GOING VIRAL: Popular people and viral media
I’VE just finished reading a thought-provoking book titled The Tipping Point (2000) by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, who is a well-respected journalist at The New Yorker. In his book Gladwell focuses on how ideas, products and messages reach a tipping point where they spread like viruses and enter into popular culture.
Several of the examples Gladwell uses are taken between the sixties and the nineties, with one of the earliest examples being the stirrings of the American Revolution. Gladwell asserts that word-of-mouth is still the most effective method for creating social epidemics. Spreading the famous phrase “The British are coming” for example, spread like wildfire and saved the settlers of early America.
Gladwell argues that out of any population of people it is only a few who are responsible for making something go viral. These people he refers to as Connectors — trustworthy, charismatic people who are a part of many social circles and are therefore well connected. Whether an idea, product or message sticks is dependent on what Gladwell calls The Law of the Few.
Never have Connectors been more important to this social process than they are today in the digital age. Today people don’t even need to know their online contacts or followers personally to help them make something go viral. Social media has made it possible for anyone to become an influential Connector. It doesn’t even take long for a viral e-mail to find its way around the world.
Advertisers still attempt to increase the popularity of products by using celebrity endorsements. Fans of such celebrities may very well be persuaded this way. However, there is a far greater chance today of a product or idea going viral based on what those same celebrities say on Twitter or on their blogs. If Stephen Fry recommends a good book on Twitter, there is a chance that over three million people will follow suit.
The Internet is a fantastic tool for self-education, but it has to be said that, generally, people will follow the law of crowds. If 640 million people have watched Justin Bieber’s video Baby you are likely to assume that it must be good and proceed to watch it yourself; or, you may watch it just to see what all the fuss is about. When a record label catches wind of such popularity and comments are largely favourable, those 640 million viewers are counted as potential consumers and Justin Bieber becomes an overnight superstar.
YouTube has great power to influence popular culture as it continuously evolves. Social media research conducted in 2009 reported that every minute, 24 hours of video footage is uploaded onto YouTube. Whether any of this becomes sticky and goes viral depends on those few individuals who, firstly, spend a lot of time on YouTube, and secondly, who are well connected and widely followed. What the rest of the world will consider popular largely depends on what they will consider to be popular.
It’s an intriguing yet daunting thought. A reflection of some of the most watched YouTube videos of all time include “lolcats”, people singing or dancing, and people falling over or getting hurt. Cats hold their position as the second most popular pet in the world, two of the most popular TV shows watched today include Idols and Dancing with the Stars. and there has been a proliferation of reality shows depicting dangerous stunts or bodily functions — Jackass, Crazy Monkey, Dirty Sanchez, The Dudesons, Balls of Steel and Kenny vs Spenny, to name just a few. One would imagine that countries such as Bhutan, which are not a part of social media phenomena, would find such epidemics quite bizarre.
It appears that cultural globalisation lies in the hands of a few. We can either choose to take part and be contributing spinners of the growing web or we can be susceptible flies stuck in its sticky threads.