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How Stuff Spreads – Gangnam Style vs. Harlem Shake

In a new study looking at ‘How Stuff Spreads’ Face has identified key components that make things go viral. Looking at the spread on Twitter of two global memes, Gangnam Style vs Harlem Shake, Face discovered eight common characteristics which it says led to them becoming viral phenomena, generating thousands of spin-off versions and billions of views.

The eight common characteristics are:

1. Bursts and Rises: There are 2 models of virality.

The Burstmodel is bottom-up:the variations are more powerful then the original seed and there’s no clear leadership or narrative. The meme relies on community relevance to spread.

The Rise model is top-down: the original seed is always stronger than its variations and has a clear leader dictating the narrative.Bursts spread widely more quickly but don’t endure. Rises spread more slowly and less widely but they tend to endure because the meme has a focal point. Chose your model of virality and plan according.

2. Triggers.Whatever the model, virality is triggered by surprise, cultural relevance to a community, and endorsement by a leader or the media.

3. Waves. Whatever the trigger, virality is not asteady affair; it spreads in waves and spikes.

4. Communities drive viral spread way more than influencers.

5. Glocality. Memes transcend geography but a successful meme needs a balance of both local relevance and global appeal.

6. Leadership. 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.Weak ties and communities sustain for weeks but they don’t give you scale in the short term. Top-down media and celebrity endorsement gives you instant scale but burns out within a couple of days by decreasing the shareability of the meme.

8. Memes are like currency: you 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 the scale that can trigger and sustain exponential growth.

Face compared how the top 5 versions of each video were shared on Twitter, looking at 8 dimensions of each meme: Shape (number of shares per video, over lifetime of the meme); Lifespan (number of consecutive days where people shared the meme 500+ times); Popularity (number of unique users sharing the meme over its lifetime); Shareability (total Twitter shares per each million of YouTube views; Globality (how international was the meme); Amplification (how influential were the people who shared the meme); Variation (how much did attention to the meme vary day-by-day); Diffusion Network (hubs and nationalities who drove the spread of the meme).

Using their recently launched social media intelligence tool, Pulsar TRAC, they tracked any social media conversation containing a specific URL and analysed who is talking about it, gateways and hubs, topics of discussion, geography of the discussion and key channels.

While Harlem Shake turned out to be 3x more shareable than Gangnam Style, it still ended up being 4.5x less popular in terms of the number of uniqe users sharing it. It is a difficult balance for a meme to strike. Popularity doesn’t mean Shareability, and Shareability doesn’t imply Popularity. Community drives Shareability but doesn’t give you Scale (Popularity). Top-down influence drives Scale (Popularity) but kills Shareability. While Shareability is a key requisite of virality, scale is what enables and sustains exponential growth.



 written by Francesco D’Orazio and Jessica Owens @Face Group

Reader Comments (4)

Wow. Just... WOW. I have no understanding of most of what was said in the article. COMPLETELY lost me with most of your points.

May 6 | Unregistered CommenterChancius

Great explanation of all the facets of a meme! Conclusions at the end were interesting.

This is a great article. It really gives us the insight about getting content, whether videos, songs, beats, etc. to go viral. The ones that maybe surprised me the most were #3 & #7. I would not have thought that about things spreading in waves with peaks and valleys and also slow spikes. I would have thought it more like a tidal wave or tsunami.

Again great insight!

May 8 | Unregistered CommenterTony

That s very interesting because my own project is exactly in front of that kind of questions. It s a strong project which can also produce a meme, but with my team, we think it s important to put most of our strategy on popularity instead of shareability, because we want it to be a live act, with strong lyrics.

August 28 | Unregistered CommenterMehdy Von Ti

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