buy zithromax gradually remember buy lasix online penis 5 Acquired prednisolone online dry covers beta-carotene buy lexapro win light foods buy erythromycin online sleeping Beyond flagyl online discussing self-love buy suprax manifestations

10 Dec, 2009 – 33 comments

stop saying viral video

Alright, let’s put a nail in this zombie’s head.

How a virus works: A virus is essentially a set of genetic instructions wrapped in a protein. Outside of a living cell, a virus is inert. Once attached to a host cell, a virus injects its instructions into the cell, which takes over the normal machinery of that cell for the express purpose of producing more virus particles and assembling those particles. The virus particles then reach a critical mass and break free from the host cell in order to find a new cell to commandeer. The only purpose of a virus is to produce more of itself.

We began applying the viral term to digital environments with the invention of the computer virus.
This made some sense. Computer viruses often primarily function to reproduce themselves; to seize the normal functions of the system and use it to infect every host file the system accesses. Add the internet, and viruses begin to commandeer email applications in order to infect more and more systems. (these days the viral term is erroneously used to describe malware, adware, and spyware, which are not created to copy themselves)

Then came the marketers.

When we began to spend more and more of our time within networked digital systems, more examples of highly shared content appeared – this sharing occurred long before YouTube or a wide-adoption of video, but it’s safe to say that when YouTube came along, the marketers started paying attention to what we were watching.

Maybe it was because of arrogance… Perhaps marketers couldn’t fundamentally understand why we were all sharing and spreading clips of large men lip-syncing to European hit singles rather than their award winning commercials. And maybe this is why the term viral took hold – because to the marketers it must have seemed that if Numa Numa could have millions of views, almost anything could (which is true, in a way). Regardless, the viral term was applied to these videos and it has taken hold. Language tends to do that and we often tend to take artistic license with terms, marketers especially so. Big deal. Right?

Artistic license should be used to illuminate, not to obfuscate.

Jump to today. Brands now have viral video budgets. A whole new type of advertising agency has risen to life with the sole offering of creating viral videos and every other creative agency has that department or staff for that purpose. I see, at least once a month if not once a week, a slide in an agency presentation with the header of ‘Viral Video Concepts.’ We have viral video chart sites tracking top YouTube videos, books on how to create viral videos, seminars, and webinars, and marketers still don’t fundamentally understand what the hell they’re talking about.

Words matter.

They’ve pulled the wool over their own eyes. They’ve labeled the phenomenon by its visible effect, not its cause, and they’ve ignored it ever since. “Videos go viral because they’re viral videos, duh. Don’t you see the title of this slide? It says viral right in the title! And don’t worry, we’ve got some great tags, and we’re uploading it to all of the major video sites. We’re aces.” Aces, alright.

Viral assumes the mechanism for distribution is built right in. It’s not.

Here’s what a viral video would actually be: I receive a link from a friend to watch a hilarious YouTube video of a cat walking on a birthday cake. I click said link. Some malicious code on the page copies itself to my computer. That code continues to replicate across my system files. To make the marketers happy, that video also commandeers my social network profiles and publishes the same link to the hilarious video of a cat walking on a birthday cake. The same code has also corrupted my browser, now any video I want to watch is replaced with the link to the hilarious video of a cat walking on a birthday cake. (someone please write this code)

Viruses are inherently malicious because they disrupt the normal mechanics of a system. Trust me giant global brand, you don’t want to keep calling it a viral video. At some point, people may have different feelings about you huddled in some dark corner engineering viral videos to infect us with some advertising message.

Ultimately, we’re missing the point; and the point is people.

Whether you have a popular hit or near-invisible flop is solely up to people. People have to see your content and then feel motivated to spread that content on your behalf. Therefore, we have to create media that is spreadable.

Spreadable media

Spreadable media is created with an understanding of the communities of people to be courted.

Spreadable media is created so that members of those communities can easily find it. And when members of a community share it, they can use spreadable media to spot other members of their community based on their reactions.

Spreadable media is a term coined by Henry Jenkins and his research colleagues at the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT.

Spreadable media puts people’s motivations at the forefront of its creation.

What motives, you ask?

This particular section of Henry’s work deals with motivations for spreading content, not probabilities.

On top of the core question of why someone shares a piece of content, there’s still the actual mechanic and act of doing so – which requires, principally, the time and attention for consideration.

Mike put it more simply in his post, the currency of online sharing,

What does this mean for the people trying to make spreadable media? Well, before you create anything, ask yourself, “Self, what communities am I trying to court with this content?” And then, “What about this content will motivate someone within one of those communities to share the content with someone else?” And then you can move on to, “How will anyone within any of these communities stumble upon my content to start with?”

Start thinking about people first.

Speaking of people (I’m a people).

I need your help.

I need you to help me put a stake in the viral vamp.

Next time you hear someone use the term viral erroneously, correct them. Send them to any of the posts linked to from here. Fix slide titles, call bullshit, and rename your department.

Be loud and troublesome.

In writing this post, I’m surely standing on the shoulders of more brilliant gents like Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Josh Green.

By the by, Henry is working on a new series on seven principles for transmedia storytelling, definitely give it a read.

Oh, and what should you say call a video if its been spread to millions of people? Popular. Add an adverb before popular for special emphasis (e.g. very popular)


  1. andrew
    andrew December 10, 2009 at 9:40 am .

    A great post and thanks for the adverb hint at the end.

  2. Phil Dearson
    Phil Dearson December 10, 2009 at 9:41 am .

    I wholeheartedly agree

  3. April Dunford
    April Dunford December 10, 2009 at 9:47 am .

    I really love this post. I don’t think it’s only us marketers that are to blame for term viral video but I do believe that we are heavily involved in keeping the term alive when it clearly doesn’t represent the thing we are talking about.
    Great post!

  4. Tive
    Tive December 10, 2009 at 10:29 am .

    Does it really matter? We all know what it means. Words change. Etymologically it’s fine. People don’t take ‘viral’ as a bad thing online anymore. Virus maybe, viral no.
    Do you also take issue with gay, cool, nice, hussy, utopia, naughty…? The list goes on.

  5. 8DC
    8DC December 10, 2009 at 11:27 am .

    There is a word for ideas that spread themselves like virii. Memes.

  6. Gary Edgar
    Gary Edgar December 10, 2009 at 2:23 pm .

    While I agree that viral isn’t a great term, I’m not sure I love the term spreadable much more. I think it’s a little arrogant to imagine you can create content that will become spreadable/viral. These things are almost always organic and just sort of happen.

    I mean who would have ever imagined a video about a guy dancing would become one of the most watched videos on Youtube?

  7. eskimon
    eskimon December 13, 2009 at 1:24 am .

    I see where Tive’s coming from – it doesn’t really matter what we call these things.

    But I think Bud’s point is more relevant: the name isn’t the problem; it’s what we think we’re doing that’s the issue.

    Content only becomes popular when people choose to share it.

    They initiate this sharing because they see a personal benefit in doing so. That reason is unlikely to be anything to do with promoting our brands; it’s because they want to connect with their friends and peers.

    And as Bud points out, we can’t force anyone to share stuff unless we resort to subversive tactics (more on that here).

    So we need to need to focus our efforts on creating content that people will relate to and engage with.

    That’s not really very different to what we’ve always done, but these days, it’s more obvious when people share things for us (e.g. play counts on YouTube).

    So how do we do we create things that people will choose to share?

    As always, we need to start with what they want (rather than what we want): what’s going to be of value to them? What will they want to share, and why?

    Only once we understand what our audiences want can we hope to become relevant to them.

  8. Greg McQueen
    Greg McQueen December 15, 2009 at 7:29 am .

    Language changes. I am smart enough to know that the term, “Viral Video,” is a marketing term. I don’t view it as negative.

    I mean, if someone says, “Check out this sick video,” I probably wouldn’t have bothered a few years ago. Now, “sick,” has a new meaning, as does the word, “viral,” or the term, “viral marketing.”

  9. Sam Ford
    Sam Ford December 17, 2009 at 10:35 am .

    Like Greg, I’m fascinated with watching how language changes. And the point is well taken. We can’t be static in how we understand a word and the ways it is used.

    To Gary’s point, the concern I have is about the mentality of the people who create a video. In the work we’re doing with this book project Bud’s talking about, our goal is not to replace one word with another, to “own” the new marketing buzzword, but rather to guide people to think about what logic a word brings with it and to make sure we are all in agreement on what we mean when we use a term.

    Perhaps Gary’s right and people would co-opt spreadable with the same sort of arrogant ethos to think something could be embedded in content to make people spread it. But, as Bud says, we intended the “able” to mean you would develop content that keeps in mind the audience’s potential motivation for sharing content and that invites them to collaborate on the definition and distribution of that content in some way. If you think about building your content as potential material for communities and the conversations they are having rather than content that has some magic quality that will force people to share it, one would hope that would lead to more compelling and useful content in the long run. Brands have to think of themselves as fodder for human communication and relationships in that case; the marketing we create and the content that entertainment properties push out will ultimately be material for people to argue, discuss, and build relationships around. Thinking of your materials as fodder for those relationships shapes the conversation differently than developing content that has something inherent people will have no choice but to share.

    In relation to eskimon’s comments above, I think it does matter what we call things because social connotation plays a role in how a word is heard. That connotation may change over time, to be sure, but words are signifiers of social meaning. Case-in-point with viral: 85% of companies in 2008 said their viral campaigns were failures. I’d ask two questions in relation to that: first, by calling them “viral” campaigns, how did that mean they were measuring success, and were some of these campaigns being viewed as failures because they didn’t get mass audience pick-up when that might have been a misplaced goal to begin with? And second if these campaigns were being labeled as “viral” to begin with, might it have shaped how people thought it should be developed in a way that ultimately made it less effective (i.e., putting deep energy and resources into one video that is expected to get picked up by millions, etc.)

    Appreciate the spirited debate, in any event, and many points well taken here. Thanks, Bud!

  10. Thomas Wagner
    Thomas Wagner December 17, 2009 at 3:21 pm .

    Great post and comments!

    I totally agree that semantics are very important in this case. The fact that “viral is a thing that happens, not a thing that is” (faris,, that it is about a form of media usage and not media effects can’t be repeated enough.

    The interesting part is that there is 20 to 30 year old, yet very insightful research from Lannon/Cooper, O’Donohoe, Ritson/Elliot and Buttle on the topic of (social/cultural) “uses and gratifications of advertising”. It just seems like these articles never made it into advertising agencies. (Wrote a bachelor thesis about the topic, in German unfortunately.)

  11. Conn Fishburn
    Conn Fishburn December 21, 2009 at 11:47 am .

    Very good thread here. I cringe ever time I hear a normally intelligent person use the words “viral video” not only because of the misuse of the term viral (but that is irritating too) but rather because they are misunderstanding the fundamental nature of what such a meme represents, which is the collective acknowledgement of intrinsic value of said cultural item. this generally will illicit some response (forwarding, sharing, posting, commenting, laughing). advertising/marketing very rarely contains any intrinsic value but rather is created as a forcing function to directly influence behavior.

    “viral” like “social” has become a marketing term with vague meaning not unlike the rise of the “brand agencies of the mid/late 90s” who were convinced that branding was the only thing that matter to a business. (caveat: i am a recovering brand and social guy)

    it’s encouraging to see smart, thoughtful people such as yourselves discussing this. i’m a fan of jenkins, yakob and jeff gomez. what’s interesting is that when you strip away all the jargon and BS is that what we’re really talking about is the creation of stories within cultures of people.

    which, somewhat ironically given current fascination with all things technical, is one of the oldest forms of art known to man. and telling a great story is also challenging. which is why it’s convenient to believe that there is a secret formula for it.

  12. Steven Wright
    Steven Wright April 6, 2010 at 11:24 am .

    I agree with the opinions here but I feel many of you are being too kind in respect to marketers and their lingo. I have noted in conversations with marketers, The very words “viral video” are accompanied by a sinister twinkle in their eye. As if they (fully aware of the biological definition of a virus but perhaps ignorant of the technology)imagined their videos spreading and replicating across the internet. Because of this I believe at least for some the misuse of the term “viral” is actually more of a freudian slip, revealing their intentions and expectations.

  13. OPM in Pictures #1 « SariSari Sounds
    OPM in Pictures #1 « SariSari Sounds September 29, 2011 at 12:19 am .
  14. Edahn Small
    Edahn Small March 19, 2012 at 5:47 am .


    I found you on Slideshare and now I’m going to start stalking you until you consider giving me a job. (At least until tomorrow.)

    I’m not so sure the term is being used incorrectly, even with its original connotation. First, people by and large make responses automatically and predictably. If they didn’t, marketing would never work. You might think that a virus operates more mechanically, but it doesn’t. In both cases, once you know the composition of the target, you can predict how it will react to your virus. If you’re a Determinist (even just a little), then free will is just an elaborate–yet ultimately mechanical–system, just like a cell.

    Second, viruses have non-malicious applications like gene therapy, and you could contend that all marketing is inherently malicious, as it preys upon one’s hedonistic drives.

    Third, just a (retro)virus can combine a form of itself (RNA/DNA) with a host, memes combine themselves in the form of a mental representation in their host. When someone talks about the newest shitty viral video they saw yesterday, that video is replicating itself, after having altered the host in some manner.

    Me on Slideshare:

    Nice to meet you.

  15. jumpshot
    jumpshot June 21, 2012 at 7:16 pm .

    Delicious! I am literally rolling around in the common sense like a pig in its pen.

    I pledge to continue to stamp out “viral” video in my dealings with clients, agencies and idiots (there may be some cross over)…

  16. JT
    JT July 23, 2012 at 11:07 am .

    I vomit a little in my mouth every time a client asks for a “viral campaign”…it’s gutwrenching stuff

Comments are closed.