Accidentally famous: The psychology of going viral

Accidentally famous: The psychology of going viral
Accidentally famous: The psychology of going viral

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Accidentally famous: The psychology of going viral 02:20

Story highlights

  • Social media fame can be measured in likes, followers and retweets
  • Fame, just like health and wealth and education, can influence our lives in serious ways

(CNN)Fame struck Adam Nyerere Bahner like a random bolt of lightning.

At the time, Bahner was a graduate student living in Minneapolis, pursuing a Ph.D. in American studies. "I was a bad graduate student. I didn't really like teaching, and I didn't really like research," he said. "I was focusing on studying the history of performance and social change."
About 2006, Bahner began to go to small open mics at "mom and pop shops" where he would "sing for perhaps five people, two of whom were reading the newspaper and three of whom, being Minnesotans, were very nonconfrontational and would say, 'Oh, yeah, that's great; keep doing what you're doing,' " he said.
    Tired of dragging his keyboard and amplifier around in the middle of winter, Bahner decided to post a music video on YouTube.
    "I invented the name 'Tay Zonday,' " he said. "I put it in quotes in Google, and it got zero results, so I immediately tried to claim it everywhere." This "deliberate branding choice" was necessary because Bahner assumed that his academic career would involve publishing papers, and he wanted a separate persona for his YouTube endeavors.
    "And I wanted to make sure if someone said it in conversation, people would know how to spell it," he added.
    In January 2007, Zonday started uploading music videos that "got no momentum whatsoever." Still, he received honest feedback. "You sound like a didgeridoo" was one comment he recalled. This criticism encouraged him to sing in a baritone range and aim "for more mass appeal."
    " 'Chocolate Rain' was a song I completed as an afterthought," he said. "I did another song that YouTube told me they would feature on the front page." At the time, editors still curated YouTube's front and section pages.
    So Zonday "rushed 'Chocolate Rain' to completion because I knew I should have a second song ready on my channel." He uploaded it in April 2007, and it got some views, maybe 30,000 or so in the first couple of months.
    "Then someone posted it on Digg.com, which was like a social bookmarking site a little like Reddit is right now," he said. "It was on the front page of Digg and got some attention there." Next, it became a joke on 4chan, an anonymous bulletin board popular (and notorious) at the time.
    In July 2007, someone played a joke on comedian Tom Green, "who was doing a show at the time in his living room," said Zonday, who watched a clip of Green singing "Chocolate Rain" after a prank call in which someone played the song.
    "That was my first little taste of fame," he said. Within days, "Chocolate Rain" "just blew up."

    'No aspirations of fame'

    "Blew up," we say about a video or Vine or Instagram photo. That tweet has gone "viral," we say.
    Words with negative connotations are the ones we choose when speaking about success in the social media world. Do we collectively -- if secretly -- believe that something unhealthy or destructive underlies millions of clicks? Or are we simply suspicious of anyone who has claimed fame by doing something that looks so unpolished, so much like something we ourselves could do?
    The appeal of KittiesMama, a vlogger family voted one of the top social media influencers in 2017 by Forbes magazine, is definitely homespun. They joined YouTube in August 2008 and have racked up more than 1.4 billion views of their Halloween costume makeup tutorials, toy reviews, Advent calendar countdowns and other family-themed videos.
    "We had no aspirations of fame or fortune," said Jen, who referred to herself as "the Mama of KittiesMama" and did not divulge her family name.
    "We were part of the early generation of YouTubers. YouTube was free bandwidth for storing videos and a place to put videos too big to send in an email. We made videos for our own entertainment," she said. "Having people like our content was an unexpected bonus."
    The KittiesMama family was voted one of the top social media influencers of 2017.
    The difference between "early" YouTube and "today's" YouTube is a distinction Zonday also makes.
    "Now, YouTube is all about loyalty," he said. "It's not about having something new or disruptive. It's about getting people to come back to the platform. Same thing with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: They want loyalty; they want you to come back and use the platform."
    Zonday generalizes this distinction to the internet at large.
    "In 2007, the internet was a novelty economy, and now it's a loyalty economy," he said. "In 2007, it was about funny videos of ladybug sex and awkward unusual disruptive content that was culturally new. It was all about finding that novelty thing that nobody had ever seen before. That was YouTube's breakout moment."
    This "moment" contributed to Zonday's own success with "Chocolate Rain" because YouTube needed videos that were "safe and somewhat marketable" so it could say, "Hey, this is what can happen on this platform that is different than whatever happened previously," Zonday said.
    "Chocolate Rain" went viral for many reasons, he says. "I sing it with funny mannerisms. I have a voice body mismatch where I have an unexpected voice for my presentation physically." It's also "just a catchy song, one that people found easy to parody," he says.
    "And that's exactly what thousands and thousands of people did," Zonday said, recalling that some of the parody lyrics were "a little bit edgy, like 'menstrual pain.' " No matter: The parodies propelled "Chocolate Rain" into the national news.

    'Patient zero'

    Zonday's experience of insta-fame was "just bananas." Everybody and their mom knew "Chocolate Rain." People asked him to sing at their kids' bar mitzvahs and at their corporate parties. People were trying to arrange book deals. As he tells it, fame was "just this overwhelming 'who is this person?!' "
    "In fact, the very first satellite interview I did was on CNN Saturday," Zonday said. "I think I said 'um' and 'you know' 43 times. All of my Toastmasters training just went out of my head. I looked like a nerd in my living room cast in a very public worldwide spotlight."
    Though hurled into the stratosphere, Zonday was not yet ready to drop out of graduate school -- he did so eventually -- and was not a professional musician.
    He often thinks of himself as "patient zero" of social media fame. "One day, I'm making a song in my living room, and the next week I'm on the front page of Sunday's L.A. Times." The experience spurred an "identity crisis," he says.
    Tay Zonday completed his viral hit "Chocolate Rain" as an afterthought.
    "There were no bread crumbs to follow, like, 'What did Rebecca Black do when she went viral?' "

    'Is this something fun to do?'

    Rebecca Black says she "somehow stumbled upon YouTube" around 2010, and her first response was surprise that it was "more than just cat videos."
    "It was a place where everyone got to be creative and fun, and I watched everything," she said. At the time, she was "just 12 or 13," and she had "probably made a couple of videos, just like me with my brother. I was always a theater kid."
    Like many people, she uploaded a couple of these videos to YouTube but deleted her channel soon after. She went back to just watching.
    "And then I came across this company that would produce songs and make music videos for young talent," she said. Her parents, who are veterinarians, thought it would be a good experience for her, an after-school-type activity like soccer or dance or cheering.
    "It was by no means me thinking 'This is going to be my big debut,' " Black said. Instead, it was a way to experience music videos and decide, "Is this something fun to do?"
    "Even though YouTube was a baby still at the time, there were still thousands of videos uploaded every day," Black said. Naturally, she assumed that her music video, "Friday," would not get any attention. "No way," she said.
    How wrong she was.

    The changing nature of fame

    "Fame has completely changed in the last 20 or 30 years, primarily because of reality TV and also the internet and social media," said Yalda T. Uhls, an author, assistant adjunct professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles and adviser for Common Sense Media.
    In the past, fame was tied to developing a skill, such as dancing, but today, "there are so many different pathways for getting your name out there," so "you can be famous just for being famous or for any kind of behavior," she said.
    In particular, social media fame creates an "illusion," making it difficult to see any of the work behind what goes viral. Another difference in social media fame is "you can count it," Uhls said. In the past, there was no "measure" of fame, but in "today's world, you can measure it by how many likes and how many followers and how many retweets."
    UCLA has done an incoming freshman survey every year for about 40 years; it has become apparent that today's "kids are sort of more focused on fame," Uhls said.
    Her own research has found that for most teens, fame ranked pretty low on a list of eight top values. However, "kids who watched more television and were on social media more desired to be famous more than kids who weren't watching TV as much and weren't on social media as much."
    What children who aspire to fame often don't understand is that you may become social media famous by posting, but "once you start posting, you have to keep posting." That's work, hard work, that translates to a sacrifice of childhood.
    "You don't get to learn all the things you would learn in a normal childhood, and that affects your identity. It affects so many things," Uhls said. "Most people grow up having to pick themselves up when they are down or having to create real relationships with people based on reciprocity, versus someone just wanting to get to know you because you are famous."
    Despite some perks, then, child stars grow up young, Uhls said. And criticism or failure, being public, are harder.
    Black, now 20, can tell this story firsthand.

    Getting lost in the criticism

    About a month after it was posted on YouTube, Black's music video "Friday" just "blew up," she says.
    "It literally went from 3,000 views from the start of a weekend to 1 million by the end of a weekend and by the end of the month 100 million," she said. "At the time, it was the fastest video to hit 100 million views."
    The video also had the distinction of racking up more "dislikes" than "likes." From Black's view, there were "literally millions and millions and millions" of people saying "get out of here; we don't want you here." She had no ability to differentiate one comment from another.
    "You just see that there's more and more people saying 'you don't belong. You've got to be this. You've got to be that. We want you to do this.' It's everyone from an agent telling you to cut your hair or to lose some weight, which again at 13, who tells a 13-year-old to lose weight?" Black said. "I got so lost in the middle of all that. It was almost just like I was a character."
    Meanwhile, her parents "were very apprehensive." Her mother, always in her corner, took a step back for the first time in Black's life to ask, "Are you sure? Because I see how ruthless this industry is. And it's not just the press or the YouTube commenters that don't consider who you are. It's everyone who is working with you."
    Agents and managers placed her under "intense pressure." Black says she was "keeping up a certain reputation or trying to surpass that or overcome that, because now you're in an industry and it's your work, and now you're working and trying to stay competitive and keep up with who (are) coming up, and it's just too much for anyone to handle, I think, at so young an age."
    Especially, she says, if no one prepares you by "saying this is what's about to happen."
    "I couldn't understand why something so small could be so important or why someone felt like they had the right to say that," Black said. "I also, at the same time, felt this need like I had to do it, I had to make these people happy, because they preach to you that's how you're successful, and success is the most important thing.
    "At times, all I could do was cry."

    15 minutes of fame

    For a recent study, Arnout van de Rijt, an affiliate faculty member at Stony Brook University and professor of Sociology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, analyzed daily records of references to people's names appearing in English-language media sources. He and his colleagues found that, on average, people whose names appeared just a few times in a given year achieved short-lived fame, while those whose names appeared routinely gained lasting fame.
    Though this may seem intuitive, his research proved Andy Warhol's 1968 prediction that "In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes."
    "Both these types of fame exist," van de Rijt said. Some names disappear very quickly, but really big names last for decades. "Once you reach a certain threshold of fame, then it's just not going to let go of you," he said.
    The reason? "When we talk to someone, we like to draw on examples and people they might already know." Someone familiar to everyone -- someone famous -- can be used as an example, and by referencing the familiar name, "we perpetuate, as a society, someone's fame."
    Today, he says, there's an interesting "new phenomenon" of people becoming famous by social media alone, without an intervention of traditional media. "People rise from the bottom up rather than they are chosen from the top down, so to speak, by traditional media organizations," he said. "What's unique is the way people become famous, but the character of that fame, the dynamics that follow, are very similar."
    Yet once someone reaches a certain level of fame, they're mentioned in the news, "and so social media and traditional media converge again in deciding who is famous and who is not famous."
    "Sociologists are typically concerned with more tangible things like wealth and education and health, things that everybody wants to have for themselves and are distributed unequally in society," he said. "But fame could be considered precisely such a thing."
    After all, "we pay attention to a few superstars, and 99% of us are not famous," he said, yet fame "is not just something that is pleasant or something that you can proudly report to your parents." It sometimes translates into life and death.
    If your child goes missing, for instance, you'd want as much media coverage as possible, and someone famous would be able to tap into that.
    "If you want visibility for your startup or your project, then fame is a very welcome feature," van de Rijt said. Increasingly, "it is an important thing to want -- just like health and wealth and education."
    KittiesMama is a case in point.

    'The life I always wanted to give my children'

    Before YouTube, KittiesMama's Jen wrote in an email, "we were struggling to afford basic living expenses, not going on vacations, not expecting to afford braces or college, knowing Disneyland was out of reach."
    That was then; this is now: "Now we live a comfortable middle class life."
    Rebecca Black says her hit "Friday" placed her under "intense pressure."
    Vloggers with a substantial following can join the YouTube Partner Program, which connects them to a cost-per-click ad service that "monetizes" -- attaches relevant advertisements for products -- the videos and pays a small amount for doing so.
    Though she cannot discuss money because of a nondisclosure agreement with YouTube, she says, "Our kids go to good private schools, we've been fortunate enough to take them to Disney more than once, I'm able to go to department stores to shop, all kids have had braces, we can afford to get them dance lessons, music lessons, and instruments so they can learn new skills and build character for their futures, and each kid has a college fund and a nice savings account, we live in a nice house and we're able to provide the life I always wanted to give my children."
    Fame, itself, does not affect her family, Jen says: "The only time we notice it is when fans come up to us in public but for the most part we don't really think about it."
    Yet Black believes social media fame, which is "only going to continue to happen more and more," might not be pretty for the children who experience it.
    "You're going to see these kids who come out of nowhere, who have no team backing them, and they're just all of a sudden out to the wolves," she said.
    After "Friday," she attended high school and laid "a little more low," though she continued to make music. Now, Black is earning her living as a musician and YouTuber, yet still takes note of the newest kids in the social media world.
    "When you turn off your screen, they're still alive and working and going to school or trying to figure out how to make it through," she said. "I guess I just wish people could maybe recognize that more and let that affect the way they treat them."
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    Zonday, who is 35 and lives in Los Angeles, where he works as a host, actor, voice talent and singer, believes that "everybody who is a human being has an IMAX screen worth of personal truth that they're trying to express through a keyhole of attention."
    As one of the few who managed to grab hold of the "public consciousness," Zonday understands the downside of having done so. " 'Chocolate Rain' is not necessarily exactly where I'm at today," he said. Yet he knows that for the rest of his life, people will be wanting to sing 'Chocolate Rain' or invoke some memory that they have of the song, he says. And "that's great."
    "But it also creates this situation where I feel more real in fiction than I do in reality."