Joseph Kony, Nyan Cat, And The Science of Viral Media

 

Friday (Rebecca Black song)

Friday (Rebecca Black song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been quite a month for viral media.

If you were on the internet at all during March, you’ve heard of Joseph Kony. The accused Ugandan warlord was the subject of a video documentary by the group Invisible Children that quickly (and I mean very quickly) went viral. It didn’t take long for hit-hungry writers to begin appropriating the Kony2012 phenomenon as a means of juicing up their own headlines (10 Lessons Joseph Kony Can Teach You About Childhood Asthma, How Kony2012 Made Me Rethink My 401K and on and on). And almost as quickly as the video gripped the attention of the digital world, it began earning a backlash, with multiple news stories and blog posts (and even a drinking game) devoted to digging up unflattering details on the organization behind the video and its operations. And then there was the video of Invisible Children’s founder Jason Russell having a public meltdown in the wake of the Kony2012 fallout.

And if you were, by some chance, living under a rock and hadn’t heard of Joseph Kony, maybe Marilyn Hagerty’s Olive Garden review landed in your inbox, or you happened to notice the #SayYesKatie hashtag on Twitter? All of this month’s digital culture ephemera got me thinking – exactly what goes into creating a piece of viral media? Why does one cat video triumph over a million others? Why is your toddler’s rendition of Adele’s Someone Like You taking YouTube by storm while your neighbor’s clip of his dog “singing” along to George Jones has only 138 views? When are people finally going to stop using the phrase “epic fail” in conversation?

I decided to survey a host of media experts – content creators, curators and evaluators – to take a crack at uncovering the anatomy of viral videos and memes.

The line-up:

Scott Lamb, Managing Editor, BuzzFeed

Scott Hess, Vice President of Insight, TRU

Jonathan Vingiano, Co-founder, OKFocus

Tim Hwang, Co-founder, ROFLCon

The conclusions:

Viral media is simple and straightforward

“Viral media, with perhaps the exception of the Kony video, can typically be parsed on-the-quick. You can look/listen/watch and ‘get
it’ almost immediately. Stuff that goes viral is usually clear in its intentions – it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s beautiful– in a way that people don’t feel too challenged. Viral media are typically born or introduced in a format that is easily shared on the bigger networks like Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or Instagram. And they’re also often reflective of attributes that young people aspire to, like humor, beauty, or provocation,”says Hess.

Viral media has a short shelf-life, but there’s always reincarnation

“Most viral content has a relatively short lifespan, leaping from obscurity to prominence in a spike of traffic that lasts at most a few days and begins to trail off pretty quickly thereafter. That said, exceptions abound. YouTube Trends reports that searches for Rebecca Black’s Friday still spike each Friday, even though the video has existed for a year now. We’re also seeing what I call ‘meme-lag’ – that memes or pieces of content that have made the rounds in one social platform, like on Reddit, then leap over to another, like Facebook, and have a new viral lifespan there. I’d say we’re now seeing bigger spikes like Kony2012, which became an absolute juggernaut and longer lives, because there are so many more places for viral media to be shared,” says Lamb.

It’s platforms over people when it comes to influencing the spread of viral media

“While there are some notable exceptions, it ends up being platforms, rather than individuals, per se, that seem to have been more or less consistently able to become hotbeds of meme production online. This is due to a lot of interacting factors: the type of participants in the community, the design of the platform, the readership and so on. In this space I’d put Reddit, Tumblr, 4Chan and Laughing Squid as all really powerful engines of cultural discovery, invention, and distribution,” says Hwang.

Hwang’s own brainchild, ROFLCon, brings together internet celebrities, academics and cultural critics to discuss and dissect the future of digital community and internet culture in an offline setting, which reflects part of a larger trend he sees in which online in-jokes are  translated into water cooler punchlines and are becoming increasingly synchronized with other social phenomena.

“The big trend of the past two years has been the steady infiltration (or contamination) of “meme-ness” beyond the narrow world of funny cats on the internet shared between nerds and into the broader activities of everyday life. Politics, for instance, has started to see cycles of media boom and bust that match eerily well onto how LOLCats, for example, became popular in the mid-2000s. We’ll see more of this going forward. Occupy Wall Street contains characteristics similar to how people have organized en masse online for other, more for-the-laughs reasons,” he says.

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