Viral videos are just part of our world today. If you say something went viral, most people would understand that you meant it was something (a video, an article, a post, an image) online that spread incredibly quickly and got a whole lot of attention. Sometimes they are viral because we love them. Sometimes they are viral because we hate them (or love to hate them).
Michael Wesch discusses this phenomenon, or at least part of it, during his Library of Congress presentation An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube (starting at 1:50). He shares a video that many of us on the web encountered in 2005, dubbed The Numa Numa Guy. This video was an intentional expression of joy attached to listening, lip syncing, and dancing to Dragostea Din Tei by O-zone, a song that went viral and gained popularity around the world. The phenomenon, as Wesch describes, coincided with the beginning of YouTube and the joy spread. Gary Brolsma, the Numa Numa Guy, knowingly recorded the video and, we assume, was the one who initially shared it. He has capitalized on his fame, becoming a YouTube celebrity and having his own channel.
There are all sorts of viral videos and types of viral content. Cat videos spread widely. One wedding video went viral in an awesome way. Gangnam style spread and inspired tons of others with parodies, cartoons, etc. When twerking videos became popular, Jimmy Kimmel actually released a fake video just to see how quickly and widely viral it would go. Viral has a dark side too, though. Just like hate-reading, our attention and clicks aren’t always awesome.
[I would share the next video but as you see below, sometimes sharing is not caring]
Wesch mentions another video that went viral before YouTube but continued to spread, the “Star Wars Kid.” That video was something very different. Unlike Gary Brolsma, Ghyslain Raza had no intention of sharing the video of him wielding a lightsaber. A classmate decided to share it for him with the intent of humiliating him. And it worked. The video became famous as a whole lot of people got to anonymously watch this boy battle like a Jedi and mock him for doing so. McLeans ran an article on him 10 years later, speaking out about what happened to him and naming it as cyberbullying. Monica Lewinsky did a powerful TED talk about the price of shame which deals with her experiences in the media age and the impact that it had on her that sharing was oh so easy.
Likewise, the people behind memes have had varied experiences. The Success Kid leveraged his fame as a meme into fundraising to help his dad get a transplant earlier this year. Others could do without the fame and the mocking that usually comes with the meme.
So where is the line between good viral and bad? What messages do we need to learn about our digital citizenship out of this concept? One part would clearly be the intent to share. Ghyslain Raza did not want to share his video while Gary Brolsma definitely did. Sometimes it is about the message that goes with the sharing. The viral wedding video I shared is a moment of joy. The people who shared it mostly did so because they thought it was fun. The people who made a meme of the Hipster Barista shared his image to mock him and mock his career and lifestyle.
I used to work for Offbeat Bride, a blog on alternative weddings. The editors actually had to write a post on what to do when your wedding goes viral. That article wasn’t about the awesome wedding video I shared, though. It was about the dark side of viral, the side where people share something to mock it. Just like the spread of the Star Wars Kid video, it can be all too easy to spread something to mock it, imitate it not to pay homage and venerate but to be snarky and bully someone. Too often, we forget that the thing we mock is actually about someone real. While we laud everyone who puts down their phone and all-too-often dismiss the reality of online, Nathan Jurgenson is correct that much of what is shared online is actually real. The person in that meme, the couple whose wedding we dismiss as tacky, the vlogger who shares something, the people whose photos are hacked and leaked online, those are all real people.
The extreme example would be internet trolls. Some people delight in being cruel, treat online as one big playground for their nastiness. There is a varying degree of anonymity as some happily send death threats, others just leave nasty random comments that are easy to dismiss.
What we share matters. How we share it matters. We as people on the internet need to consider what we share, what we post. For students, that is also important. It is so easy to drop in a link, read snarky sites, whip up a quick meme with an image we find hilarious. But where is the real behind it? What is the story? What message are we sending with that medium that we didn’t consider?
Have you contributed? I know I saw the Star Wars Kid video way back. I’ve laughed at memes and only later wondered if the person in it really wanted their picture used that way. (This is why I love Creative Commons images so much, then I know!) I’ve read FailBlog and facepalmed at all sorts of things. But I’m trying to be more thoughtful, especially in what I share.
So, to sum it up with Wheaton’s Law…