can haz viral video?

The other day I had the pleasure of participating in this week’s episode of Spark, a CBC Radio One show on tech culture news and ideas. It was a lot of fun being part of such a smart show – yay, public service broadcasting, long may it reign.
The full show and related info, links etc is now available at the Spark website.

I was there to provide some comments from a cultural research point of view on Dan Ackerman Greenberg’s now-notorious ‘secret strategies’ for manufacturing ‘virality’. My main point really was that I didn’t think you could use the virus metaphor to simply describe a piece of content becoming very popular through word-of-mouth or peer-to-peer distribution. However I do think it is tremendously interesting to think about the ways in which ideas, recipes, and practices become available for re-use via mass replication and variation; to try to understand what these little units of knowledge actually are, and how it all works.

It’s the difference between talking about the Crank That music video ‘going viral’, and the Crank That dance steps.

Actually, moving away from video and to mix the metaphors, it is so-called ‘internet memes’ like the lolcats that are the best examples.

With those, you have a form, a set of essential elements, and a set of constantly evolving ‘rules’ for practice, producing apparently infinite lol-possibilities. These ‘rules’ are like cultural building blocks that can be re-used, remixed, and re-combined to produce new ideas, always hybrid, always – in a particular sense of the word – creative. This is far more interesting to me than the banal quest to get more eyeballs onto your piece of ‘content’.

The catch is, it seems to be almost entirely unpredictable which of these ideas will be repeated and built on to the extent that they go truly ‘viral’.

Do you doubt me?

Oh, and by the way, Joshua Green and I are very busily writing a book about YouTube that draws on our collaborative research project. It will be out on Polity Press later this year, and, to misappropriate physics instead of biology, it will hopefully provide some useful angles to think through the politics of participatory culture, using YouTube as a lens through which to refract the competing dynamics of user-created content, expertise and agency. That’s keeping me quiet and away from the blog a bit, but I’ll be posting updates (and attempting to generate enough hype to make the book go ‘viral’) later on.

4 thoughts on “can haz viral video?

  1. Is virality really random? I haven’t read the doofus’s ‘secret strategies’ but surely there are some things that are more appealing than others and therefore more likely to ‘go viral’.

    I share your distaste for the marketing side of virality, as I despise anyone who says ‘content provider’ with a straight face.

    Can’t wait to read your book. Also, have you got Josh’s email, because I think I only have his old one.

  2. I take your point – but I didn’t say it was random, I said it was unpredictable – so yeah, you can retrospectively identify common characteristics (like you can with ‘hit’ songs), but the presence of those characteristics won’t produce virality for every video that has ‘em.

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