The Viral Video Phenomenon -What makes videos go viral?
It will probably shock you that the original version of "Gangnam Style" by the Korean singer PSY1 (standing for psycho) is the most watched video on YouTube of all time counting over 800 million views since it has been uploaded in 2010. What it features is a song that will stick to your head, and dance moves everyone will try to imitate - it had what it took to go "viral", to spread around the world like a sickness. This phenomena is not bound to one specific video genre, in this case a music video, but can be found in other genres as well, for example in comics, animal or amateur videos. Everyone can become famous on the internet by the day after tomorrow if his or her video got what it takes to become viral. But what does it take? A lot of viral videos do not feature informative content that helps us in any way or is important for our lives, nor does the content make any sense at all sometimes. It even appears that the videos with no content are even more popular.
Although there are many viral videos of very different genres, they all share to some degree certain qualities, however can their success in the digital Internet age not be boiled down to a simple set of rules, neither can it be predicted, because these qualities are only features that can help as it has also a lot to do with luck and timing.
By looking at the videos "Charlie bit my finger - again!", "The Sneezing Baby Panda" and "Dramatic Chipmunk", "David After Dentist" we will see that although they are very different and feature different content they have qualities that are similar and that some have qualities that the others will not have, demonstrating that there are no general or universal rules one can use and then have viral success.
VIRAL VIDEO PHENOMENON
When we hear the word "viral" we will first associate it with infectious sicknesses, but when you type in "viral" into Google, you are more likely to encounter "viral" videos. What distinguishes viral videos from other videos is the fact that they were not only watched, but the viewers also felt the need to share them via social websites or e-mails so that on this way it became highly popular throughout the internet.
What constitutes a viral video. What counts as viral is a difficult question, but some years ago videos that gained over 1 million hits on YouTube were generally assumed to be viral. The bigger proportion of videos on YouTube do not get so much attention, more than 50% have less than 500 views (cf Seedwell 2012). Kevin Nalty, a "weblebrity", who is better known as "Nalts", however, claims that 1 million would have been sufficient a few years ago, but he thinks a video is "viral if it gets more than 5 million views in a 3-7 day period." But it is not just the views, Nalts writes "the degree of discussion online and offline (media)" is also decisive (Nalts 2011). It is not only important how many videos get, but moreover that they sticks to the viewers minds and that they will be still talked about in a few years time (cf O'Neill 2011).
Sharing phenomenon. This is not merely a phenomenon of the digital age, viral sharing was already popular 200 years ago, says Professor Cordell who is a digital-media scholar at Northeastern University. The viral culture of 19th century is quite similar to the digital internet culture, but at the same time is totally different (cf Rosen 2013). What was shared in the 19th century were of course no digital images or videos, but rather texts, and the content of these texts share qualities which are similar to the qualities in the media that go viral today. Cordell writes, "Brevity, comedy, charm, and resonance with cultural values (in the 19th century, those were often religious ones)" were all qualities which "increased the likelihood of virality" (cf Rosen 2013). Something new today is the immediacy of electronic media. Whilst earlier you had to pay someone to put the text on the press, today this sharing feature is just one click away and totally for free. There is, however, never a guarantee of sharing.
How do videos become viral? Every minute 40 hours of video footage is uploaded to YouTube and only a tiny percentage becomes viral, says Kevin Allocca who works for YouTube as the trend manager (cf Allocca 2011). Professor Cordell already gave an idea of how videos become viral. It is of course the sharing behavior - what is it that makes people not only watch the video, but also share it with family and friends? Thales S. Teixeira says the best way to attract attention was evoking surprise and the best way of retaining it was to evoke moments of joy (cf Nobel 2013). According to an assistant Professor called Jonah Berger it has to do with visceral emotions certain videos evoke in viewers. If highly aroused we will be more likely to share information, both in awe or anger. Jonah Lehrer, the author of the article, presents Bergers results of previous works in which he analyzed articles which appeared on the most-emailed list and concludes with "we don't want to share facts - we want to share feelings" (Lehrer 2011). This desire has also something to do with solidarity and connectivity. The problem is, Lehrer argues, when online, we have to find a substitute to express our feelings directly as there is mostly no actual face-to-face contact. Lehrer quotes Berger, ". . . sharing content on the Web allows us to get a parallel kind of connection" (Lehrer 2011). Berger und Milkman furthermore found out "that videos that shock or inspire are more likely to be shared on Facebook and more likely to gain viral traction" (cf Konnikova 2014). The quality of the content is also important, as Konnikova quotes Berger, "People love stories. The more you see your story as part of a broader narrative, the better" (Konnikova 2014). Furthermore videos that go viral will feature "good" content staging funny people, especially old people and babies, animals, especially baby animals, dancing and music that gets you involved (cf Miller 2011). However it is not only all about emotions and physical arousal, Jared Keller argues it is also about culture. First of all viral stories are being shared on platforms like Reddit, 4chan, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter and each sharing ecosystem has its own subculture consisting of an own set of rules of orders and norms of behavior. A lot of media companies have tried to put viral sharing behavior into one equation so that they can predict viral success, which could be especially helpful for advertisement. Although technological tools like the Facebook "like" button can help, virality can not be optimized or be reduced to a consistent formula. As Miller claims in her article "creating a video that attracts millions of viewers and becomes a pop culture phenomenon involves an unpredictable cocktail of luck and timing" (Miller 2011). The sharing behavior differs across platforms, which can be seen if one looks at the most popular stories on Twitter2 and Facebook3 in 2011. Just because now we have so much of accessible information, does not make us absorb information faster. We now select informations according to our values (cf Keller 2012). Good headlines are therefore also helpful that are short and work as a link bait (cf Konnikova 2014), because this makes them also very easy to find if the viewer only has to remember three to five words.
Furthermore another secret is that of the past: making old things new. Picking up stories that went minor viral and make it even better, because we only know what has worked in the past (cf Thompson 2012). This also holds true for movie industries that created very popular movies, e.g. Saw I, Saw II, Saw III, etc.
It is also the promise of practical value that makes a viewer share, e.g. if you see a Top-10 list of funny cat-memes. It is already put together and selected, so why not share it for the sake of your online-image as well? It might in addition improve the viewer's reputation among friends (cf Nobel 2013).
Kevin Allocca, mentioned above, talks about viral videos in a TED talk and argues that there are three things that make videos go viral: a) Tastemakers b) Communities of participation and c) Unexpectedness. The notion of unexpectedness has already been mentioned as the notion of surprise that will get the attention of the viewer. Not all concepts can be employed on all viral videos, but the more concepts the more successful will the video get in a shorter amount of time, says Allocca. For an illustration he gives the example of the YouTube video "Yosemitebear Mountain Double Rainbow 1-8-10", a 3:29 minute long video of a man recording a double rainbow in the Yosemite Nationalpark. He even uploaded a lot of other nature videos, why did this video get over 39 million views so far? Here is how Allocca explains it: it was uploaded in January 2010, and was only picked up by masses of viewers when Jimmy Kimmel posted this video on Twitter. Allocca says, "Tastemakers like Jimmy Kimmel introduce us to new and interesting things and bring them to a larger audience". The community of participation here was Twitter, but it could have also been any other platform where Jimmy Kimmel might have been part of. This community participation makes us part of the phenomenon, it furthermore shapes the community, as already said, these are "in- group" features so that we feel connected and therefore we share it furthermore.
1 currently not avaible on YouTube in Germany due to GEMA restrictions (20 March 2014)