A Matrix for Evaluating Viral Video

by Kim Knight, PhD

Emerging Media and Communication
University of Texas at Dallas


The following is related to, or excerpted from, "Viral Video: Standard Object, Strange Signal," the second chapter of my book manuscript, Media Epidemics: Viral Structures in Literature and New Media. None of the information on any of the pages contained herein may be reproduced in any fashion without my express written consent.

It's All About the Internet Now: Viral Video as Standard Object

A video short, produced for the 2008 MTV Movie Awards parodies the impetus for marketing campaigns to “go viral.” The video features Tropic Thunder co-stars Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr. plotting to make a viral video to promote their film release. Stiller confidently tells the others “Cuz it’s all about the internet now.” When Black questions Stiller about his use of a camera phone he responds “because it makes it more viral.” Next we are introduced to Carl, Stiller’s 13-year old nephew who sits in a chair, text messaging and giving unenthusiastic feedback about the trio’s video production. When first queried on what he’d like to see, Carl replies “You can kick Panda [Jack Black wearing a Kung Fu Panda character mask] in the nuts.” When this fails to elicit an enthusiastic response, the three try different stunts that culminate in Carl’s suggestion that Stiller and Downey Jr. blow Black’s head off because “there is one thing [he has] never seen.”

The absurdity of the parody aside, the MTV short video is indicative of the wider belief that there is a certain formula that will make a video viral, and that the audience for this video is most likely comprised of adolescent males. These beliefs articulate the standard object “viral video.” Of the standard object, Matthew Fuller writes, “the standard object is that moment when misplaced concreteness becomes productive rather than simply reductive” (169). The role of the standard object as productive is evident in episodes of the reality television shows The Apprentice and I Want to Work for Diddy in which contestants are tasked with making a viral video. On both shows, the teams engage in juvenile stunts and obnoxious pratfalls, resulting in videos that range from boring to offensive. They seem to follow the “viral video” handbook, including the use of shock value, sex appeal, and bait and switch tactics. These tactics are at odds with the charts on Viral Video Chart, which indicate that the standard object fails to account for the most popular videos.

Perhaps studies of viral video are so focused on formulating a recipe for virulence that they overlook that there are commonalities that cannot be encapsulated in the tastes of a thirteen year old heterosexual boy. The goal is neither to establish a recipe for a successful viral video, nor to develop a set of sociological metrics into which video data can be plugged and results calculated. Rather, my goal is to follow up on my hunch that the videos with the most enduring popularity have something more to offer than “wardrobe malfunctions”, “gross-outs” and “smackdowns” (Parks). It is best then to think of what follows, not as a set of criteria, but rather a series of lenses through which to view viral video, or an inventory of vectors which intersect in unpredictable ways to form the varied instances of viral video in the media ecology of this moment and this context. In order to get a sense of a sufficient number of videos and their vectors, it will be necessary to take a helicopter approach, hovering far above the characteristics of the videos to determine patterns.

In order to seek out these patterns, I have selected a day at random and captured the Viral Video Chart for September 24, 2009. As an attempt to sketch the outlines of viral video as standard object, this day is as good as any other. It is an ordinary day, a Thursday, upon which I took a sample of the most popular videos of All-time, the past 365 days, the past 30 days, and the past 7 days. I have compiled a data-set with the information that is outlined in Viral Video as Standard Object.

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