Beauty & Brains in Branding & Web

Going Viral: The Harlem Shake and The Meme Factor

Viral Videos
As the Harlem Shake has swept the Internet over the past few weeks, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how important the meme factor is in creating a viral craze. Content that can easily be mimicked and reproduced has a much better chance of going viral. Videos and images that lend themselves to this behavior are inherently social and encourage the participation, sharing and interaction essential for achieving viral scale.

What is a Meme

A meme is defined as, “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” The term was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as a concept for discussing the spread of ideas and cultural phenomenon. This might sound complicated, but it isn’t. The most common form of Internet memes are simple image macros that acquire a mutually understood symbolism through widespread sharing.

Boromir Meme

This macro of Boromir from Lord of the Rings is commonly used in relation to something that is more difficult than it appears

Meme’s spread through the behavior they generate in their hosts, and memes that replicate more effectively enjoy greater success. This means content that can easily be altered, reproduced and then shared by a user is more likely to evolve into a contagious meme. This is also why image macros are such a ubiquitous example, as websites like allow them to be reproduced quickly and with little effort. So what does the meme factor have to do with the Harlem Shake?

Do the Harlem Shake

On January 30th, 2013, YouTube user DizastaMusic posted a video on his channel that began with four men in costume dancing to musical artist Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake.” The dance presented a format that could be easily mimicked and reproduced by other YouTubers and on February 2nd a parody of the dance, uploaded by user Phil_On_NAN, went viral. 24 hours later the video had 300,000 views. What followed will probably go down as viral video history.

Achieving the Meme Factor

Within days, the Harlem Shake format had achieved full meme status, with everyone from office workers, to firefighters, to coal miners, to the Simpsons having offered their reinterpretation of the video. It wasn’t just something that people wanted to watch, it was something that people wanted to recreate. This last point is key. Making content go viral isn’t about shock value or appealing to the lowest common denominator, or even promoting mindless sharing. It’s about eliciting an urge to mimic, reproduce or recreate. It’s about presenting an idea, a behavior, or a style (see: Gangnam Style), that evolves as it moves from person to person. Content with the meme factor demands to be absorbed, regurgitated and then shown to others, fueling the person-to-person cycle.

The Meme Factor at Work

Here are some examples of some videos that have achieved viral status through the meme factor:

Aint Nobody Got Time for That
Richard Dawkins references catch-phrases as a common form of meme. Last year a news interview with a woman named Sweet Brown was uploaded to YouTube.  At one point in the video Sweet uses the phrase, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” The phrase was so catchy that the Internet adopted it and began editing the video in ways that emphasized Sweet’s catch-phrase. YouTube user theparodyfactory1 remixed the video into an auto-tuned song and suddenly the Meme Factor was achieved:

Sweet Brown Original

Sweet Brown Remix

Gangnam Style
Another form of common meme referenced by Dawkins are melodies. Last year, a Korean pop song by artist PSY was released, featuring a catchy hook, a distinctive dance move and an outlandish music video. Soon everyone and their grand-mother was singing the song, doing the dance, and spoofing the video. PSY’s official version went on to become the most popular YouTube video ever, thanks in huge part to the meme factor and the thousands of imitation videos created and shared by users.

Gangnam Style

Gangnam Style Parody

Because of the spontaneous nature of viral content, no company that I know of has yet (intentionally) been able to create content that truly achieves the meme factor. The challenge then, is for a company to harness this power and translate it into positive promotion and measurable business benefits. Have an example of a company that has created content with the meme factor? Share in the comments below.

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  1. Musab Masood says

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post, very interesting.

  2. Great insight, Lucas! I just read an interesting article where Jonah Berger asserts that making the private public is a surefire way to go viral. He cites the McRib phenomena and how stopping advertising made it flourish. I guess everybody wants to know what they’re not supposed to know. They like being part of the in-crowd.

    • I read Wency Leung’s article with Berger also and was struck by the same thing. Certainly “making the private public” is a way to create that feeling for people like they are “getting in” on something exclusive.

      The question Berger asks at the end, “Do you want that to happen?” is a good one. Once something is revealed, it can’t be unrevealed. I think this is why having experienced social media managers is so important, going public doesn’t mean putting everything out there all at once, it requires planning.

      Social engagement needs to be strategized and then executed with discipline in order to prevent a marketing initiative from becoming a social media fiasco.

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