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In the marketing industry we’re used to thinking of viral content in terms of branded collateral that’s been specifically designed to spread via digital word of mouth amongst our target audience. But, really, most of the material that’s created by brands is anything but viral.
Content goes viral because it’s funny, shocking or just really interesting, and it’s very rare that any marketing collateral genuinely ticks these boxes. At least 90 percent of branded ‘viral’ content is so painfully lame that it doesn’t stand the slightest chance of millions of people sharing it with their friends so that it spreads across the internet like, well, a virus.
Most companies which try to do viral marketing campaigns end up being severely disappointed when they learn that consumers aren’t particularly interested in distributing their adverts for them.
You do not make viral content, nor can you make your content go viral. Viral is what happens if you make a really great piece of content and you work hard to get it seen by a lot of people and you’re lucky enough to attract enough of their attention to convince them that your content is worth sharing. Or, as somebody a lot more concise than me once said: “Viral is a reward, not an intent.”
Let’s not forget that most genuinely viral content is not created for marketing purposes, it’s not trying to sell you anything, it’s usually just something funny. But where does this stuff come from if it’s not commercial? Who sits around all day putting funny captions on pictures of cats, or rewriting the subtitles on Downfall clips? And why?
From underground to mainstream
Like many other aspects of our culture, such as music or comedy, a lot of viral content starts its life in experimental, underground communities long before it filters through into the mainstream consciousness. A simple funny video or image will often first surface in a popular content sharing community like Reddit or Digg, or any number of more niche-focused discussion forums. The members of those communities, who tend to be the kind of people who are keen to be the first to find and share new content, are then likely to begin sharing the content externally via email and social networks, which kickstarts the viral spread to the broader internet.
But quite often it doesn’t stop there. The community will take a piece of content and edit it, make alternative versions of it, and mash it up with other content – this creates a ‘meme.’ The word meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene, to describe a unit of social information, but it has been adopted by the online world to describe a kind of running joke based around a particular idea.
The classic example of an internet meme is “lolcats” examples of which can be found here. It all started with somebody posting an image of a tubby looking cat looking quizzically at the camera and asking “I can haz cheezburger?” You may or may not think it’s a funny picture, depending on your point of view, but it struck a chord with the members of the forum where it was first posted and they all began to create similar images following the same basic format: a photo of a cat with a funny caption written in kind of pidgin English. The mother of all memes was born.
The internet’s creative engine room
The lolcat meme started life on websites like SomethingAwful and 4chan. You may not have heard of either of these sites but they have had an inestimable impact on modern culture, particularly the latter. To outsiders they might seem like impenetrable fortresses of in-jokes, geeky humour and obscure references, but they’re also home to a bubbling cauldron of experimental creativity. The members of these communities are responsible for creating many of the memes and virals that have become hugely popular over recent years.
Even more interestingly, the Anonymous activist collective was heavily inspired by 4chan, but that’s a much larger topic which warrants an entire post of its own. The point is that places like 4chan represent the coming together of a lot of creative, intelligent young minds and, inevitably, a lot of interesting (or just plain funny) ideas come out of these communities.
But back to the lolcats example. Once the original idea had been spawned in the more underground corners of the internet, it spilled over into communities which are more geared towards sharing content, sites like Reddit and Digg as mentioned earlier. Once something catches the attention of these ‘social news’ sites, it’s only a matter of time before it reaches the tipping point to become truly viral.
In the case of lolcats, an enterprising individual spotted the potential of this rising trend and built a website around it: http://icanhascheezburger.com/ Since its launch in 2007 the owner of the site has built up a large network of websites based around various popular memes, turning viral content into a profitable business. Most recently they added http://knowyourmeme.com/ to the network, which is a great place to learn more about popular (or even obscure) internet memes.
This process is mirrored in all aspects of our culture; creative ideas start life in experimental, underground communities (4chan), they get picked up by influential cool-hunters (Reddit) and eventually tip over into the mainstream.
The future of memes
The strength of 4chan is also its weakness; it’s unwelcoming to outsiders. The design of the site isn’t particularly user-friendly and the overall atmosphere of the site is alienating to anybody who isn’t already part of the community. There’s also a lot of very NSFW content. This is a good thing, because it allows the community to maintain its essential character; but it also means that a lot of people who might have been able to contribute end up staying away.
Christopher ‘moot’ Poole, the creator of 4chan, is currently developing a new site which is essentially a much more accessible version of 4chan. I’ve taken a look at the beta version of Canv.as and I’m convinced that it’s going to be huge once it opens to the public.
Canv.as uses a visual interface to make it very easy and intuitive for people to share, modify, rate and comment on images and animations. In short, it’s perfect for streamlining the collective creative process that goes into producing memes and viral content.