quick note on “viral” video

Amy Arden just asked me how videos go viral and what factors have an impact on a video’s spread.  We have thought quite a bit about this, and currently our thinking can be summed up like this, “It’s not about producing for a mass, but building a critical mass.”   For a video to go viral it has to do more than just passively entertain.  It has to co-opt the viewer into *wanting* to spread it.  The key then is to look at what motivates people to spread videos.  There are many motivations: political, presenting identity, just sharing something amazing or funny, etc.  Likewise it is equally important to look at what might stop people from spreading a video.  For example, people do not spread videos that might make them look bad for having enjoyed it, or videos they don’t want to be associated with.  An obvious example would be to point out that pornography does not ever go viral (and porn 2.0 has never happened), because people generally keep such things private and to themselves.


Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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9 Responses

  1. John Jones says:

    Interesting point, but wouldn’t Two Girls, One Cup be classified as pornography? How would you account for the viral nature of that video (or is it just the exception that proves the rule)?

    More generally, perhaps when we talk about viral objects, we must always be discussing the populations in which they are contagious.

  2. Prof Wesch says:

    I thought of that example as I was writing, and think it went viral precisely because it was *not* a turn-on for most people. It went viral as something outrageous. The act of sending it was almost like playing a practical joke – a bit like a Rick-Roll – or the more classic pre-internet “made you look” game.

    And yes, definitely looking at the populations in which they are contagious is important, as well as the technologies common within those populations. The videos that go viral through e-mail (Charlie bit my finger) are often very different than those that go viral through Digg (Ron Paul videos, Anonymous vs. Scientology, etc.).

  3. John Jones says:

    Good point. I suppose I was thinking of pornography as obscenity.

  4. Tania says:

    Regarding the Two Girls, One Cup video – from what I remember, the other viral component of it was the “game” of recording people’s reaction. People were watching other people watching before they watched it.

    This interactive component (similar to popular YouTube videos that ask their viewers thought-provoking questions or the LOL Cats phenomenon) seems to be another factor contributing to videos going viral.

    Or is that what makes it a “meme” – and do you differentiate between the two?

  5. AJ Christian says:

    To jump onto the TGOC thread, I agree that there haven’t really been viral porn videos, but “porn 2.0″ does exist .On xTube, YouPorn and a host of smaller sites, videos become very popular, reaching into the hundreds of thousands of views: people favorite them, subscribe to other people’s channels, and comment on videos. The UG social networking site “ning.com,” has a number of porn communities, from gay to fetish and everything in between. Are these videos going “viral”? I guess not, at least not by the traditional definition. However, porn too can be a person-to-person, community activity in some corners of the web.

  6. Prof Wesch says:

    Good point, AJ. It would be interesting to study the differences between porn 2.0 and broader web 2.0 trends. While some basic web 2.0 functionality has been brought into the YouTube porn clones, the types of community and sharing seem very different – and some web 2.0 technologies such as memediggers and tagging seem completely absent.

  7. zokoelloco says:

    As anticipated, most our (male?) comments are about porn 2.0 and our excitement twards this hippy future…

    I was really wondering about “It’s not about producing for a mass, but building a critical mass”.
    our perception is built on redundency, repeating motion or
    content that the mind could anylize most easily.

    an extreme experiment of this critical mass:

    we’re constantly being bombarded with news, rumors, gossip and porn that produce so much “mass”, we can’t stop and enjoy silly stuff like:


    thank you.

  8. Interesting post. I am currently doing some research about viral videos and why they spread and found a theory which might explain the reason why videos are forwarded (and go viral) quite well: The theory of social sharing of emotions. The baseline of this theory is, that people, if they are “emotionally aroused”, feel the urge to share their emotions with somebody else. And the easiest way to do this if a viral video arouses you emotionally is to forward it to your friends.

  1. June 27, 2008

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