By 2021 there will be more people on Earth with access to smartphones than with access to clean water. Ideas can spread globally with astonishing speed. Millions of people have access to the tools to create and disseminate texts, music, images, and film, thousands of which go viral every day. Surely an old-hand art historian like me could cook something up that would get passed on and go viral online? I just had to create what Prof Richard Dawkins, writing in 1976, named a ‘meme’; some information that people would find worthy of their attention and share with others. But researching and filming the BBC documentary How to Go Viral: the Art of the Meme made it pretty clear to me that it really is not easy to create an internet meme that spreads – even with expert help.
I figured, start with what you know – text and image (or, in internet speak, an image macro). With the help of Amanda Brennan, a senior analyst at Tumblr, I tried a timely ‘LOLcat’ with political resonance. Fail. With the help of a liberal troll, I tried a satirical poke at a news organisation. Epic fail.
Struggling, I consoled myself that I had never really wanted to be a part of a troll army anyway, especially having met a Finnish investigative journalist who had been viciously trolled by Putin sympathisers. If push came to shove, I could always draw upon historical examples to fill an hour of TV, right? After all, it’s not as if viral memes just emerged with the internet. Why are there so many cave paintings all over the world that use hand prints? How come we all know what a cross stands for, that a v-sign one way around is rather rude, or that round wheels work better than octagons?
But I still wanted to show that it was possible to identify and follow some rules that would take something viral. The third biggest provider of online content in the world, Manchester-based LADbible, offered invaluable support. Yet, our ‘viral’ video’s reach was piddling compared to their user generated content of a dog rolling in the mud. Yet we did identify, and in the film we do share, some golden rules for going viral. But they do not come with any guarantees (‘fake rules’ in the age of fake news). As the editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme, Brad Kim, pointed out: “If I knew how to guarantee that a meme went viral, I’d be a much richer man!” I know how he feels.
I ended up not particularly caring whether we went viral or not (wouldn’t you in the face of such adversity?). But I was heartened by sitting in on a 15-minute LADbible editorial meeting where funny was followed by profound and then funny again. Here was a group of people half my age who had mounted the successful U OK M8? campaign to raise awareness of male depression.
My parent’s generation invented the internet and my generation helped the Web become ‘World Wide’, but the next generations are working out how to make the laudable, as well as the laughable and the ‘dank’, go viral. Is it that we live in a ‘post-truth’, ‘post-expert’ world? Or is it that the internet has allowed the old gatekeepers of ‘truth’ and their allied ‘experts’ to hear what people have always been saying about them – in all its satirical, frustrated, and hilarious variety?
Richard Clay is a professor of digital cultures at Newcastle University
You can watch How To Go Viral: The Art Of The Meme on Wednesday 20 March, 9pm on BBC Four and BBC iPlayer