Stop Saying ‘Viral’ Video

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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)

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