Viral Video as Standard Object

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.

Quantifiable Data | Objective Information | Subjective Information

Quantifiable Data

Certain facts about videos, such as length, number of views, etc. can be objectively quantified. Listed below are the quantifiable numbers and data sources used in my analysis.

Length: Greenberg advises video makers to “keep it short.” Although Bourne sees a shift in the average length, she also notes that “the biggest web audience so far is people watching short, funny clips” (x). The length listed is that of the YouTube iteration of the video. Length is calculated in decimal fractions, based on minutes. For example, one minute thirty seconds = 1.5.

Total Views: The cumulative number of views listed on Viral Video Chart. These are not unique views and therefore include repeat viewings.

YouTube Views: The number of views of the most viewed version of the video on YouTube. These also include repeat viewings and do not represent the number of unique viewers.

Months: The number of months that have passed since a video is listed as having been “discovered” on the Viral Video Chart. This may differ from the date on which the video was initially uploaded.

Rating: The user rating from YouTube, out of five possible stars. Users must be signed in to their YouTube account in order to rate videos. The ratings are described by YouTube as: one = “Poor”; two = “Nothing Special”; three = “Worth Watching”; four = “Pretty Cool”; five = “Awesome!”

Number of Ratings: the number of users who have rated the video on YouTube.

Ratio of Ratings / YouTube Views: The ratio of ratings per YouTube views. The use of ratios will allow comparisons between videos with different view counts. Due to the formatting constraints of Excel and Many Eyes, this number is represented in the data set as a percentage. Example: Ratings:YouTube Views = 9085:2852101 = 1:313 = .32%

Total comments: The cumulative number of comments from all sites, as shown on the Viral Video Chart.

Ratio Total Comments / Total Views: The ratio of comments made per total views.

YouTube Comments: The number of comments on YouTube. This number is not adjusted for spam comments. It stand to reason that the more popular a video is, the more spam comments it will receive, and therefore spam comments are also indicative of popularity.

Favorites: The number of users who have made the video a “favorite” on YouTube. This information is not available for every video.

Ratio Favorites / YouTube Views: Recorded only for the YouTube videos that make this information available. The number of times a video has been favorited per YouTube views.

Blog Posts: The number of blog posts that reference a video, according to the Viral Video Chart.

Tweets: The number of tweets that reference a video, according to the Viral Video Chart. Unruly Media began tracking tweets in September 2009. Videos discovered prior to this date reflect an inaccurate number of total tweets

English Buzz: The percentage of blog posts and tweets in English, according to the Viral Video Chart.

Return to Top.

Objective Information

This data represents objective information that is not quantifiable, but is easily culled from either the Viral Video Chart or YouTube.

Chart: Viral Video Chart tracks videos that are the most popular “right now”, for the past seven days, thirty days, three-hundred-sixty-five days, and “all-time.” “Week” indicates a video peaked on the seven day list. “Month” is a video that has gone as far as the thirty day list, and “Year” is a video that made the three hundred and sixty-five day list. “All-time” is a video on the list of videos most popular since the chart began tracking these statistics.

Tags: These are the descriptive tags applied by the owner of the YouTube video. YouTube tags are “folksonomical” in that the user can use any words or phrases to describe her video.

Category: This is the category selected by the owner of the YouTube video. In contrast to tags, there is only one category allowed and it must be selected from a list of fifteen pre-existing options. In other words, the category is not folksonomical.

Purpose: I apply a purpose to the video, regardless of its user-assigned YouTube category. The possible purposes are educational, political, advertising, entertainment (comedy), entertainment (dramatic), and entertainment (music).

Fake Headlines: Greenberg’s intended effect is to make the viewer say “Holy cow, did that actually happen?” (Bourne 253). An example would be a video entitled “Sexy Chicks” that then features stop-motion animation of Peeps candy, “dressed” in lingerie. The video is assigned a Yes or No based upon whether or not it uses a misleading title.

Production Value: The conventional wisdom is that production value, or rather the lack thereof, matters. We may laugh at Ben Stiller for filming with a camera phone because “it makes it more viral,” but this is one of the basic assumptions of stealth marketing. Brooks Radighieri, the marketing manager for the company that produces Heely shoes, says, “It has more validity if it doesn’t look like a corporate sponsored video” (Gill 31). Leaving aside the question of companies faking an amateur look for their video, there are three categories to “production value.” The label “amateur” denotes a video that appears to have been filmed with consumer equipment and that does not feature any editing, supplemental soundtrack, etc. A “prosumer” video is one that shows evidence of editing and may have sound effects, visual effects, supplemental soundtrack, titles, etc. A “professional” video has discernible professional quality video, effects, editing, etc.

Very few of Bourne’s or Greenberg’s criteria have appeared thus far. This indicates that the key to the standard object “viral video” is not to be found in the its objective data. It is, however, worth tracking this information so that we may look for correlations between the objective / subjective, etc.

Return to Top.

Subjective Information

Most of the criteria listed by Bourne and Greenberg are based upon the viewer’s subjective experience of the video. They use broad terms such as “a good story” or “shocking” without attempting to define the term or explore any of it’s nuance. The following criteria is drawn from Bourne, Greenberg, and others who attribute the success of viral videos to subjective criteria.

Passion for the Subject: Bourne writes, “And I’ve found that passion for your topic and enthusiasm for sharing it keeps viewers coming back for more” (ix). In an interview with EepyBird, the duo behind the popular Diet Coke / Mentos fountain video, they echo Bourne’s thoughts on passion: “[EepyBird] discovered that passion, bordering on obsession, was one of the key things that made videos popular with viewers who pushed them into the most watched category” (250). Every video has at least a base level of discernible passion, in that the video maker recorded it and then uploaded it to at least one video sharing site. I rate each video, “Yes” or “No” depending upon evidence of passion above and beyond this base level. Other signs of passion might be discernible enthusiasm from a narrator, a subject matter that attempts to persuade people on a viewpoint, evidence of planning or rehearsal time necessary to produce the video, the owner’s engagement in the comments and responses to the video, etc.

Sociality: Bourne comes back to the topic of community again and again, emphasizing that participating in a pre-existing community, or taking steps to build a community around a video, is critical to “getting it noticed” (253). Bourne’s definition of community, which can be summed up as “social networking websites,” is too narrow for our purposes. For one, the groups that she describes are more like networks of social relations than the more traditional notion of community. She also seems to neglect that social networking platforms are not the only way in which online social relations are established. In an early approach to defining online group structures, Howard Rheingold writes, “virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (276). Granted, the idea of a “virtual community” is problematic. However, if “social networks” is substituted for “virtual communities,” Rheingold’s definition still has something left to offer. “Long enough” and “sufficient human feeling” are slippery terms but we can utilize the idea of the public discussion as the basis of the characteristic of online social relations. Here public discussion can mean the dialogic, such as that exhibited on social networking sites, but also the monologic, as found on static web pages that do not explicitly provide a forum for discussion. The importance of discussion and sociality cannot be underestimated. Regarding Internet discourse, Mark Poster writes, “on the Internet, individuals construct their identities in relation to ongoing dialogues, not as acts of pure self-consciousness” (267). Pierre Levy notes, “the emergence and constant redefinition of distributed identities will not only take place within the institutional framework of business, but through cooperative interactions in an international cyberspace” (255). Sociality, fostered through ongoing dialogues on the Internet, allows viewers to construct their identity. If a video offers affirmation of this identity, it is likely to be favored by a community.

Each video is assigned a number for “sociality” that is determined by adding one point for the presence of any of the following verifiable instances of public discussion: comments on YouTube; an external website; a fan club or other supporting organization; merchandise related to the video; spoofs, parodies, or references in other cultural texts; video responses or re-mixes on YouTube. The highest possible sociality rating is six.

Re-mixability: Greenberg advises video makers to create with the re-mix in mind. The more one’s video is re-mixed, the more attention the subject gets, and the more attention is likely to be pointed back to the initial video. Greenberg cites “simplicity” as the key to re-mixability (Bourne 253). However, complexity does not necessarily rule out the re-mix. Rather than trying to evaluate each video’s simplicity, we will instead look to whether it has been re-mixed as an indicator, not of simplicity, but of the text’s invitation to re-mix. While the absence of any re-mixes on YouTube does not mean that a video is not re-mixable, the presence of one indicates that it is. Thus videos are classified as “Yes” if a re-mix has been created and posted to YouTube. “No” indicates that re-mixes are not available via YouTube, neither in the “video responses” nor the “related videos” sections.

Advertising Transparency: This characteristic is closely related to the production value in that the transparency of an ad may be manipulated in order to align with the standard object for a viral video. In this case, I take advertising to mean the promotion of a product, a political candidate, or the services of a performer, such as a comedian. The promotion of ideologies, divorced from a product or particular person, does not count as advertising. If the video is an advertisement, how explicit is its advertising purpose? A score of zero indicates no evidence of an advertising purpose, a one is implicit advertising, and a two is explicit advertising.

Sex Appeal: In his advice to hire the most attractive women available, Greenberg is reinforcing the belief that the audience for viral video is largely made up of heterosexual males. Certainly videos intended for a male, hetero audience can be re-purposed to serve the desires of other communities; however, these videos continue to do the work of creating a hetero-normative web space. Thus, the “sex appeal” characteristic is evaluated in terms of the presence of hetero-normative sexuality. A zero exhibits no sexual content, a one contains implicit appeals to hetero-normative desires, and a two features explicit heterosexual activity.

Shock: The only definition of shock given by Greenberg is that it is meant to “give the viewer no choice but to investigate further” (Bourne 253). Generally to shock someone is to confuse them or offend them and there are certainly viral videos that operate on this principle. However, many of the most popular videos operate fall more into the range of surprise or awe. Thus, “shock” is sub-divided into the following characteristics, all of which are assigned a number between zero and two:

Technical skill or talent: This could be singing, dancing, gymnastics maneuvers, gaming proficiency, Photoshop techniques, etc. Videos are assigned a numerical value as either zero (no emphasis on technical skill or talent), one (some emphasis on technical skill or talent), or two (a difficult skill is the main subject of the video)

Danger: Danger is more closely related to Greenberg’s idea of shock and refers to videos that exhibit JackAss-like stunts or other dangerous behaviors. A score of zero indicates no danger present in the video, while a score of one indicates some danger, and a two contains highly dangerous activities.

Incongruity: Unforeseen actions or events can also shock a viewer. If nothing unexpected occurs during the video, it is scored zero. A score of one is assigned for some level of incongruity and a two indicates that unforeseen events or actions are the central to the video.

Thought-provoking: Closer to the “surprise” end of the scale, a video that scores high in “thought-provoking” provides new ideas or information, showcases new technologies or inventions, or shows evidence of the video maker’s self-reflection or extended community discussion. A zero score means the video presents no new ideas or information, while a one indicates some level of thought-provoking, and a two if the video is centered on material intended to provoke thought . Alternatively, a video may score a two in this area if the YouTube comments exhibit a high degree of self-reflection or discussion.

Aggregate Shock: The sum of a video’s scoring in Technical Skill, Danger, Incongruity, and Thought-provoking. Since one video may invoke various types and degrees of shock, the aggregate score offers a way to assess Greenberg’s general advice to be shocking.

Humor: Closely related to “shock” is humor, though this is another category that requires some explication. We have already noted Bourne’s assertion that the majority of the audience for web videos are for short, funny clips. Certainly the popularity of sites like or employ this strategy. Andrew Wallenstein, deputy editor of digital media for The Hollywood Reporter, notes, “If you’re going to create a video destination that makes a profit, comedy is likely the way to do it” (della Cava 1D). As with shock, “humor” comes in many forms. The subcategories for “humor” are:

Cute: Cute videos tend to feature animals or young children. Adolescents and adults can also be “cute” if they exhibit behavior that is endearing to the audience. The Star Wars Kid is an excellent example of this – his clear enthusiasm combined with his clumsy execution add an element of “cute” to the video. A video is scored zero if there are no elements of cute present, a one if there is some cute present, and a two if cute is the central component of the video.

Grotesque: Andrew Stott defines grotesque humor as “an embodiment of the abject” (87). This may include body parts or scatological humor, or more generally, the bizarre or monstrous. A zero is assigned if a video contains no elements of the grotesque. One is assigned if there are some elements of the grotesque and a two is assigned if the grotesque is the central element of the video.

Superiority: The superiority theory of humor results in the viewer feeling intellectually, morally, or physically superior to the subject of the humor (Stott 131-132). A zero is assigned if no feelings of superiority are engendered by the video. If the video inspires some feelings of superiority, it is assigned a one. A two is given if the viewer’s feeling of superiority is the organizing principle of the video.

Slapstick: In slapstick, ‘physical humour of a robust and hyperbolized nature where stunts, acrobatics, pain and violence are standard features” (Stott 92). A video labeled zero in this area does not feature any slapstick. A one features some physical stunts, acrobatics, pain, or violence. A two treats physical stunts, acrobatics, pain, or violence as its central subject.

Absurdity: Closely related to incongruity in the shock category, absurdity is an “inversion of cultural orthodoxies” (Stott 8). A zero has no inversion or humorous incongruity. A one has some level of inversion or incongruity, and a two features inversion or incongruity as is central component.

Satire: According to Stott, “satire aims to denounce folly and vice and urge ethical and political reform through the subjection of ideas to humorous analysis” (109). A video is assigned a zero if it does not contain any satire. A one is assigned if there are some satirical elements present, and a two is assigned if satire is the organizing principle of the video.

Aggregate Humor: The sum of a video’s score in Cute, Grotesque, Superiority, Slapstick, Absurdity, and Satire.

Aesthetics: Aside from “affect,” which is outlined below, aesthetics is the most subjective of all lenses through which to view viral video. The aim of this section is not to pass judgment on the value or effectiveness of a video’s aesthetic qualities. Rather, the “aesthetics” vector is included to indicate whether or not a video maker has made any discernible efforts to imbue his video with aesthetic qualities. Therefore, the numerical value for aesthetics is assigned based on the presence or absence of verifiable aesthetic components. These are: a supplemental soundtrack, titles or end-credits, discernible art direction or production design, abstract images, animation or special effects, attention to language, or presence of narrative. One point is awarded for the presence of each element, with the exception of narrative, which may count for as many as three points for the inclusion of the representation of one or more events, the presence of one or more characters, and a setting that contributes to the video’s effect.

Affect: Affect is another area in which the goal of the video maker and the viewer’s response can take various forms. Each area of affect is assigned a numerical value between zero and two. A zero indicates that the video is not intended to invoke this particular emotional response. A one indicates that the video may evoke this response on some level. A two is assigned when the video’s explicit purpose is to evoke this emotion.

Patriotism: Feelings of goodwill toward or pride in one’s country are inspired by the video.

Sympathy: The viewer is meant to feel sympathetic toward another person’s situation or is inspired to cheer for the underdog, as a result of the video.

Call to Action: The video motivates the viewer to action. This could be political action, but does not include the “call to purchase.”

Positive Affect: The video inspires positive feelings in the viewer, which may range from feeling good to be alive, to feeling positive towards humanity, to a positive sense of nostalgia, etc. This might be otherwise thought of as the “warm and fuzzy” effect.

Aggregate Affect: The sum of a video’s total in Patriotism, Sympathy, Call to Action, and Positive Affect.

Return to Top.