The Meaning of 'Going Viral' Today

Posted by luke on

I remember the first viral video I ever saw. One of of my friends from school sent me a message on MSN messenger (those were the days) to this 'really funny video' that I had to see.

This was it.

The famous Star Wars Kid video had already been out for a number of years before I saw it myself, but that didn't stop it from still being an online hit. People were still making remixes of the video and it had no signs of going away.

This was a different time in the Internet world. Due to the lack of smartphones, editing software and sharing platforms (at least compared to today), people really had to put in effort in order to create content. As a result, there was a only a relative handful of viral content out there. If you wanted a viral video, you just needed to put in the time to make one and hope that Newgrounds or Ebaumsworld would pick it up.

Virality Today

When I thought back to my first viral video experience, one thing I realised is how much that video left an impression on me. I had never seen anything like it before and I would watch it all the time In retrospect, it had very little to do with the quality of the video (although it was funny), but more to do with the fact that it had so little competition.

I think Eddie Murphy said it best.

If you're starving and somebody throw you a cracker, you gonna be like this: Goddamn, that's the best cracker I ever ate in my life!

Today virality is a completely different game. Content goes viral faster and get more hits than ever before, but it is also very quickly replaced by newer viral content. This creates a situation where content has to either be more engaging, or more aggressively marketed in order to rise to the top.

Another strange phenomenon of today's viral content is how easily forgettable it is. Because they are being produced at such a high frequency, the life span of any good viral video is about 2 weeks at best.

What Is Considered 'Viral'?

YouTube personality Kevin Nalty (known as Nalts) recalls on his blog:

A few years ago, a video could be considered 'viral' if it hit a million views", but says as of 2011, only "if it gets more than 5 million views in a 3–7 day period" can it be considered "viral".

Now that was back in 2011, today the numbers are even more impressive. I checked out the 'Trending' section of YouTube and saw that there were several videos that have already cracked the 10 million mark, within 3 days. While I'm hesitant to provide an absolute definition of 'viral', it is clear that you need a lot of views and quickly.

How Does Something Become Viral Nowadays?

A lot of viral content became viral in the early 2000's by the use of P2P services (like Kazaa and Limewire). Eventually they were picked up by websites, but it took a while.

Today there are a lot of ways to make something go viral. Social media is probably the most 'organic' way. The first method is when someone uploads a video or picture to their page, and people keep sharing it over and over until it is picked up by larger outlets.

The second way is to submit it to larger media outlets in the hopes that they will feature it. Certain Facebook pages have a lot of subscribers, to the point where they can post one thing and it will get thousands (if not millions) of views in a matter of days.

The third way is to spend money to market it online until it becomes viral. For some content, this is merely 'seeding' money, which will get the ball rolling for people to organically share it. For other content (usually the less engaging kind) the views will be directly correlated with the amount of money that is put into the marketing campaign. This strong-arm approach defeats the purpose of viral marketing, which is to create content that people actually want to share.

However, it does have its place.

The Future of Viral Content

Since we've been using the internet, our attention span has slowly been decreasing. According to a study by Canadian scientists, the average attentions span is now less than goldfish.

The results showed the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000, or around the time the mobile revolution began, to eight seconds. Goldfish, meanwhile, are believed to have an attention span of nine seconds.

This has lead to a rise in shorter viral videos and platforms such as vine.

If I was to make an educated guess, I would say that things will keep getting shor-.

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