The swine flu and overnight singing sensation Susan Boyle have a lot in common, and I don’t mean that in the most obvious (and insulting) sense, so shame on you. The swine flu worked its way into Canada from the south, and the video of the self-proclaimed 47-year old virgin worked its way through the internets and into Canadian hearts. And American hearts. And the hearts of all those who have a modem, because internet-based fads cannot be stopped. She has, as the lingo goes, gone viral.
We are a culture that loves what everyone else loves. The day after Susan Boyle first appeared on my Facebook main feed, eight of my friends posted the video. The next day, 12 more people had thrown it up on their walls, and dozens more had given it thumbs up. And while the world is SB’s oyster right now, viral = fickle. Where is the numa numa kid now?
Susan Boyle went viral for the same reason she did so well on “Britain’s Got Talent.” She . . . er . . . has talent. But she also exploded due to the nature of the viral phenomenon. The more people who saw her, the more vital to one’s pop-culture sensibilities it became to have seen her, and the more people saw her. Other things, such as the SNL short “On a Boat,” are popular because they’re hilarious, but mostly hilarious only because they’re popular. The video for “On a Boat,” with well over a million YouTube views, derives at least part of its humor from the fact that three guys rapping so enthusiastically about something as banal as being “on a boat” has become a legitimate hit.
And in a sense, this just reflects how the dot.com.sphere.net has amplified our basic instincts. Viral videos such as Miss Teen South Carolina’s painfully idiotic take on “U.S. America’s” education system are no more than ramped-up gossip. (Pssst! Did you hear that Miss California hates the gays?.) Our love of scandal (and parody) resulted in the widespread viewing of the “don’t tase me, bro!” guy, as well as its many spoofs.
And of course, there is the inevitable sheep-factor. Since being featured on “Oprah” last week, J&D’s Bacon-Flavored Lip Balm is all over the internet and sales have skyrocketed.
Bacon-Flavored lip balm will be hot for about 20 minutes before everyone realizes that it’s a disgusting idea. While good products get a fair bit of net-play on their own by word of enormous-internet-mouth, lousy products are shunted quickly aside by a bad rep. Social networking and news sites such as Facebook, Myspace, Digg, StumbleUpon, del.icio.us, Reddit, Sphinn (ad infinitum) that allow users to display and rate items tend to be self-filtering. Or would be, if they weren’t corrupted.
But they are, and this is where the viral phenomenon gets dicey. Once marketers realized that videos, games, memes, and products pretty well advertised themselves once they got going, companies began throwing a fair bit of energy into trying to force things to go viral. They started “astroturfing” these forums, posting as ostensibly disinterested parties in order to create what appeared to be genuine grass-roots interest. With the anonymity the internet provides, it became all too easy for a company to create fake but believable endorsements.
Or spawn them. In 2006, a book that had clogged the lit-blogosphere with rave reviews was revealed to have encouraged those plaudits with a contest; send us the most readers, win a prize. The book may have been fabulous, but when word of the contest surfaced, suspicion was thrown even on those reviewers who hadn’t heard of the contest. And as fun as it is to be hip with the jive, maybe this is the attitude we need to adopt when things flash into fashion. When shredded jeans and flannel shirts were all the rage (the first time), we looked like idiots because we wanted to, not because some flannel corporation was slipping free button-downs into the cool kids’ lockers. Now those flannel fat-cats are all up on those cool kids, and we need to watch our backs.
It was great for a while to be able to run around the internet like barefoot children, blithely accepting all the reviews of movies and books and dust-busters and teeth whiteners and squash rackets (I hear that the Wilson N145 has an enormous sweet spot) as though they came from trusted friends. Those days are gone the way of the penny candy. I don’t mean to sound conspiracy theorist here, but I’ve become wary of anything virally popular. From now on, I only click over if it’s that video of the fellow doing his happy jig in all those foreign countries.
Wait, that’s brought to me by Stride Gum? Shit.