Monday, February 20, 2017
Last updated: 1 year ago

Subculture meets mass culture: What makes a viral video?

Photo Stephanie Xu/The Ubyssey Photo Stephanie Xu/The Ubyssey[/captioi

We love viral videos. Many an hour has been lost to the likes of Nyan Cat, Techno Viking and Tay Zonday. But what exactly makes a viral video? It depends who you ask.

According to some web celebrities, several years ago a video had gone viral if it reached a million views. By today’s standards, some consider a video viral if it reaches upwards of a million views in less than seven days. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — there’s no rulebook. Broadly speaking, a video goes viral when it is widely viewed and shared within a pretty short time span. However, a video’s viral status does not rest solely on viewership, but also on the discussion it generates on and offline, how well it stands the test of time and even the spinoffs it produces.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of South Australia found that videos that generate “high arousal emotions,” such as inspiration, astonishment, disgust, hilarity and anger, are more likely to be shared. Further, they found that videos that trigger positive high arousal emotions will trump videos with negative high arousal emotions.

UBC alum Andrew Cohen is director and co-producer of the UBC Lipdub video, which has pulled in nearly two million views on YouTube since it was first uploaded in 2011. Cohen and his team worked hard to cultivate pre-release hype: they networked extensively and organized a free concert, as well as a launch party in Robson Square. But Cohen attributes the video’s success to its emotional impact.

“The energy of the people involved was so overwhelmingly positive, it made people want to share it,” said Cohen.

Chris Cannon, a former adjunct professor in creative writing at UBC, sees strong content and a strong distribution methods as two paths to the mysterious road of viral success. Cannon wrote and directed Meet the Canada Party, a campaign video for a faux political party in last year’s U.S. elections. The video went viral shortly after being uploaded last January. Cannon, who has worked as a journalist, is familiar with the importance of maintaining a human connection with viewers.

“I know how it works, and it can be very short-lived,” said Cannon. “We were very good at keeping in touch with followers and friends.”

Cannon, as well as fellow Canada Party co-founder Brian Calvert, would let fans know about their newly released videos and send thank you notes to frequent sharers. They appointed fans as Canada Party ambassadors and recruited street teams for offline promotion.

In the age of high-speed information sharing, viral videos have become a ticket to quick success. Whether this elevates the creators to instant celebrity status or instant notoriety, exposes injustice, mobilizes others for a common cause or wins scholarships (as with the creators of the recently uploaded “Golden eagle snatches kid” phenomenon), viral videos are a powerful tool and a potential vehicle for social change.

“The Internet is a distribution model,” said Cannon. “There’s an old adage among journalists: freedom of the press belongs to those who have one — and now everyone has one.”

Viral videos engage and inspire people from all over the world. For instance, a recently popular video of UBC student Ben Parker and two of his friends performing random acts of kindness was inspired by a similar video made by a young man in Islamabad, Pakistan.

At times, Cohen said, he felt that the diversity of the comments made on his Lipdub video reflected an international social experiment.

“We call the Internet a universal sharing platform, but sometimes we don’t realize just how universal it really is,” he said.

For these reasons, many entrepreneurs have started to look for patterns that can guarantee viral success.

“I’ve heard companies advertise ‘looking for a viral video,’” said Cannon. “[But] you can’t predict a virus; it’s an afterthought. When people say, ‘I want to make viral videos,’ what they’re really saying is: ‘I’m going to make videos and hope to God they go viral.’”

While there are certainly ways to prolong the popularity of a video or even give it a measurable increase in viewership, the very nature of a viral video is unpredictable. Neither Cannon nor Cohen, for instance, set out to make a viral video; Cannon only wanted to add to political discourse, and Cohen wanted to inspire a sense of community. So there is no way to tell whether you and your partner’s pixellated nose rub filmed in the SUB last Monday will be seen by 10 million people in two weeks, or if it will wander the desert of YouTube forever, only to be stumbled upon by a lost browser.

Ray Hsu, a lecturer in the department of creative writing and an expert in popular culture, said he believes that as soon as someone starts tailoring a video to reach massive viewership, it becomes counterproductive to achieving viral status.

“I think that the idea of reaching a wider audience is itself a problem. As soon as you start mass producing, people will stop feeling as though it speaks to them alone,” said Hsu. “You share it because you wonder if others are interested. It’s the line between subculture and mass culture.”