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Going Viral

Arts & Culture | December 9, 2013

“Charlie bit me!” Since the video in which this phrase is featured was uploaded on May 22, 2007, it has racked up over 609 million views on YouTube. It has become so popular that any kind of reference to the video in conversation would almost certainly be met with some recognition.

Though video sharing has been around since the mid-1990s, the idea of a video that everyone has seen and can recognize did not truly blossom until the advent of video sharing websites. While sites like albinoblacksheep.com hosted videos, like “The Ultimate Showdown,” which were popular among frequent Internet users, the idea of the viral video we know today only fully came to fruition with the creation and rise of YouTube. Since its inception in February of 2005, YouTube has become the third most visited website in the world on a daily basis, second only to Google (the company that owns it) and Facebook.

But this raises the question: What makes a video “viral”? Many of these videos tend to be “one-offs” that grow popular based on a distinct quality, usually something highly amusing, adorable, or emotional. But these basic categories alone are not what guarantee the popularity of a video. According to a study conducted by an undergraduate student at Elon University, other factors such as brevity of the video, an element of shock value, and a display of some sort of talent can all contribute to a video’s massive popularity. But the list goes on. The study, which analyzes Time magazine’s top 20 viral videos, explores specific factors like whether the video has children in it or whether it features someone laughing. Though small trends exist, most of the data is inconclusive, suggesting that viral videos are often completely random. However, one category—the presence of some kind of irony—was found in 90 percent of these videos. The definition of irony the study used was that the video “displayed an element contrary to what was expected.”

Though this is a very broad definition, it does shed some light onto important characteristics of viral videos. For a video to be viral, it has to surprise the viewer in some way, either by challenging a previous conception or by showing them something they’ve never seen before. For example, the video about Ted Williams, the “Man with the Golden Voice,” showed a homeless man whose voice was as crisp and resonating as any professional radio or TV announcer. Though this video features true events, it is surprising in the way it challenges viewers’ perceptions of a typical homeless man. Much in the way some hit movies or TV shows are not predictable or hackneyed, viral videos tend to feature something highly memorable and unique.

However, the presence of these factors does not guarantee that a video will go viral. Besides having broad appeal, the video must also spread. Many times, a video becomes popular by riding on the coattails of a previously established trend. For example, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel produced a video in which a woman’s clothes catch fire while she is trying to imitate the popular dance trend “twerking.” Though the video was not promoted in any way, it rapidly became viral, evidently because of the slapstick comedy involved along with its apparent satire of the twerking pop culture craze. For a video to “go viral,” it must be noteworthy enough to be mentioned outside of the website it is hosted on. Because videos about twerking were already so popular, this new, unexpected addition was immediately chewed up by viewers. Often, these videos first gain popularity on media sharing sites like reddit.com. From there, they are shared through wider social media and messaging channels like Facebook and e-mail, eventually making their way to TV news channels.

These videos are also significantly meaningful to modern culture and economics. In a world where advertisers try more and more desperately to reach out to consumers, a video that millions of people are watching every day seems like the ideal opportunity for an advertiser to reach the mass market.

Volvo’s most recent ads for its trucks’ dynamic steering, featuring Claude Van Damme performing a split between two moving vehicles, has racked up 55 million views in just over two weeks. Rather than trying to make an ad that is unique enough to be viral, Volvo simply tried to make an interesting video that had the potential to become viral—one that just so happens to feature their product. Though the intention of the video is to create interest in their product, the fact that it’s a Volvo commercial is not what makes it viral, but rather the amazing flexibility of Claude Van Damme.

The Volvo commercial demonstrates a new kind of thinking when it comes to creating commercials. Instead of making a one minute and 14 second video showing the various interesting features of their vehicle’s new dynamic steering, Volvo instead chose to use a startling and amazing display of a gymnasts’ ability to stir up interesting in the video itself, which the product is featured in. From an advertiser’s point of view, the commercial is a success if it compels a viewer to purchase the product. The fact still remains: Though marketing teams oft think otherwise, people tend to buy what they want to buy rather than what they are told to buy.

The viral video has proven itself a revolutionary way to reach out to people. Whether we like it or not, the techniques of viral videos are increasingly being used by advertisers. This raises the possibility that advertising as we know it will change drastically in the subsequent decade. Instead of companies trying to advertise their product during commercials of popular TV shows, a successful advertisement might instead try to blow up your Facebook feed. Regardless of how advertising transforms, it is undeniable that viral videos have become a staple of modern Internet culture. “Gangnam Style,” “Chocolate Rain,” Jean-Claude Van Damme doing the splits, and “Charlie Bit Me,” display the potential of videos in the Internet age to rapidly become overnight sensations.