Bieber fever ‘more infectious than measles’

Emotional ‘Beliebers’ in New York City strain to be close to their young idol © Getty Images

Fans of Justin Bieber are so devoted to their idol that their feeling has been called ‘Bieber fever.’ Researchers mapping the spread of Bieber fandom have found it spreads just like a real virus.

Last week, over 200,000 people crowded into Mexico City’s central square. Most were girls between the ages of ten and fourteen. Many camped in the open to be sure of a place; some had travelled up to thirteen hours to be there. Police surrounding the square stood alert, fearing that the atmosphere of manic anticipation could descend into a riot.

The cause of all this hysteria? Justin Bieber, of course. The teenage pop star inspires contempt as often as adoration; but to his fans, he is practically a god. Screaming teenage girls are simply part of the backdrop to Bieber’s life. ‘They meet me, shriek and pass out,’ he nonchalantly explains.

This phenomenon, dubbed ‘Bieber fever,’ has become a global epidemic. Bieber’s is the most searched name on Google, and he plays to packed stadiums on every continent. Now, mathematicians from his native Canada have published a rigorous study of Bieber fever. It behaves, they say, exactly like a measles – and it is even more contagious.

Like any disease, ‘Bieber fever’ has particular symptoms: watching Bieber’s videos obsessively on YouTube, for instance, and becoming emotional at the thought of him. And when researchers track these symptoms, they find that they spread just like the symptoms of a real virus: the more a person is exposed to a cultural ‘fever’, the more likely they are to pick it up. All sorts of styles and ideas behave like this; they are called ‘memes.’

Even harmful trends can be infectious. In Thailand, for instance, a recent fad developed among teenagers for dental braces. It was not a healthy trend: teeth were pulled painfully out of shape, and some of the braces contained deadly poisonous lead.

Still more destructive was the Micronesian ‘suicide epidemic’ of the 1970s. After a particularly popular boy reacted to disagreements with his family by killing himself, several others from his community followed the example. Soon a suicide crisis gripped the island. In many ways, it was similar to other expressions of adolescent rebellion; but no other rebellion could be as tragic, extreme and final.

It seems bizarre that such a drastic behaviour can be picked up by imitation. Yet according to sociologists, our tastes and actions are constantly moulded in this way.

Herd mentality

Many find this idea disconcerting. The music we love, the clothes we wear, the expressions we use: these are deeply personal things. They might be influenced by trends, they say; but ultimately, our cultural choices are our own.

Wrong, say sociologists: that choice is just an illusion. Just like anything else in the universe, culture can be studied scientifically. Our tastes might feel personal, they say; but really they are just part of an invisible system over which we have no real control.

You Decide

  1. How much do you think your tastes are influenced by friends and the media?
  2. Is there anything wrong with idolising celebrities like pop stars and actors?

Activities

  1. Write a review of a concert performed by a wildly popular star. Try to include expressive descriptions of the atmosphere and the crowd’s response.
  2. Design a survey for the class about their tastes in culture, and make your most interesting findings into a graph.

Some People Say...

“Most people are just sheep, blindly following the latest trend.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I thought memes were just silly photos on the internet?
That is just one type. Any sort of style, idea or behaviour that can spread between people and groups can be described as a meme.
Why do we need a special word for something so general?
The theory behind memes is that cultures, just like species, can evolve. Cultures are said to be made up of many small actions and styles; the successful ones spread, while others die out. The idea was invented by geneticist Richard Dawkins in 1976 – but the comparison of biology to culture is not universally accepted.

Word Watch

Descend into a riot
Last month in Oslo, 49 people were injured at a Justin Bieber concert when the crowd got out of control. At major events like concerts, ‘stampedes’ are a serious risk: the 96 deaths in the Hillsborough football disaster are one tragic example, while religious celebrations and rock festivals are also at risk.
Epidemic
When an unusually large number of cases of a particular disease suddenly break out in a population, it is known as an epidemic (as opposed to an endemic disease, which is more constant and low-level). These can be disastrous: epidemics of the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages killed a third of Europe’s population, while outbreaks of cholera could destroy entire communities. More recent examples include SARS and bird flu.
Memes
Memes are like a cultural version of ‘genes’: characteristics split into small units, that spread from person to person. The word comes from the Greek for ‘to imitate,’ since this is how they are usually spread.
Micronesian
To the north of Australia and New Guinea, there is a group of tiny islands collectively called Micronesia. Six hundred and seven of the islands comprise an independent nation called the Federated Republic of Micronesia, while others are ruled independently or part of other nations.

Subjects