Gangnam Style versus Harlem Shake: how does viral content spread?
From the very first I Can Has Cheezburger kitty, through to Rage Comics and planking photos, internet memes and viral content has evolved from the faintly amusing to the, frankly, bizarre, particularly evidenced by the Harlem Shake phenomenon which took off earlier this year. A group of people, going about their personal business, suddenly breaking into wild spasms of dance after apparently rooting through a comprehensive fancy dress box? Righto.
Still, crazy as this stuff is, it spreads like wildfire on the internet. But why? Face, the strategic insight agency, has published a report on the trend, ‘How Stuff Spreads’, and by analysing the growth of two global memes – the infamous Gangnam Style and Harlem Shake – has identified eight common characteristics that lead to viral phenomena.
1) Bursts and rises
There are two models of virality. The Burst model is bottom up – the variations are more powerful than the original seed and there’s no clear leadership or narrative. Here, the meme replies on community relevance to spread (a la Harlem Shake). The Rise model, on the other hand, is top down. The original seed is always stronger than its variations and has a clear leader dictating the narrative – such is the case of Psy and his Gangnam Style video.
According to Face, Bursts spread more widely more quickly, but don’t endure. Rises spread more slowly but tend to endure, because the meme has a focal point. This explains why Gangnam Style lived for 172 days (based on 500+ URL shares per day), compared to just 29 for Harlem Shake.
Whatever the model, virality is triggered by surprise, cultural relevance to a community, and endorsement by a leader or the media.
Whatever the trigger, virality is not a steady affair, spreading instead in waves and spikes.
4) Communities drive viral spread way more than influencers
Within the Gangnam Style network, 14% of the people sharing the link passed it on or grabbed it from someone, while within the Harlem Shake network the connected sharers increase to 17% of the overall pool of users. These figures are remarkable considering the globally dispersed diffusion of the memes.
By contrast, influencers only accounted for a small percentage of the total buzz. Out of 767,000 unique mentioners of the Gangnam Style videos only 64 generated more than 100 retweets and only 8 more than 1000. Out of 173,000 unique mentioners of the Harlem Shake videos, only 9 generated more than 100 retweets. That means that for Gangnam Style less than 5% of the total shares were directly connected to the influencers, and for Harlem Shake only 1%.
Memes transcend geography but a successful meme needs a balance of both local relevance and global appeal.
A meme needs a focal point to live longer – virality is only sustained through a strong narrative and leadership.
7) Slow and spikey wins the race
While weak and ties and community drive can sustain a meme for weeks, they don’t create scale in the short term, whereas top down memes, with media and celebrity endorsements, give instant scale but burn out within a few days. As the report notes: “It’s almost a risk to be a social media influencer – you can activate a large audience very quickly, but that attention can be burnt through equally fast.”
8) Memes are like currency
Creators need to balance supply (or accessibility) and inflation. In order to achieve high shareability and high popularity, the meme supply has to be expansionary but strategically controlled so that it doesn’t negatively affect its shareability. This, at the same time, gives the meme scale that can trigger and sustain exponential growth. Gangnam Style became globally accessible through top-down mainstream sources (high popularity), but this gave it high social inflation so it wasn’t valuable to share (low shareability). However, scale sustained its long term growth. Harlem Shake was not as easily accessible because it was driven more by small communities (low popularity), but for the same reason, being less easily accessible, it remained highly valuable (high shareability). Lack of scale was what made Harlem Shake growth short-term and eventually killed it prematurely.