Viral Videos and Hyperreality: How Attention is Manufactured On a Massive Scale

Viral videos are a strange cultural phenomenon.

They’re your classic fail compilations, your controversial quotes clipped out of interviews, your Cat Falls in Bath, Disembowels Owner (MUST WATCH!!)s. Or — more interestingly — a document of some tiny, insignificant moment that was never ready to be scrutinized by millions.

Videos go viral by chance: they happen to be picked up in the right place at the right time, someone will get it up on the front page of reddit for a few hours, and it’ll blow up. Millions of views overnight, coverage from every major news outlet on the planet, and some drugged seven-year old babbling nonsense in the back of his dad’s car is suddenly world famous.

At least, that’s how it started out.

By the 2017 definition: viral videos are marketing ploys made to look like they were posted organically but actually handcrafted, pixel-by-pixel, by a whole team of experienced marketers. They pour ridiculous amounts of time into analyzing trends, aesthetics, and content of videos with ‘the perfect viral formula’.

The viral formula is real to the degree that it’s possible to set a video up to get a lot of attention. This might be an old fashioned view, but a true viral video isn’t created with the idea that it’ll go viral.

There was something exciting and dynamic about a video that was never meant to be seen by anyone other than a few close friends being shoved out into the world, flaws and all.

Ever since I took up marketing as my day job (and tried to be one of the ones that isn’t a cock), I’ve started to see through the copywriting tactics, trendy aesthetics and bandwagon-jumping and realize we live in a world where pretty much everything we stumble on might as well be a paid placement of some kind.

As if the thickening filter bubble wasn’t enough, our organic content is starting to be pushed into the background by… things that look like organic content but definitely aren’t.

Take this atrocious viral video for example (simple-minded racism warning):

The aesthetics it tries to adopt:

  • Just some crazy stunt to a small group!
  • Recorded live and uncut, just ‘on the fly’, you know?
  • Casually racist. That’s trending right now

What it actually comes off as is:

  • A carefully orchestrated video — the vocals are re-recorded and layered
  • Branding and advertising everywhere
  • Unacceptably reductive and racist

It uses racism as a marketing tool because it knows it’s going to create outrage, get more traffic to her website, and, unfortunately, sell a shitload more beds.

The creators quite obviously had the budget to make the video look professional, but this way (shaky mobile phone footage) it’s making us feel like we’re in on the joke, too: “Look at this small-minded racist idiot! She’s making a right arse of herself!”.

Jennifer Murphy’s marketing team created a quick dummy account, edited advertisements into the video, and incited a bit of hatred in a nicely search-optimized title (knowledgable for a guy with just one video on YouTube).

YouTube Screenshot Jennifer Murphy

Why would the source of the song — a guy who recorded it live and hates it — feature the fully produced version, complete with advertisements? The answer is simply that what you’re seeing is a manufactured bid for outrage, backlash and attention from Murphy herself.

I don’t seek out viral videos in general or spend much time watching them, but I do appreciate them from the aspect that they are material that’s been dug up from obscurity — material that has the ability to get a big reaction out of people who were never its audience.

The days of hidden gems suddenly circulating on a massive scale are dying. We’re in an era where you can put on a racist accent, record a song with a mobile phone, stick an advertisement on it, and then just force the virality to happen.

With fake news, calculated marketing material, and restrictive discovery algorithms, it seems the more we slip into the internet’s mad realm of viral media, the more we lose our grip on reality.

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