For every Charlie who bites his brother's finger and becomes an international sensation (417 million views!), the Internet – and specifically YouTube – is littered with the barely watched video documentation of hundreds of thousands of people whose random, goofy moment in the sun went unheralded. A statistic from the December 2011 issue of Wired revealed that 48 hours' worth of video content is uploaded to YouTube every single minute, which means the noise-to-signal ratio is skewed so heavily in favor of the former that the odds of breaking through and becoming the next "Chocolate Rain" guy (76 million views) seem as remote as cashing in on Powerball.
Yet in marketing meetings across America, companies still talk about "going viral" like it's the key to success. Aspiring comedians hoping to find an audience for a fake eHarmony ad about how they want to hug every cat (20 million views) feel like they have more power than ever, and those random, magic moments where your husky says "I love you" (67 million views) can land an otherwise normal family on the Today show.
At South by Southwest Interactive, all of this is a subject of intense fascination. There are panels such as Hacking YouTube: Science & Secrets of Viral Videos and Deconstructing the Myth of Viral Video scheduled to explain the "viral characteristics" that have taken things like Charlie's finger-biting from a living room in England to worldwide fame and which posit that these days the key to going viral is – disappointingly – a well-funded media campaign.
Lindsey Weber is a senior creative editor for BuzzFeed, a site that offers "the hottest, most social content on the Web" according to its tagline – and she says that there's not much difference, from an end-user perspective, between the branded content that everyone has come to SXSW Interactive to learn more about and the "Charlie Bit My Finger"s of the world. "Funny is funny," Weber says. "Things that aren't funny won't be viral, and things that are will be."
Weber, who'll be speaking on the panel Branded Content: We're All Publishers Now, cautions that it's too easy to expect that money is the key to comedy. Most branded campaigns aren't the Old Spice "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" video (39 million views), and Weber explains that there are challenges to being well-funded, too. "With more money you can do more, but that isn't necessarily funnier. Low-budget is often funnier," she says.
The other similarity between the people who make the spontaneous homemade videos that go viral – such as the one in which a little boy gives a motivational speech to other kids learning to ride a bike (4 million views) – and those that are contracted to create content by a corporation is that they're both increasingly relevant at a place like SXSW Interactive.
Last year at the conference, Jorge Narvaez and his 6-year-old daughter Alexa, who had blown up YouTube the previous January with a video of them performing an adorable acoustic cover of the Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros song "Home" with Alexa on lead vocals (19 million views), were the toast of the Austin Convention Center. While big brands – and countless small ones – are stalking SXSW for a formula for success, the people who've found it by accident are luxuriating in their unexpected fame.
This year, expect to see Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonin, whose cover of Chris Brown's "Look at Me Now" featured Heidemann – a petite, delicate-featured white girl prone to wearing vintage dresses – rapping the Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne parts, and subsequently landed them on Ellen's couch and the SNL stage, as well as other newly famous stars, some of whom may not even be famous yet.
Mitchell Reichgut, the founder and CEO of the Jun Group, will be presenting the Deconstructing the Myth of Viral Video panel, and he says that the people who go viral randomly probably grate on the nerves of the companies who spend a fortune trying to replicate their success. "A lot of brands work very hard," he says. "They see the success that [a company] like Old Spice has and say 'I want that, too,' then they throw a big party on YouTube and nobody shows up. That happens a lot, and it must be very frustrating for them to see something some kid shot in the back of a car on a cell phone that gets tens of millions of people watching it."
And while there's still a Wild West feel to how all of this works – "One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that you can be a kid in your basement with a guitar, and if people want to see your video, you can get out there," Reichgut says – ultimately the expectations of the people who are working viral video as a business have stopped trying to generate the next "Charlie Bit My Finger" or even the next Old Spice campaign. "Our clients used to come to us two or three years ago and say, 'I want a cultural meme. I want this to be passed around and change popular culture!'" Reichgut laughs. "Now, it's much more sober: Brands will come to us and say, 'I want to reach a million people. How much does that cost?' It's much more of a business now."
At SXSW Interactive, those businesses – and the spectacle of viral video stars whose success they hope to emulate – come together. Hopefully nobody's fingers get bitten.
Hacking YouTube: Science & Secrets of Viral Videos
Saturday, March 10, 11am
InterContentinal Stephen F. Austin, Capital Ballroom A
Deconstructing the Myth of Viral Video
Monday, March 12, 5:45pm
Hyatt Regency Austin, Texas Ballroom 4-7
Branded Content: We're All Publishers Now
Tuesday, March 13, 12:30pm
Sheraton Austin, Creekside I & II
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