You can’t make it Viral – Some Thoughts on adverts and virality

‘You can’t make a cult movie.’

I found this quote recently whilst reading a film critics blog, and the idea stuck with me. The post went on to explain that some film makers recently, especially in the comedy sphere, have tried to make films that are deliberately ‘so bad it’s good’ goofy, or peppered with pop culture references, in an attempt to make a cult classic (think The Rocky Horror Show.) The problem is, this films often end up feeling flat or forced.

I feel that the same applies to online viral videos, especially in the world of advertising. Any advertiser would love to have their work go viral, but it’s not a predictable or guarantee-able event. You can study ‘Charlie bit my finger‘ or ‘Friday‘ or ‘Numa Numa guy‘, or look at the demographics, the commenters, the imitations (or even make an response of your own – EE has a great ‘sequel to Numa Numa’ that I saw in the cinema last week and it’s pretty awesome, although I feel the older members of the audience didn’t get the joke) but you can’t really purposefully make a video with these features and expect it to ‘go viral’ and possibly more if you are advertising something. Online video gives opportunities for great, original and unusual advertising campaigns but in the end they work like any other traditional campaign, through message and exposure.

If anything, an attempt to create a spreadable video might backfire badly for a company, much like the films described in that blogpost. That’s not to say that advertising campaigns and videos don’t go viral on YouTube or elsewhere, they frequently do. But it’s not something you can plan for or rely on.


Useful related reading: Spread That! Further Essays from the Spreadable Media Project by Henry Jenkins

Spread That!: Further Essays from the Spreadable Media Project – See more at:
Spread That!: Further Essays from the Spreadable Media Project – See more at:

In this, Henry Jenkins points out that media doesn’t magically spread and share all by itself – there’s an audience involved who need to be appealed to in some way.


Internet Research and Public Exposure

I’ve written before about internet research ethics when I was doing my #mscret blogs for University, but I’ve been writing about these ideas again and putting them into practice whilst writing my MSc Dissertation on mobile video and social media. I’ve just completed one case study on #NextGenHello, the Instagram-based crowdsourced film that I wrote about last time, and I’m currently conducting two research surveys – one is an open survey on smart phone users which you can take right here if you want! (Shameless plug, please take my survey. I promise it’s very short.)

The surveys are fairly easy to deal with when it comes to ethics – all entries are kept anonymous, the data is used strictly for my work, all of the questions are optional. My methods had to be pre-approved by the University as is standard in research work. However the case study has been harder to deal with. The video clips in #NextGenHello were for a film, so they were intended for a wider audience, but no-one in the study specifically signed up for my work. And how does this hurt people? Well, for starters it could hurt the communities of people who made the videos in the first place.

“…virtual communities [are] extremely sensitive; a breach in trust can
destabilise the foundations upon which the online group rests.”*

As a result, I’ve been very general when describing the videos in the study, by grouping them into general themes so as not to highlight particular videos, and not mentioning usernames or other details, even though in a way it harms my research to do so, hence why I’m doing other surveys to create more data. If I approached the video makers and asked them for their consent to study their work it might be different (and I have no doubt plenty of them would give it.) But without the informed consent, I don’t believe I have the right to do anything.

“…researchers have an ethical responsibility to understand how the diverse forums of the Internet work and how the users of these forums form expectations about what and where they are communicating. They see the greatest risk for cyberspace participants occurring in the situation where members remain unaware that their messages are being analyzed until the results of the research are published. Moreover, if the results are published in such a way that members of a virtual community can identify their community as the one studied without their knowledge, psychological harm may result.”**

Internet Exposure outside of the academic sphere

The amount that I’ve read on internet ethics often makes me uncomfortable at some of the articles I read online – Buzzfeed is starting to be a big offender here with some of their smaller articles, which tend to focus on images or statements from social media that they can use for humourous purposes.

While the ethics I’ve covered tended to focus on not harming internet users through academic work, it seems like it should be equally important in journalistic work. Although people do post their thoughts and lives publicly, there is a great difference between sharing a picture or a thought between friends, and between thousands of people on a separate site.

Unfortunately, there tends to be a negative attitude towards people who object to having their posts shared and dissected by complete strangers, probably because we as a society are so used to being told that anything we put online could have a negative impact. If someone’s Instagram picture gets ridiculed out of context on a website, the comments from readers tend to be, ‘well, you shouldn’t have put it up if you didn’t want that.’ I don’t agree with this at all. People have the right to post what they like online, but I believe anyone who writes publicly, from tiny blogs like this to massive publications, need to recognise that profiting off this can hurt people.

*Krotoski, A., “Introduction to the Special Issue: Research ethics in online communities” in International Journal of Internet Research Ethics (Vol 3, Dec 2012)

** Frankel, M.S. & Siang, S., “Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research on the Internet” A report for American Association for the Advancement of Science (November 1999) – also has some great comments on how informed consent still applies to people using pseudonyms, because ‘people invest in their pseudonyms the way they invest in their real identities within a physical

First Foray into Animation – Cbeebies Short Project

I’ve already blogged on here about my MSc Project making an ident for CBeebies, using the programme Adobe After Effects.

I’ve written about some of the physical filming, as well as the Sound Design and Composition, but by far the hardest, more time consuming and most out of my comfort zone has been the animation of the characters. The ‘characters,’ which are the yellow are fairly amorphous so I could animate them simply using after effects and not need to use Maya/Flash.

To do this I used a technique called puppet pinning in which points along the edge of an image can be selected and then moved. Often this deforms the object and ruins the effect, but since these objects are intended to be ‘deformed’ it worked really well. It took a bit of experimentation to find a set of movements that made the characters move in a natural looking way, by varying the length of each pin movement so that they undulated across the screen rather than appearing to slide and float above the ‘ground.’ The effect I was going for was something like a sped-up snail. Sometimes the characters needed only a few pins, but it many scenes they needed to change frame-by-frame. Time consuming but ultimately more effective and satisfying!

However they still needed to be integrated with the real life background. I created drop shadows, which were customised to each character and at some points wereanimated so that they appeared to move beneath the character as if the character were jumping.

The characters on the left are jumping. As the background is plain, the movement of the shadow gives the impression of 3D space.

However the most important technique was masking, which meant that the characters could be a part of the environment, rather than appearing to be pasted over the top.

For example, in the scene below the bugs are jumping through the bars of the gate. A mask was placed over the area where the bug starts, which removed that section of the image so it appeared to be behind the gate.

The scene also required one piece of 3D animation. In the first shot, a ball bounces between the bugs, causing them to scatter briefly. In this previous blog, I detailed how I used a green screen so that a real ball could be keyed into the scene. However I soon ran into a problem with this – the ball had blurred as it passed across the camera. This meant that when I attempted to key the background out, the shape of the ball distorted. I couldn’t remove the green without removing some of the blue as well. If we had changed the frame rate of the camera it might have worked.

Instead, I decided to create a 3D ball shape within After Effects. As the ball was only onscreen for a second or two, it didn’t need to be perfectly realistic, so a blue shape with points of light and shadow, plus an animated drop shadow was a great replacement.

When the ball is moving through the shot it is fast and blurred enough to be convincingly real.

However in all this, there were bound to be a few mistakes along the way, which I made sure to capture on video. Some of them turned out pretty funny when rendered and I put together a quick montage.

Media Tags and Trends

In my last spreadable media post, I realised that I discussed the specific peaks in popularity of this video, and what was causing them, but I did not talk about the spread of views in between. Many of these came from the YouTube search page. I had made sure to try and tag my video appropriately. My friend and coursemate Nabeel Malik posted a video for his project which is in some ways similar to mine… well, it’s musical anyway, and he discussed in this post how proper tagging makes it easier for your video to spread, and be found by people who really want to watch it. On YouTube, post tags are private since people began abusing them by copying the tags of popular videos, but they still play a big part in gaining views even on videos such as mine, which aren’t hugely popular.

Note the low view spikes between the large spikes where the video was posted to other sites.

The sudden peak at the end is due to reposting the video on Reddit two days ago. It remains to be seen how soon that will drop off. It almost certainly won’t continue to rise, based on previous trends from both this video and the audio-only version on Soundcloud, which currently racks up one or two hits every few days currently, mostly from the UK, and mostly, I suspect, from my parents, though it did receive a few extra plays and some kind comments after being posted in a request thread on 4Chan. In addition, another Social Tech student, Greg Jackson has had a similar experience posting his music to various sites.

On YouTube, the Analytics page can give you a ridiculous amount of detail about specific demographics, views and trends, but one of the more interesting searches is popularity by country. Since the song is used for the basis of this video is by an American band who were very popular in the UK some years ago, so unsurprisingly they are the countries providing the most views. However the next most popular country listed is Brazil.

I decided to compare the analytics of the video to those on Google Trends, which looks at how search terms are trending worldwide. Unsurprisingly, ‘Wherever You Will Go The Calling’ as a search term is trending very highly in Brazil at present. I decided to do some more research regarding the band’s current activities if any, and it appears that the lead singer of The Calling has done a lot of work in Brazil.

From Google Trends – Highest trending countries for the search term in the past 12 months (the short time scale which the site could provide. Note the UK, Brazil and the US are quite high, which matches the YouTube statistics.

Nabeel mentioned, and I agree, that often it’s unclear what makes a video, meme or internet trend popular, but many people have tried to define what it is that would help a video spread. In a post on the Council of Public Relations Firm website, writer Matt Smith suggests that a ‘clear sense of audience is needed.’* If I had researched the music and band prior to making the video, perhaps I would have expected the views from Brazil, of even been able to tailor the video to the trend in some way… perhaps by tags? Then again, I think that would also count as tag abuse to many people…

* Smith, M. “Going Viral—How to (Tastefully) Get Them to Spread Your Message” on Council of Public Relation Firms Website (Accessed 1st January 2013)