Black Friday: The Dark Side of Viral Videos

Social Media carpetbaggers (as I call them here, and I’m liking the term the more I use it) would challenge me on many of my work beliefs and ethics, two of which that have been brought to light just this month:

    • You can’t make a viral video. They just happen.
    • There is such a thing as bad publicity.

      I have seen this as a topic on many a conference track — “How to Make Your Videos Viral!” or some such nonsense — and I also get the “Let’s make a viral video…” request a lot from my day job. After my skin stops crawling, I pull no punches and speak the best-kept-secret truth that the carpetbaggers won’t admit: you can’t make a viral video. A video goes viral due to traffic on social networks increasing awareness (of a product, person, or cause), and through self-replicating processes that gain momentum on both the Internet and mainstream media.

      Did you catch that “self-replicating” part? That’s key. No one can make self-replication happen. You can promote a video, sure, but that does not necessarily guarantee it going viral.  The constant thread (if there is one) is luck. Good or bad, it comes down to luck. You can’t predict it. You can’t produce it. You never know what will strike that nerve. Viral videos just happen.

      And in the case of Rebecca Black, that is exactly what happened. What two comedians referenced off-handedly has now become 2011’s viral sensation.

      If you are missing the hubbub, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” has become the new benchmark for viral video success. On March 1, it sported a modest few thousand viewings; but with two snarky quips from Mystery Science Theatre 3000’s Mike Nelson and Comedy Central’s Daniel Tosh, it broke ten million within two weeks.

      How could this have happened? As it is when someone asks me “What makes a video go viral?” my answer is “I don’t know.” After writing up this blogpost, I still don’t know…

      …but I do have a few opinions on what helped it along.

      The production, or cookie-cutter thereof. When synthesizers with accompanying “Oooh’s” and “Yeah-yeah’s” kick in at the start, you know exactly what you’re going to get. The look and the feel of the video is much like the song itself: processed. So are  Black’s vocal abilities which has been Auto-Tuned within an inch of perfect-pitch. Provided you can make it to the end, this Ark Music Factory production comes across as a Hannah Montana video…that didn’t make Disney’s final cut and therefore tabled for a later project. (Maybe a lost video reel or some such.)

      Songwriting: Twitter Style. I read a YouTube comment that called the song “Twitter: The Musical.”

      I wish I could say, as a Twitter user, I was insulted; but damn, that’s funny.

      Writers Clarence Jey and Patrice Wilson penned lyrics that are…

      Well, they…

      I got nothing. So here’s a sample:

      “Fun, fun, think about fun / You know what it is / I got this, you got this / My friend is by my right / I got this, you got this / Now you know it.”

      Maybe I’m old, but no, I don’t know it. I have no clue what “it” is. Seriously, what have I got and what have you got, and if the girl to the right of you is your friend, who’s the chick on your left? Is she another BFF or is she a right bitch?

      Not all the lyrics in “Friday” are this cryptic. Some do make sense:

      “Yesterday was Thursday / Today is Friday / We so excited / We gonna have a ball today / Tomorrow is Saturday / And Sunday comes afterwards.”


      It ain’t Billy Joel, is it?

      The jury is still out on whether Rebecca Black herself is the next Rachel Berry as the audio’s post-production completely masks her vocal ability. I would hazard a guess the Ark Music Factory assures “quality” by running all their clients through Auto-Tune. (What’s good for the pop talent of today is good for the pop talent of tomorrow, right?) It is evident from her first interview that she wouldn’t say no to becoming the next YouTube discovery. She balked at Ark Factory’s offer to pull the video down. “I decided not to give the haters the satisfaction that they got me so bad I gave up,” Black told The Daily Beast. I admire the 13-year old’s conviction, particularly in light of the video’s feedback.

      And here’s where my second point is proven.

      As reported by CNN, Mashable, and other news outlets, this “overnight notoriety” is less about Rebecca Black destined to become the next Justin Bieber and more about how Rebecca Black is destined to become the next Ghyslain Raza.

      Who is Ghyslain Raza? You might know him by his other moniker: The Star Wars Kid. You know, the geeky high school kid who filmed himself wielding a golf ball retriever as a two-edged lightsaber?

      Yeah. That guy.

      There is such a thing as bad publicity and Black is harvesting it like a finely Auto-Tuned combine. Black’s newfound fame, when you read the comments and commentary, is not about her impressive vocal range rivaling that of Susan Boyle (a YouTube sensation herself) but more about the appalling nature of this video. Even Nelson and Tosh were very strategic in what they mocked — the song, not Black herself.

      Where this backlash gets uncomfortable is when, in pursuit of being clever, the feedback gets personal. Rolling Stone’s recent column, tongue-in-cheek as it was, was titled “Why Rebecca Black is a Demon-Wizard Child Piper.” I’ll admit — I chuckled at the title, but then wished it had had been called something else. Maybe “Why Rebecca Black’s Friday is a Sign of the Rise of the Machines” would have worked as well? The unabashed cruelty directed at Black is unwarranted, but that doesn’t mean the song and video are open game (which was the intent of the RS article). For their own $2000 investment, Black’s parents should be outraged that the song lyrics hadn’t been given a proper grammar check.

      Concerning Black’s parents — that gets the “Dad” side of me a little fired up. Maybe this is “sideline parenting” at its finest, but I find myself constantly swapping out Black and her parents with (an older) Sonic Boom and myself, asking myself “What would I do?” As a parent, I would have never approved this video. It’s wrong on a lot of levels, but the most disturbing one — as a few critics have pointed out —is the full-grown adult riffing about a 13-year-old’s quest to party. His rap break goes like this:

      “R-B, Rebecca Black / So chillin’ in the front seat / In the back seat / I’m drivin’, cruisin’ / Fast lanes, switchin’ lanes / Wit’ a car up on my side / Passin’ by is a school bus in front of me / Makes tick tock, tick tock, wanna scream / Check my time, it’s Friday, it’s a weekend / We gonna have fun, c’mon, c’mon, y’all”

      Anyone else find this attempt at “suburbia street cred” a little creepy?

      Before anyone plays the “What about Ludicrous and his rap break in Bieber’s ‘Baby’ song?” card, note Bieber’s lyrics. “Baby” is a pop song about first loves, so at least Ludicrous and Justin can see eye-to-eye there.

      But this guy? Switching lanes and screaming at school busses? I’m now wondering if he’s the guy wearing a trenchcoat on sunny days at the playground.

      Another call that screams for “parental intervention” is Black’s desire “to show people there’s more to me than they think” by recording an acoustic version of “Friday.” Again, maybe this is my background taking notice, but an acoustic version of a crap song isn’t going to make it a better song. An acoustic version of “Friday” would be the equivalent of releasing a leather bound, gold leaf hardback edition of The Eye of Argon or a limited edition Blu-Ray of Battlefield: Earth.

      While I will slam the song, the video, and Ark Music Factory (I have a past experience with a “talent mill” like this. True bottom feeders of the entertainment industry.), I would never think of slamming Black as some trolls out there have chosen to do. Throwing insults at a 13-year old girl, who probably had no idea what she was getting into, is never cool. The backlash against her is cruel and unfair, and I can only hope she is able — with the right people behind her — to turn this around.

      What is happening here is the other side of viral videos that no one can prepare for: overwhelmingly negative criticism. This time, the “viral success” is less about fame and more about infamy, but how much of this can you really call a success?

      For me, no matter how trivial or professional the posting, I strive to produce quality content. With my own upcoming video project coming up very soon, I’d like to think the video would go viral based on its worth, its creativity, and its sense of fun. I’m keeping it simple, and I’ll be able to step back and look at the final work with pride.

      But can I promise you it will go viral? No, I can’t.

      What I can promise you, though, is my offing will be completely and utterly Auto-Tone free.


      1. Great points Tee. I think the personal attacks on her are the results of society’s penchant for (auto) tuning themselves to the lowest common denominator. In this case, base, mean-spirited attacks against a young, impressionable girl who as you rightly put it, probably didn’t know what she was getting herself into.

        AS terrible as the song itself is in terms of production/lyrics, hell the whole thing, you can’t fault a little girl for wanting to satisfy a fantasy of becoming a pop star. As a father, I too would have taken issue with the lyrics, video content and a host of other things like the fact that all these 13 year olds were partying on the weekend like a bunch of high school wannabes. It just gives the wrong impression of what kids today should be striving for when it comes to having fun and just being kids.

        I guess I’m getting old. The grey hair should have been my first tip off, but my daughter and I have talked about the video and she thinks it’s terrible and feels badly for Rebecca Black that:
        A: she was given such a bad song to sing
        B: that all those people are trashing her as a person.

        Out of the mouths of babes…


      2. I used to think you were a pretty decent guy, then you introduced me to this song. Now I’m not so sure anymore.


      3. You know if this video was a girl and her camera it might be one thing, but the filming quality, that’s what made me say whoah. Honestly, I’m not sure this video is any worse then what’s out there on MTV and Much Music now.

        I like what you said though, it gives you something to think about. While Rebecca Black is riding that 15 minutes of fame all I can think about is that in 10 years she is going to be in job interviews and not have a chance when people remember “Oh she’s that stupid girl singing about Friday… yeah, not hiring her.”


      4. This isn’t the first time that something has gone “viral” for being bad/laughable/or otherwise worthy of ridicule. And I am sure it won’t be the last. I have to wonder about the wisdom of linking to this kind of questionable content. It is kind of a catch-22. You want to be complete about letting people know what you’re talking about, but by linking to it, you’re also promoting that same content. You’re making it more successful because it is crap. I fear that will only encourage people to make more crap. After all, it is easier to create crap than to create quality content.
        I do like your point about Black being as much a victim of the “talent mill” industry as anyone else. Unfortunately the entertainment industry is full of predators whose business model is to rip off the artists with excessive fees, allowing a product to gross millions and net nothing. But the worst bottom feeders are those who convince people to pay the fees up front on the promise of stardom and then take the money and run. And now bottom feeders like Ark Music Factory are going to be able to rip off more people by pointing to Black’s video as an example of how “successful” their product is. Bleah!



      5. @Doc Oh it ‘s far worse than that. Yesterday, I read a post from (“the!”) Seth Godin drawing a correlation between Black’s “success” and the “redundancy” of gatekeepers. The post was full of the right buzz words, and people are now preaching the post as if it were gospel.

        What Godin failed to mention is that while Black is making a killing currently on iTunes, instant fame does not always mean success. In fact, Godin’s post is one breath away from encouraging people to become self-appointed “experts” that will fill a need in the commercial sector.

        The fact Godin is holding Black up as a “success story” (along with his praise for Amanda Hocking which, at best, was based on a brief scanning of headlines…) just makes my face find my palm. He really missed the mark on this one.


      6. @Tee,
        Remember when content was king? I miss that.

        Now it seems that so many people are selling crap. Why? Because it is so much easier to make crap! All you have to do is make a market for it! Urg… Face, meet palm…



      7. @Doc I still believe content rules, to quote C.C. Chapman. Heck, consider The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. We’ve got something to sell, but producing a quality podcast. So….


      8. @Tee and @Doc,
        I guess it is all in how you view success in this day and age and among the different age groups. For us (professionsal adults) success is in the production of a quality product and the enthusiastic reception of that product by others. For the teen/tween crowd success is simply being ‘known’ no matter how it is accomplished in most cases. Be it jumping off a roof onto a trampoline or skateboarding down some stairs to a spectacular crash what is important to the kids is that they get exposure. As society becomes more and more buried under instant “information” of all kinds the only way to get noticed anymore at that age is by being spectacularly bad and showing everyone just how bad. Except kids don’t understand the long-term after effects of this, Adults do. Most adults anyway. Unfortunately Johnny Knoxville has sadly proved that being stupid is now a valid career choice.

        If she has any talent at all Ms. Black will ride this 15 minutes and then try to wow everyone with her second video. She has the built-in audience already. Honestly I will watch the second one just to see if it is as bad as the first.

        Just a lay persons opinion on a great post.


      9. @Tee, @Mach_5,
        I do what I can to support and produce quality content. In the long run, creating quality is always the best route to take. Unfortunately, so much of today’s society is focused on quick and easy. Marketing wags will consider a flash in the pan like the Black video to be a success. At least until they are unable to replicate the same level of chatter with the next project.
        The root of the matter is that we are using a different measure of success than the bottom feeders are. But there are more of them than there are of us, so their view tends to dominate the market until the audience stands up and takes a position. And it is really hard to get an audience moving.
        Content is a once and future king, but Crap is trying to usurp the throne.



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