Sampson: Author of Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks by Tara Robbins Fee and Samuel B. Fee Published in North American Notes Online, 2016.

‘Tarde as Media Theorist’: an interview with Tony D. Sampson, by Jussi Parikka in Theory, Culture and Society Journal, 2012.


Brave New World: the pill-popping, social media obsessed dystopia we live in.” in The Conversation, February 23, 2017. German translation: Schöne neue Welt: Wir leben in einer Dystopie.

Barbican’s Digital Exhibition is Nothing More Than Gimmickry”, Review of Barbican Digital Revolution Exhibit in The Conversation, July 2014.

Imitative Inventions”, Review of Olga Goriunova’s Art Platforms and Cultural Production on the Internet, Mute Magazine, 2012.

Turning Software Inside Out: A Review of FLOSS +Art and Software Studies”, Mute Magazine, 2009. Spanish translation:  “Software de Arriba a Abajo”, Tin Tank: Conocimieto Inspiracion e Ideas ahora, 2010.

Selected Keynotes, Plenaries and Guest Talks

Video of guest talk at the Are We All Addicts Now? Symposium at Central Saint Martins (University of the Arts, London) Tues 7th November, 2017.[28]

Keynote panel talk at the Viral/Global: Popular Cultures and Social Media: An International Perspective, Conference organised by the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI), University of Westminster, 13th September, 2017.[29]

Guest panel talk at Trauma of the Anthropocene at the Traumatic Modernities. Conference organized by the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, Jagiellonian University, Kraków,  Poland, April 19-21st, 2017.[30]

Keynote at What is Happening to Our Brain? Art & Life in Times of Cognitive Automation, Conference at the Studium Generale Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam, 8th Feb, 2017.[31]

Video of plenary talk at Streams of Consciousness: Data, Cognition and Intelligent Devices, Conference organised by the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, Warwick University, 21-22nd April, 2016.[32]

Keynote at Cultural im/materialities: Contagion, affective rhythms and mobilization, Aarhus University, Denmark 25th June, 2014.[33]

Keynote at Affective Capitalism Symposium, University of Turku, Finland 5-6th June, 2014.[34]

Guest talk at the Bochumer Kolloquium Medienwissenschaft (bkm), Germany, 3rd December, 2013.[35]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Navas, Eduardo (2013-03-26). "Book Review of Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2018-06-04.
  2. Herbrechter & Jamieson, Stefan, Michelle (2018). Autoimmunities. London, New York: Routledge. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-138-54230-3.
  3. Rossolatos, G (Spring 2015). "The ice-bucket challenge: The legitimacy of the memetic mode of cultural reproduction is the message". Signs and Society. 3(1): 132–152. doi:10.1086/679520.
  4. Gries., Laurie E. (2015). Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics. Logan: Utah State University Press,. pp. 135–281. ISBN 978-0874219777.
  5. Oliveira-Monte, Emanuelle K. F. (2017). Barack Obama is Brazilian: (Re)Signifying Race Relations in Contemporary Brazil. Springer. pp. 9–12, 68, 105, 152. ISBN 9781137583536.
  6. Karppi, Tero (2013). "FCJ-166 'Change name to No One. Like people's status' Facebook Trolling and Managing Online Personas". The Fibreculture Journal: Digital Media + Networks + Transdisciplinary Critique. Issue 22.
  7. Kara, Selmin (2015). "Rebels without regret: Documentary artivism in the digital age". Studies in Documentary Film. 9(1): 42–54.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Hoskins & Tulloch, Andrew, John (2016). Risk and Hyperconnectivity: Media and Memories of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 84–7. ISBN 9780199375493.
  9. Goriunova, Olga (2012). "New Media Idiocy". Convergence, the International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. 19(2): 223–235.
  10. Bøhling, Frederik (2014). "Crowded Contexts: On the Affective Dynamics of Alcohol and other Drug Use in Nightlife Spaces" (PDF). Contemporary Drug Problems. 41(3): 361–392.
  11. Ellis and Tucker, Darren, Ian (2015). Social Psychology of Emotion. London: Sage. pp. 101–03. ISBN 9781473911840.
  12. Papailias, Penelope Papailias (2016). "Witnessing in the age of the database: Viral memorials, affective publics, and the assemblage of mourning". Memory Studies. 9(4) (4): 437–454. doi:10.1177/1750698015622058.
  13. Harsin, Jayson (2013). "WTF was Kony 2012? Considerations for Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies". Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies. 10:2-3 (2–3): 265–272. doi:10.1080/14791420.2013.806149.
  14. Baishya, Anirban, K. (2015). "#NaMo: The Political Work of the Selfie in the 2014 Indian General Election". International Journal of Communication. 9.
  15. Payne, Robert (2016). "'Je suis Charlie': Viral circulation and the ambivalence of affective citizenship". International Journal of Cultural Studies. 21(3) (3): 277–292. doi:10.1177/1367877916675193.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Borch, Christian (2017). "Tensional subjectivity: a reassessment of Gabriel Tarde's sociology". Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory. 18(2) (2): 153–172. doi:10.1080/1600910X.2017.1378690.
  17. Blackman, Lisa (2014). "Affect and automaticy: Towards an analytics of experimentation". Subjectivity. 7(4) (4): 362–384. doi:10.1057/sub.2014.19.
  18. Jussi Parikka and Tony D. Sampson (2009). The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn, and Other Anomalies from the Dark Side of Digital Culture. US: The Hampton Press Communication Series: Communication Alternatives. ISBN 978-1572739161.
  19. Genosko, Gary (May 2010). "Review of The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn, and Other Anomalies From the Dark Side of Digital Culture". Leonardo Reviews Online.
  20. Sampson, Tony D (2016). The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture. US: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-1-5179-0117-2.
  21. Karppi, Tero (Feb 2018). "Book Review: Tony D. Sampson: The Assemblage Brain. Sense Making in Neuroculture". AI and Society. doi:10.1007/s00146-018-0826-8.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Gregory J. Seigworth's introduction to N. Katherine Hayles and Tony D. Sampson (Summer 2018). "Unthought Meets the Assemblage Brain: A Dialogue Between N. Katherine Hayles and Tony D. Sampson". Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry. 1(2).
  23. Tony D Sampson, Darren Ellis and Stephen Maddison (2018). Affect and Social Media: Emotion, Mediation, Anxiety and Contagion. US: Rowman and Littlefield (Radical Cultural Studies). ISBN 9781786604392.
  24. Paasonen, Susanna (2018). "Review of Affect and Social Media". Rowman and Littlefield.
  25. Sampson, Tony D. "Biographic information from Sampson's Virality Research Blog profile".
  26. "Affect and Social Media Conference". University of East London. 2017.
  27. "Information on CCT events". Club Critical Theory Blog: Event Information.
  28. "Are We All Addicts Now?". Furtherfield.
  29. "VIRAL/GLOBAL Popular Cultures and Social Media: An International Perspective - CAMRI - University of Westminster, London". www.westminster.ac.uk. Retrieved 2018-06-04.
  30. "Traumatic Modernities Conference". 2017.
  31. Academie, Retveld (2017). "What Is Happening to Our Brains Conference Webpage".
  32. "List of plenary speakers at Streams of Consciousness (University of Warwick), 2016". warwick.ac.uk. Retrieved 2018-06-04.
  33. "Cultural Im/materialities: Contagion, Affective Rhythms and Mobilization" (PDF). Aarhus University.
  34. "Affective Capitalism Symposium, Turku, Finland". Affective Capitalism. 2014. Retrieved 2018-06-04.
  35. "bochumer kolloquium medienwissenschaft (BKM) talk series". www.ruhr-uni-bochum.de. Retrieved 2018-06-04.

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