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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.
Sam Anderson
"The Viral-Video Graph (Beta)"
06/19/09 at 13:07

First, let’s just take a second to appreciate the special opportunity we’ve all been given this week at the Vulture Reading Room. Book clubs usually end up arguing over esoteric eighteenth-century frippery like whether or not Heathcliff meant to grab Jane Eyre’s bonnet off the cornice of Beowulf’s wainscoting on his way to meet Moll Flanders at Bleak House. But here we are on the brink of actually advancing humankind’s knowledge of a crucial but undertheorized cultural field—in fact, you might argue that we’re advancing humankind’s knowledge of the most essentially human form of human culture humankind has yet to invent, if you accept the reasonable premise that we are by definition social animals and that viral culture is basically ground zero of socialness: pure scene deriving from pure scene leading to more pure scene. (A process that I don’t think has to be as negative as Wasik seems to think.)

Bearing in mind this radical sense of mission, then, I’d like to pick up where David’s PowerPoint presentation left off and start to work out the details of how we might begin to taxonomize our experiences with viral culture. Consider this the first baby step toward our eventual totalizing classificatory grid—the one that will be adopted by future generations and end up determining how global (and possibly intergalactic) culture is interpreted for centuries to come.

Wasik’s ubiquitous “spike” graphs—the ones that drive Anil so crazy—are great at showing us the amount of attention a viral specimen gets, as you can see on this graph that I made all by myself using a graphing website for children:

But the spike graph tells us nothing about the quality of that attention—i.e., the spiritual-intellectual-aesthetic dimension of the encounter, which is (contrary to Wasik’s caricature of 21st-century viral-addicted media-mind Americans) exactly what I want to know about my viral culture. I’m much less interested in learning how many people watched “Chocolate Rain” in July of 2007 than I am in learning how that particular virus ended up working in their bloodstreams: whether it made them feel awe, admiration, contempt, sympathy, love, or hatred; whether they laughed at it or with it; whether it worked through their systems in two minutes or hung out there for months—all aspects that are trickier to quantify than page views or Nexis references.

Let me admit right up front that, as someone whose math skills peaked during the first few months of eighth-grade algebra, I’m probably not the ideal candidate to design a revolutionary analytical grid. But I’m going to take a provisional shot at sketching the first draft of the beta version. Please feel free to get in here and add all kinds of fancy sine curves and logarithms and nested z-axes to adjust for things like “corporate affiliation” and “length of tail” and “webcam resolution” and “total quantity of hair gel used by the performer/viewers/commenters.”

I’m going to base my graph on the two most fundamental aspects of any viral transaction, CREATION and RECEPTION, each of which I’ll subdivide into two poles:

CREATION => Spontaneous vs. Calculated (what David calls “deliberately viral” versus “accidentally viral”; you could also call it Innocent versus Knowing)

RECEPTION => Straight vs. Ironic (i.e., whether or not the audience appreciates the video in the way its creator intended).

For example, “David After Dentist,” a dad’s cell-phone video of his 7-year-old son saying crazy things in an anesthesia fog, wants us to laugh along with it in a kind of America’s Funniest Videos way, and that’s exactly what we do—we take it straight. On the other hand, Tay Zonday probably wanted us to embrace “Chocolate Rain” as a profoundly poetic Dylan-esque statement about racism; instead, almost everyone liked it ironically, as bizarro amateurish kitsch. Behold, then, a modest psycho-emotional map of my own relationship to a handful of canonical viral videos:


1. A quick glance shows that the most valuable viral real estate is in the corners, where most of the big hits cluster. I take this to mean that we like pure attitudes: either total calculated mastery of the nature of viral media or total cluelessness—maximum media mind or the media-mind void. We want to be either very impressed with virtuoso performances (Susan Boyle) or we want to die laughing at clueless bungling (“Star Wars Kid”). The all-time biggest smash hits—“Star Wars Kid” (900 million-plus views, still the most watched ever), “Charlie Bit My Finger” (100-plus million)—max out both axes and sit in the extreme corners.

2. David, I think you’re wrong to say that the best viral stuff is accidentally viral. “Auto-Tune the News,” the last big viral spiker that I’m aware of (although, looking at traffic numbers, it may fall more under the category of “things my crew is forwarding” than “viral sensation sweeping the nation”), is both 100 percent intentionally viral and among the funniest videos I’ve ever seen. It very calculatedly wants to be watched and laughed at by as many people as possible. Same with “Lazy Sunday.”

3. “Numa Numa” is an aberration—I had to put it right in the middle of intentional/accidental and ironic/straight. I can’t quite figure out the ratios. Brolsma was obviously being campy for his webcam, and he made the video public, but he did so pre-YouTube (2004), when these kinds of things didn’t go viral quite so easily. Once it did get big, he was apparently very uneasy with the kind of attention he was getting. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, when I’ve given people (like my dad) tours of viral video, “Numa Numa” never gets a big laugh—people are always just a little puzzled. The signals are mixed. It’s like a bridge between the pure accident of “Star Wars Kid” and the pure intention of “Auto-Tune the News.”

4. “Britney Fan Crying” occupies two places on the graph, based on whether you think you’re witnessing (a) a blinding display of pure sincere emotion, or (b) a calculated bit of acting trying to come off as a blinding display of pure sincere emotion. I lean toward option (b), but I think it can function as both. Lots of viral videos (e.g., lonelygirl15) have this Schrödinger’s video effect, which always makes me feel a little suspicious and manipulated and turned off.

5. I’m not sure any chart does justice to the weirdness of “Chocolate Rain,” which seems to transcend categories and resonate on many different levels. I just panicked and stuck it somewhere.


I am going to stop making graphs.