Even if we live under a rock these days, we’ve seen a viral video. Whether it’s PSY’s “Gangnam Style”, Rickrolling, the Star Wars kid, or even the dancing baby from the AOL days, we’ve all watched a video (or seen some other content on the Internet) that came from nowhere, made us laugh, and then vanished almost as soon as it appeared, replaced by another memetic sensation. Where do all these things come from? Why are they so successful, even if for no longer than a few weeks, before disappearing into the obscurity from whence they came? And why do we never get tired of them?
Even though there is no standard measurement of success for viral memes, the most successful ones have certain characteristics in common. From these, we can extrapolate characteristics that, generally speaking, makes viral content “work”.
The best memes make people feel good about themselves. Sometimes, this is the outright intention: Matt Harding’s incredibly popular “Where The Hell Is Matt?” series of videos, which show Matt comically dancing with people all over the world, was noted by NASA for eliciting a universal smile from those who watch it, in recognition of the happiness that bonds people together.
On the other hand, a larger number of Internet memes achieve their success by making the subject of the meme a target for condescending or mean-spirited humor. One of the reason’s Rebecca Black’s “Friday” became as popular as it did was because it was considered “hilariously dreadful” and “laughably bad”. Entertainment Weekly asked if the only reason the video was shared so much was because we wanted to laugh at it. The answer, they said, was a “resounding yes.”
Memes cannot be anticipated or created. Ben Huh, creator of ICanHazCheezburger.com, the site that brought you adorable cats and phonetically spelled words, says that the popularity of his company is not based on starting memes – merely finding popular ones. Trying to predict the next Internet sensation is like predicting where lightning will strike. The enduring popularity of viral content is that there is no gauge or measurement for where, how, when, or even why it will happen.
Ergo, it is impossible to fully dissect the anatomy of viral content. The very nature of the Internet itself – distributed, and almost entirely dictated by the whims of users – means that there is no blueprint for a meme. We can understand that the humor value, whether uplifting or ironic, puts a smile on our face; and we can appreciate that the most important thing about viral content is its novelty, such that fabrication never works – if anything, viral content has to be honest in its presentation, if not its intent (like the lonelygirl15 craze). Beyond that, however, there’s no understanding why some memes work and others are ignored by the zeitgeist of the day.