What Memes Mean: Talking TED on Video Virality

Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.

“We all want to be famous… any one of you could be famous by next Saturday.”

TED Talks have become our culture’s perpetual seminar series, a place where intellectual and cultural elites and up-and-comers take stage for 18-minute sets to bequeath upon humanity their “ideas worth spreading.” The talks are usually really, really good, though in an era where brand name easily becomes cult affiliation (we all worship something), we still need to keep our wits about us. Not all TED is gospel or gold.

But this is a good one. In this particular TED, Kevin Allocca, Trends Manager for YouTube, shares some very interesting and helpful insights into video virality, which is one of the weekly muses and musings of this particular CAPC column. Allocca believes that a YouTube video goes viral due to three things:

“Tastemakers” — Citing talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and other movers and shakers, tastemakers are individuals or groups of individuals who introduce us to “new and interesting things” (i.e. here: viral videos).

Participation – A video goes viral if it’s something the world can take part in. Allocca calls this a “creative participating community.” An inherent potential for remixing, revamping, re-editing, and reinterpreting all contribute to a video’s potential to go viral. “We don’t just enjoy now, we participate.”

Unexpectedness — Allocca further feels that an element of uniqueness and surprise to a video contributes to virality as well.

“These are characteristics of a new kind of media and a new kind of culture where anyone has access, and the audience defines the popularity.”

I really like Allocca’s three principles here — they seem to be a great summation of the nature of viral vids. And I’m going to push forward and say that these three principles apply to any meme, not just viral videos (I’m sure Allocca would agree). And I also posit that the main thing and the most applicable thing, the thing that’s the real decisive factor in a meme or viral video, is the participation aspect. Without a community, there are no tastemakers or unexpectedness — a community defines who it allows to be a tastemaker, and a community defines what is expected or unexpected.  Culture is increasingly at the mercy of everyone at once, unavoidably so now due to the egalitarian nature of the ‘net.

“No one has to green-light your idea, and we all now feel some ownership in our own pop culture. And these are not characteristics of old media, and they’re barely true of the media of today, but they will define the entertainment of the future.”

This TED talk brings out some great points for us to consider in our thinking about cultural interaction. As Christians, we have equal share in the global community. We’re all feeling the ownership Allocca talks about here. This means that we have equal voice and ability to speak, including equal ability to connect and engage with others across the globe. This means that we have an amazing and unprecedented opportunity to interact with, comment on, and even create culture. This means the Gospel can be set forth in creative, real, and meaningful ways. Most will simply use the digital democracy and its viral potential for mindless entertainment — we have the opportunity to use it for something much more real and something eternal. For the church, viral should be an opportunity, not simply another digital distraction.

About Kirk Bozeman

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