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A (very) Brief History of Virality

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Virality. It kind of hits a different nerve now right?

As a virus spread through the world, leaving many of us forced to be locked inside with nothing but the screens of our phones as a connection to the outside world – virality led to, well… virality.

The over-saturation of social media posts, especially in the video sphere, meant that many ‘experts’ in 2018/2019 began to predict some sort of ‘end’ to the viral video. Seemingly, the internet had broken up into niche subcultures with little unification. Enter: COVID19.

In 2020 the fractured internet began to crave unification and mass interaction to find an escape from the four walls of lonely bedrooms across the globe. This led to a reconfiguration of virality, that manifested in many different ways – for example, that awful video of celebrities singing to us; but, also much broader effects like the HUGE acceleration of the TikTok user base.

Virality certainly isn’t anything new. Whilst it is a buzzword to describe videos on social media – the first thing we should do is recognise its looooong history. We can learn a lot from it.

The 19th Century

Ahhh the 19th century. The cardboard box has just been invented, Mary Shelly publishes Frankenstein and Van Gough paints the Starry Night (and cuts off his ear 👂) Wait…, what do you mean TikTok wasn’t around?

In the 19th century, mass amounts of people began to migrate from farmlands and rural areas to the growing cities. Fractured smaller village societies began to combine to create larger communities (much like seen with the impacts of Covid19 on socials) of like-minded ‘city people’. Not only was this movement somewhat viral in itself, but it also created the first set of opportunities to reach a huge amount of people in one go (instead of just within your local village). Art and literature all came more accessible, widely spread and viral.

As this urbanisation rapidly commenced, there was a huge fear of people ‘losing themselves and their identities in the modern city’ (sounds a lot like social again 🤔) – leading to loads of social and scientific theories of imitation, contagion and suggestion. A huge interest peaked in ‘crowd psychology’ (this is still well used in some marketing) – which studied how ‘rational humans’ were turned into reckless automations.

Whilst, not the entire blueprint for virality on social platforms, a reminder that the history of virality is long and complex can lead to out of the box creative thinking – harking back to the good old days of… Thomas Edison? 💡

Chain Letters

Fast forward to the early 20th century in Denver, Colorado. The first known chain letter was sent by an unknown trend-setter who claimed their letter originated from the biggest influencer at the time – The Pope.

This letter was sent around Denver and encouraged the population to send it forward, and donate money. Whilst, obviously, this is some sort of fraud – it is probably one of the earliest examples of some sort of social virality.

This old-ish trend took off and was remediated in many different forms. From scary urban-myth letters (Carry on reading! Or you will die, even if you only looked at the word warning! Once there was a little girl called Clarissa, she was ten years old….) to very serious issues of fraud and scams. Chain letters may have an old origin, but they are a great example of this ‘crowd mentality. A lot of the time, we know Clarissa isn’t going to kill us (we hope) but people sent it forward anyway to be part of a social movement.

This sort of virality has been reconfigured over and over again from those strange emails we all got as a kid to those weird Instagram and TikTok posts about Bloody Mary 🩸. Although, we can also see it in less spooky things like the very recent Instagram trend of sharing a picture of your dog to ‘plant a tree’ (lol) – or even tagging multiple friends in giveaway posts (although its best if your brands dont pretend to be The Pope – or Bloody Mary for that matter).

The Golden Age (of YouTube)

Finally… the good old days. This was the time where there was a new viral video every few days. Meeting up with friends and family irl often prompted conversations anchored around “Have you seen that Old Spice video” or chatting about that kind of weird aggressive panda advert.

Obviously, we can not talk about the Golden Age of Youtube without acknowledging the viral behemoth: Friday. Often described as the worst YouTube video ever made, Rebecca Black’s magnum opus was the second most disliked video in 2011 just missing out on the top spot of Justin Bieber’s Baby. Despite this, Friday was the most-watched video on Youtube that year. What can we learn from Friday? Well, firstly going viral isn’t ALWAYS a good thing – and at this time people launched videos into the viral sphere through ‘hate-watching’. It’s a classic case of being ‘laughed at’ rather than laughing with. But hey, it works?

On the other side of the spectrum (laughing with) there is Charlie Bit My Finger. A video uploaded (originally) purely for the joy of a family – it soon became a force to be reckoned with. It was reported that the Davies-Carr family made over £100,000 in advertising revenue from the video alone. And the latest update? An NFT of the video was auctioned off in May 2021 for $760,999.

What was the difference between these two videos? Rebecca Black’s video was hated due to its cringe overproduction (both sonically and visually). Whereas, videos that were better received, especially in this era, were funny and candid home videos (Think the same vibe as You’ve Been Framed). It seems the more production and human mediation involved – the worse the reaction. It was kind of a tricky place for brands to enter and they had to tread carefully.

(sidenote: Rebecca Black re-released Friday recently)

Trying to get a Slice.

It’s now 2015 – and all across the world viral videos are being shared and remixed. Most importantly, people are pouring buckets of ice-cold water over their heads – raising over $220 MILLION for charity. You couldn’t even log on to Facebook without seeing all your loved ones, friends and enemies soaking themselves for charity.

What made the ALS ice bucket challenge so successful? In a nutshell: Its seamless combination of social media pressure, competitiveness, low barriers to entry (literally just a bucket and a camera) led to more than 2.4 million videos circulating on Facebook.

The challenge also echoed one of the previous viral movements we explored – chain letters. Through a mix of mass interest and individual identification, part of the ALS challenge was to identify and ‘tag’ potential candidates. Much like sending forward the story of Clarrissa the dead girl forward, people felt compelled to extend the virality themselves. Never underestimate the power of a participatory campaign! Giving people the opportunity to remix and remediate a viral campaign leads to reach and creativity.

But the search for virality doesn’t work for everyone – and this next campaign led to the death of over-produced virality. When Kendall Jenner offered a Pepsi can to a police officer to solve the tension at a protest, it went viral for all the wrong reasons. Twitter users expressed distaste for the clear attempt to create an overproduced, fake-‘woke’, and tone-deaf ‘pop culture moment’. As sites like Twitter and Reddit became more active, people became less and less happy with overproduced content – and became happier and happier to voice their opinions.

What started with Rebecca Black, quickly became part of the general public’s hatred for overproduced, clinical and corporate attempts at virality.

Here lies manufactured virality.

Rest in Peace.

TikTok

Unless? What’s this? A new challenger approaches?

TikTok completely re-invigorated the viral video. By taking aspects of the most successful viral campaigns – viral videos on TikTok are often casually produced and candid, invite remixability and remediation from the audience and think quite deeply about crowd psychology; TikTok has become the new breeding ground to head to if you want to try and get viral.

Yeah, it’s still hard work and requires some (Spin) creative geniuses – but there doesn’t seem to be a better time to give it a shot!

But, listen, we aren’t going to give all of our secrets away in one singular blog post. So keep your eyes peeled on our Instagram for the very best TikTok tips. And who knows… maybe there will be some useful stuff posted here soon?

TLDR:

🚀 Make your content remixable.

🧠 Take inspiration from past examples of virality.

🎉 Overproduction is not good! So, watch out!

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