The internet popularity contest

Image taken from HikingArtist's photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

I’ve been thinking a bit about the internet as a marketing tool recently.

I’ve got a lot out of writing this blog – it has really renewed my passion for writing and engaging with ideas beyond those I have to engage with in my working life. But my renewed passion has also given me this underlying desire to be a ‘real writer’.

The frustration I’ve encountered with this (pipe?) dream of late is that just like my desire to one day run for public office, my desire to be a ‘real writer’ ain’t going to happen unless I can win a popularity contest.

Succeeding as a writer in the age of the internet is all about the ‘tweet’ and (more importantly) the ‘retweet’ and the ‘like’. It’s about who passes on your posts, articles and musings, and where they go from there.

Sure there are ‘substance’ issues with writing. It makes you feel good when you think you’ve written a really important reflection on something, or contributed to some meaningful commentary on social issues. It makes you feel good when your friends and colleagues read your work and enjoy it. But the holy grail is to be popular whilst achieving these things.

I’m a bit bemused about the whole ‘tweet/retweet’ and ‘like’ phenomenon. Sometimes I can’t understand what makes people retweet things. Sometimes it seems a bit like the school playground. There is a kind of herd mentality to it all.

If the popular kids (i.e. celebrities or popular tweeters) tweet it then it will go everywhere (just like Jennifer Aniston’s hair cut in the pre twitter era). And just like the school yard – where popularity can be seriously elusive unless you know exactly how to cut your hair, how short to wear your uniform, and what kind of shoes you should be wearing – the internet is a divided playground with the cool groups, and those other people that nobody really gives two hoots about.

Sometimes, people use the internet popularity contest to their advantage. They know the ropes and they know how to win (these guys were obviously the cool kids at school). Nowadays more and more advertisers are working out why things go viral.

Time has probably escaped me, but I think I’ve only been aware of videos and the like going ‘viral’ on the internet in the past couple of years. Perhaps one of the first that I became aware of was Susan Boyle going viral via you tube in 2009. Of course this was broadcast to millions of people on TV anyway. But Britain’s Got Talent certainly acquired a global audience through the you tube clip. Susan Boyle’s voice was amazing. With that kind of talent it’s probably no wonder it went viral. But I think mostly it went viral because it was a nice little tale about  triumph against the odds, the underdog winning, and about daring to have faith in your talent. People embraced these ideas.

When I saw the Boyle clip I did appreciate her voice. But I also couldn’t help but wonder how staged it was. The telecast seemed very edited, with the ‘cut across’ to some teenage girls rolling their eyes at someone who looked like Susan wanting to be ‘famous’, and Simon Cowell’s questioning of her desire for fame. Had he and the other judges really never heard her before like the clip makes us believe? Surely they would have come across her in auditions? But they played up the surprise factor. I wouldn’t be surprised if they even helped select Boyle’s ‘frumpy’ clothing.

So is there anything wrong with this?

The term ‘viral’ has connotations that we have no choice in the matter. We can’t help but spread these video clips around. The Susan Boyle clip seems innocent enough. But advertisers and marketers are beginning to prey on people with viral clips. And I think when people take advantage like that it is wrong.

The classic example of this is the man in the jacket stunt put on by Witchery. They tried to convince us of this real life Cinderella tale all in the aid of promoting Witchery Man, their new clothing line for men. For Witchery it probably backfired. But I’m sure there are examples that have succeeded. The thing with these kind of examples of videos gone viral is that when the viewer is deceived merely in an attempt to increase sales it leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. People can appreciate a clever deception but only for noble or witty causes – not for commercial gain.

One video that went viral fairly recently is the Piano Staircase. I’ll admit I was guilty of passing this one on. Interestingly enough  I never knew that Volkswagen was actually behind it. It’s a great clip about how making something fun can change people’s habits for the better. It’s called ‘the fun theory’. I’m not sure it was particularly successfully at getting people to buy a Volkswagen, as there was no real link between the brand and the clip, but it was a clever piece of social commentary.

Other things go viral with no commercial aspiration whatsoever. A recent example was the clip of two dogs after the Japan tsunami. We share these kinds of videos because they touch us. Just like the firefighter giving a drink to the Koala after the Victorian bush fires in 2009.

Sometimes I wonder if it is possible to harness the internet popularity contest for the greater good.

The Greens seem to be doing a good job of embracing social media and connecting to the people. Get Up! has produced some brilliant video clips such as Tony Abbot’s archaic views that people have given donations to get them on TV or helped them go viral on the internet. But the influence of the media in cutting down attempts like Cate Blanchett and Michael Caton’s carbon tax ad (not that it probably had the potential to go viral) doesn’t leave me with the confidence that there’ll be a successful viral video campaign to influence climate action in Australia in the near future. I think the closest thing I’ve seen to a successful (but probably not quite viral) social action campaign is World Vision’s Teenage Affluenza is Spreading Fast

Whilst I often shake my head at what we choose to ‘like’, ‘tweet’ and ‘retweet’, and what we choose to share on our facebook pages (particularly the growing number of people who ‘like’ commercial products and are just doing it to try and get freebies or be in the running for that week’s competition – oh yes we can stoop so low) I get a bit of faith in some of what we choose to share. It is the clips that give me a sense that although we’re not winning the war on carbon emissions, there is some good in the world.

You’d have had to be under a stone not to have seen Jill and Kevin’s Wedding Dance.

Did they do it in hope that it would go viral? Who knows. Would it make it any less popular if they did? Probably not.

I love this clip because it’s about sharing  joy.

All of us know what it feels like to want to celebrate. To feel happy. We all have had times where we’ve just had to dance, sing or just simply pump our hand in the air to claim a victory.

At times we’ve all been compelled to dance, even if our dancing is below average. To rock, to grove, and to do it because it’s fun and we want to celebrate. The people in the wedding party are human. Some dance geekily, some want to look good for the camera. But above all, they’re a group of friends, doing something fun together to make someone’s day special. Breaking the rules in a fun kind of way.

They were clever. They were original. Sure those things contributed to it going viral. But above all, it’s just fun and nice.

Walking down the aisle is one of the biggest moments of your life if you chose that path. Doing it in your own style, with your friends is pretty special. And we can all appreciate that. We can all get something out of shared fun, joy, laughter and showing love in your own unique way.

So what things have you helped make viral?

What makes you ‘like’, ‘tweet’ or the elusive ‘retweet’ something?

Have you come across any examples of using the internet popularity contest to help the world for the better?

Can the little guys ever win in the internet popularity stakes?

Image from with thanks to HikingArtist. 

About greenleftyidealist

Green, left and idealistic. A mum, a runner, a rogainer, a public servant and wanna be writer. My dog is golden.
This entry was posted in psychology, social media, society and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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