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Diagnosis: The Spread of Viral Culture

  • And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in a Viral Culture
  • By Bill Wasik, June 11, 2009
  1. 1.Sam Anderson:The dubious hypnotizing power of exploding whales, ‘Chocolate Rain,’ and ‘Lazy Sunday.’
  2. 2.Sam Anderson:Let me start with a knowing, discourse-exploding meta-statement.
  3. 3.Virginia Heffernan:Is the virus metaphor misleading, and ripe for retirement?
  4. 4.Charlie Todd:I was horrified when I got forwarded the first mob project e-mail.
  5. 5.Anil Dash:Memes are like pop music, not indie rock: It's good if lots of people like them.
  6. 6.David Rees:A PowerPoint Analysis by an Internet Has-Been
  7. 7.Charlie Todd:A big misconception with the term 'viral video' is that you can go 'make one.'
  8. 8.Sam Anderson:The Viral-Video Graph (Beta)
  9. 9.Virginia Heffernan:The movement of ideas is actually a supremely odd subject for this writer, who evidently chose it because he’s a cynic.
  10. 10.Anil Dash:Ideas and memes that go viral do so because they make us happy.
  11. 11.David Rees:If Twitter had saturated Iraq by March 2003, would anything have changed?
  12. 12.Sam Anderson:Farewell to the And Then There’s This Reading Room.
Charlie Todd
"A big misconception with the term 'viral video' is that you can go 'make one.'"
06/19/09 at 11:05

David brought up the question of whether the terms "meme" and "viral" are interchangeable. Here's my two cents: "Meme" is a noun and "viral" is an adjective. All memes are, by definition, viral. Not everything that's viral is a meme. My Best Buy prank video went viral. It has a few million views spread out over various video sites. I wouldn't call it a meme, though, because to my knowledge it's never been copied, remixed, altered, etc. A meme is an idea that spreads and mutates and takes on many forms. My Frozen Grand Central video went viral and then became a meme (although it's a little bit unusual because it was a meme spread in the real world in addition to online). People in around 200 cities in countries across the world have gone out and frozen in place for five minutes. Activist and nonprofit groups have staged versions promoting a political agenda or cause. Marketers have attached products to it. Law & Order: SVU based an entire episode around it. So something is viral simply because it's been passed on from person to person millions of times. A meme is an idea that spreads in the same way, but takes on a life of its own as it mutates.

A big misconception with the term "viral video" is that you can go "make one." What you can do is go make a funny video or an awesome video and hope that it becomes viral. It's not viral until it's a hit. I really like this chart by Mike Arauz. You don't have a viral video on your hands until everyone who has seen it passes it along to everyone else. The only people who can really claim to be making a viral video are the very top YouTube stars. Fred could make a twenty-second video where he sneezes and it would go viral simply because he has 1.2 million YouTube subscribers. In the book, Wasik visits with a company called "Viral Factory." I have no doubt that they've had some viral hits and are paid handsomely by brands for their work, but it's a bit little presumptuous to imply that they know how to manufacture things that will be passed along by everyone who encounters them. Although as someone who runs a group called "Improv Everywhere" that organized planned-out performances, I probably shouldn't throw stones at someone for their organization's choice of name.

One footnote for David's PowerPoint—the Avril Lavigne video is the second-most-viewed video on YouTube, but with an asterisk. Her fans found a way to game the system and artificially spike the view numbers. Music videos in general are also a little suspect in terms of being true viral hits, as people often watch them just to hear the music for free. I know I listen to "Girlfriend" this way every morning when I wake up.

All in all, I've really enjoyed reading Wasik's book. As someone with a popular YouTube channel, there was quite a bit I could relate to. I definitely know the feeling of waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to resist checking the view count on a newly released video. The instant feedback through views, ratings, and comments is completely addictive. I think it's possible to learn from the data, but ultimately you just have to do what you find interesting and not worry about whether it's going to be an epic win or an epic fail (sadly, those are the only two possible outcomes in the eyes of YouTube commenters).