The Social Impact of Viral Videos and Video Sharing
In the past decade alone, the aptly named “viral video” has progressed from a novel phenomenon, to an almost daily occurrence on the internet. These are defined by their capacity to spread through social media outlets at alarming rates, and gain the attention of staggering numbers of people throughout the world. Importantly, the mass dissemination of these videos relies substantially on individuals choosing to share them online, through websites such as Facebook and Twitter. In the following project, I intend to explore the social dynamics surrounding this relatively unexamined occurrence, whilst focusing specifically on the processes and motivations behind video sharing.
In approaching this project, I used one particular viral video which would act as a representative of the phenomenon as a whole, and which would lead my subsequent interviews in the relevant direction. The video I chose is entitled “Charlie bit my finger - again!” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OBlgSz8sSM), which I believed to be the most appropriate example, as my research indicated it is the third most popular video on YouTube, after two music videos. I decided these were less desirable for the purposes of my project which is concerned with videos, but not with music specifically. In order to achieve a high level of detail and reliability, I conducted
two separate interviews with people whom I understood to be familiar with social media processes, and who also share videos on a frequent basis.
Due to the recent emergence of viral videos, they have received little anthropological attention as an element of popular or material culture. However, as will be expanded on, comparisons can still be made to long-standing academic insights, as well as some more contemporary parallels. My primary research question will seek to explore the extent to which video sharing, in its contribution to the success of viral videos, can be related to theoretical notions of gift-giving and group membership. In exploring this topic, I will discuss Mauss’ (1954) research into gift-giving, as well as several more recent additions to the subject from Sherry (1983) and Geisler and Pohlmann (2003). As Sherry suggests, “Virtually any resource, whether tangible or intangible, can be transformed into a gift. Objects, services, experiences may be conferred as gifts” (1983:160). I shall argue that the viral videos that individuals choose to share, also fall within this broad category of gifts. Furthermore, Wilson and Peterson’s (2002) insights into online communities will be examined, alongside more general theories of group and identity formation including Nadel (1951) and Erikson (1980). Once taking these sources into consideration, and applying the information gathered during interviews, I hope to develop and support the notion that video sharing resembles other culturally consistent gift-giving behaviours. This will be demonstrated in its potential for affirming and constructing perceived identities, which in turn contribute to the sharer’s position within groups, which can even transcend the permeable boundaries of the online world.
The Viral Video and the Response
To begin this discussion, it is beneficial to provide a degree of context to the viral video itself, as well as the reactions to it from my interviewees. “Charlie bit my finger
- again” was first uploaded onto YouTube in 2007, two years after the website was first founded. The content itself (link provided above) shows two young brothers, Harry and Charlie, sitting together on a chair when Charlie, as the title suggests, begins to bite his older brother’s finger. The resulting footage of Harry screaming while Charlie laughs, earned 92 million views within the first year, and currently stands at over 814 million views. With this startling figure in mind, I began my interviews with Adam and Nathan by seeking to understand why they thought the video was received with such enthusiasm. In order to gain a more natural reaction from these participants, neither of them knew what video they were about to be shown before starting. However, as soon as they saw the beginning of the video, they smiled in recognition of the two boys who they had both watched on multiple occasions before.
Both my interviews were conducted in a semi-structured format, as I had some specific questions I hoped to ask them, but I also encouraged the conversation to continue in its natural direction. My first interview was with Adam, and when I asked him why he thought it was so popular, he provided several interesting suggestions; …especially with videos like that, you get a snapshot of real life and real people, and it’s real stories that we can relate to… and it’s shown on TV shows, like there are now TV shows about viral videos, it’s just culturally such a massive thing. I think also it’s so immediate, it’s so easy to access if you need a pick-me-up, then you just type it into YouTube and there you go… Also, it’s just cute.
Following on from this discussion, we were able to enter into the topic of video sharing, as it is so crucial to the making of a viral video. When he explained to me that he shares frequently, I asked him why he likes to do so. He explained that he considers himself a “massive people person” and very extroverted, and so enjoys making people happy by giving to them what he himself takes pleasure in. On the other hand, he also admitted to being “quite an egotist”, and so sometimes sees sharing videos as an opportunity to receive positive feedback from others, and to show others his sense of humour or taste. At this point, I introduced the topic of identity, and asked what relationship he saw between what people choose to share, and how they wish to be perceived by others. When I asked this question he immediately agreed that there was a strong link between the two, saying “I’ll go onto social media if I’m happy, or to forward the persona of happiness… I don’t really share about my crap days or my worries and fears on social media, and so generally what I share will reflect the good stuff, not the bad.” This idea of identity formation was particularly interesting, and an area I was also able to discuss more with Nathan.
In this second interview, after having discussed his thoughts on the video itself and why he thought it became so popular, Nathan began explaining his own video sharing habits. He expressed that he would share at least once a week, but he would be particular about the content he shares; “for me, I would only share things that are entertaining, but I know a lot of people out there who actually use social media, and share things, to get a certain opinion across or try to say something… sometimes it’s political, or religious.” To a certain degree, this echoed what Adam mentioned in relation to projecting a particular image of yourself, and having others perceive you in that way. However, beyond simply recognising the way perceptions are formed through what people share, I was interested to understand how these identities were interacted with. Therefore, with Nathan, I discussed how significant the reaction was to what he shared, and his response seemed to suggest there was a sense of personal ownership towards these videos:
It’s really weird! You might share something like, say “Charlie bit my finger”, because you found it funny and you thought others would like it too.