The Anti-Buzz: … things would be beyond your control.
“Viral” breaks the usual buzzword mold. Rather than being a real word that gets misused and broadened, it’s more or less a pure marketing term that describes a concept that is too narrowly understood. In many ways, “going viral” is an anti-buzzword.
While it’s been maybe twenty years that videos and images have been going viral on the Internet, the term didn’t really become well known until YouTube and similar services provided a consistent content source and, more importantly, the nice clean metrics that finally proved that, yes, some nobody from nowhere could make a video that would be seen by millions of people. The idea that costly-to-produce television might be getting less eyeballs than the latest installment of Enzo Screams at Pigeons was too poignant to ignore. Were advertisers wasting their money? Could they get Super Bowl quality exposure at community access prices? Yes and no. The harrowing truth is that the most viral of videos do get more exposure than any television show or advertisement could hope for, but the purpose of these videos, and how they fit into memetic Internet culture, are well outside the traditional producer-consumer relationship that marketers are used to.
Businesses are a bit savvier now, but only a few years ago we saw advertisers try to “fit in” with this new culture and mostly fail. Examples, if you want them, would be car commercials filled with destructive stunts and links to “see the rest” on their website. Alternatively, companies would plant “users” on popular forums who would link to “cool videos” that were in fact just advertisements. Most such subversions are easily detected and rejected by online communities. One of the primary mistakes made by these approaches is the rude assumption that “viral video” culture was solely interested “seeing cool things.” To put it another way, the mistake was assuming that, like traditional television, viral videos are a one-way transaction where the viewer is passive and just gobbles up whatever is put in front of them. You can’t just pull some stunt and get views. Contrary to what many believe, people are quite a bit smarter than that.
Going viral rarely correlates to financial gain, and while it certainly counts as exposure there is almost no way to shoe-horn a product in there and get away with it. A recent exception would be … well I won’t say his name in the interest of not linking you to site-inappropriate content, but there is a Korean pop-star whose latest music video has gone viral in the U.S. and this has certainly amounted to increased exposure and success for his product; of course, it’s easier to imagine exceptions in the entertainment industry where the viral video is your product.
Going viral is also a rather capricious, almost mystic phenomenon. For decades, marketers wanted to figure out how to tame that word-of-mouth beast but even now that the Internet has moved it out into the open, it has proven no easier to control. Today word-of-mouth is simply more explosive, but not more predictable. Many many videos garner a respectable amount of attention, but those that explode into something that “everybody sees” often get there by luck; tickling the fancy of the right blogger or getting attention on the right forum. In terms of measurable quality, the difference between an insanely popular video and a moderately successful one is negligible.
More important, however, is understanding the purpose of viral videos, (and visual memes in general), within Internet culture. A good, work-safe starting point would be to watch this happy nonsense. If you bothered to watch the whole thing, the joke’s on you. Nyan Cat, as it is called, is the perfect example of the function of viral videos. First, there are no pop culture references that you aren’t getting. It’s a pixelated flying Pop-Tart cat, soaring through outerspace on a rainbow to an absurd tune. That’s it. Perhaps not intentionally this video is more or less a parody of viral videos, or rather, a parody of the very culture that absorbs them. Not much content, repeated ad naseum, and it’s really just non-sequitor gibberish. The underlying joke is that there is nothing there, despite the happy, garish appearance.
But that’s not all. People have remade this video countless times. There’s a 100-hour long version. There’s a heavy metal version. There’s a jazz version. The basic conceit that the video is mostly just a copy-paste job is also what encourages users to re-create it however they wish. That Nyan Cat is simple and easy to imitate is a boon to it’s popularity, but not because users are “the lowest common denominator”, rather because they want their culture to be participatory and self-defined. I said viral videos lie outside the traditional producer-consumer paradigm; that’s because here, producers and consumers are drawn from the same pool. Internet culture isn’t about just “watching cool things” but also sharing them, editing them and creating them yourself. In other words, this is yet another cog in that social media thing we’re all still trying to figure out.