The Audience Defines the Popularity of a Video — or Selfie

Why videos and selfies go viral

Communities make ideas go viral

By now you know that Ellen DeGeneris’s selfie of herself and several stars at the Academy Awards became the most popular image ever tweeted on Twitter. To date, the selfie has been retweeted almost 4 million times.

Why did that selfie go viral and why do some videos get millions of views?

The New Media World

In this TED video, Ted Allocca, Trends Manager at YouTube, describes the trend in which the audience is creating a new kind of culture where everyone has access to ideas and communities are defining the popularity of entertainment. At last count, 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. So what makes a video go viral?

  • Tastemakers. The Yosemitebear Mountain Double Rainbow video only went viral when it was tweeted by talk show host Jimmy Kimmel. To date the video has been viewed over 39 million times.
  • Community participation. Something will go viral when the community is able to participate. People who tweeted Ellen DeGeneris’s selfie wanted to be part of the community that shared the selfie with their followers. What Allocca calls the “remix community” will add their own creativity with parodies of popular videos and to their tweets (with their own selfies).
  • Unexpectedness. bike lanes by Casey Neistat is a video uploaded by bike rider Neistat to complain about a ticket he received in New York for not riding in the bike lane. I won’t spoil the unexpected ending.

Here is the video in which Allocca makes his compelling argument that the audience is defining popular culture.

Leave a Reply


  1. What makes me sad is that it’s mainly “rubbish” that goes viral. Ever come across anyting intellectual or intelligent going viral? It’s lamentable but not surprising because it reflects the interests of the majority of people in the world.

    • Catarina — agreed. When you consider 100 hours of video are uploaded every MINUTE of every day to YouTube, you bet the vast majority is junk.

  2. That was very interesting Jeannette. It does make you think about what it would take to get attention on YouTube or any other SM platform and then the unexpected results. Who knows, I might actually have that happen to one of my own podcast… LOL. 🙂

    • Susan — you may laugh, but who is to say it your podcast couldn’t go viral. Stranger things have happened. Remember the money that the creators of the “Pet Rock” made? Before the Internet but I bet that would have gone viral.

  3. Timing may not be everything in life but it seems to be a massive part of going viral. Agree with Catarina as to the intrinsic content of this one and if you think about the word viral its not normally one we associate with good things ! Still, very happy it resulted in Sony contributing $1 per Tweet to a worthwhile cause. I suspect that a good part of the last 2 million Tweets was actually driven by that, so we clearly have the phenomenon of a secondary boost which you can guarantee we will see again in the future.

    • Paul — speaking of a secondary boost look how John Travolta’s mangling of Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars went viral. The producer of her new Broadway show “If/Then” reported ticket sales doubled the next day.

  4. In my opinion, these people were lucky. Jimmy Kimmel has an entire staff to comb the internet to watch for random videos. There is no reasonable explanation. I understand the speaker’s three points, but it’s like the lottery. The chances of huge success are so small.

  5. Perhaps, since we have so little control over what goes viral, we should focus elsewhere? I do like some of the cat animated gifs I see on Google+, I must confess. I suppose the bike video shows slapstick still works. 3 Stooges, anyone?

    (And, in response to Catarina, which she probably knows, is most people aren’t interested in intellectual. So it’s not really worth trying).

    • Leora — Major companies are putting squads of people on teams creating ideas they hope will go viral. Yet the 2-minute local heavy-metal commercial during the Super Bowl for a Savannah, Ga. personal injury called “Flaming Sledgehammer” has gone viral. You just never know.

  6. Timing, luck, celebrity… who knows? I do know that HuffPost put up a one minute compilation video of cats bashing into things and I watched it three times in a row. Each time I chuckled. Mindless, but a good sort of mindlessness. I also showed it to my hubby later as well.

    • Jeri — I think that most of us don’t like to admit that we watch silly videos and read trashy novels just because they are mindless and fun. But not me. I think a little mindlessness is a good thing to step away occasionally from all the pressures of life.

  7. Those three categories totally make sense. especially the tastemakers part to create a spike. But the community one is also important. To be honest I RT’d Ellen’s selfie of the group at the Oscars, because I like Ellen and it was a fun moment in the overlong show. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling part of a community even if it is online, but the sheer volume of what is posted on YouTube does make one think that there is an awful lot of lousy stuff up there. And definitely about 75% of the videos I’ve shared with other people have had cats in them – pathetic isn’t it?:-))

    • A.K. — I agree a lot of lousy stuff on YouTube. And I hadn’t thought about it until you mentioned it. But there are an awful lot of cat videos. I know I receive lots of them myself.

  8. I think even the social media gurus are sometimes confused by what goes viral these days. I have to agree with Catarina and A.K. that it’s too bad that aren’t more “intellectually stimulating” viral anythings! Not to leave the impression that I am some kind of dilettante…still. It’s discouraging to see so much drivel 🙂

    • Jacquie — that’s what so intriguing about the web. You just never know what will go viral. Companies have hired an army of people to dream up creative promotions hoping for a “big bang” and then something as simple as bike rider crashing into a construction site will go viral.

  9. Hello Jeannette; You made some good points here. The Ellen Oscar selfie was definitely a surprise to most even though a company had promised her to donate money to a cause for every retweet. And people not only wanted to feel like they were part of the red carpet experience but they also wanted to be associated with all the stars in the photo. Now here is my question: how many of us would be willing to admit that we would take the help of a celebrity to get noticed on social media even if we didn’t really like the personality. I have come to like Ellen’s show and I enjoy other talk shows occasionally but Oprah never really grew on me. But I would probably become a fan if i got mentioned on her Twitter feed. Thanks for the post and take care, Max

    • Max — Oh, I think if Ellen or Oprah agreed to pose with me for a selfie I’d jump right into the photo!

  10. Lord, how I would love for one of my posts to go viral! I don’t do much with video. Somehow I’m not that comfortable with that medium, but I’m waiting for someone with influence to discover my book and help me make IT go viral!

    Thx for the post, Jeannette, and for being a tremendous supporter of Chocolatour.

    • Doreen — Ah, what we all wish for! Maybe you should send the book to some celebrities with samples of chocolate. Here is a link to a post I wrote a few years ago about Linda Pezzano who made launch of the board game Trivial Pursuit one of the most successful promotions in history. This was before the Internet. Just think of what she could have accomplished now.

  11. That was fascinating. I cannot understand personally why people watch half of this stuff but they do. I must be the exception because the majority of these clips don’t do a thing for me. Somehow, I don’t think you will be seeing me do anything that goes viral any time soon – then again because I don’t get it, maybe you will!

    • Becc — I agree. I’ve occasionally searched for a video to accompany a post and you have to wade through a lot of junk to find the gold nugget.

  12. As much as I think that some of the things that go viral, I wonder what’s the point? They are a waste and take up room on the internet. I can’t help but thinking wouldn’t that be amazing if something I wrote went viral. I couldn’t understand why the selfie at the Academy Awards has been retweeted almost 4 million times. Do people have nothing better to do. Do they feel a part of a special group? Oh well not my thing

    • Arleen — I know, it seems remarkable that 4 million people felt the need to retweet the selfie from the Academy Awards. I think it was mainly for fun and to feel like they’re were part of the “in” crowd. Big crowd!

  13. Hi Jeannette,

    Yeah, if only we all had that big of a community to share our small little videos. To have someone like Jimmy Kimmel or even Ellen DeGeneris share one of ours would be huge.

    I’m not that creative to come up with this kind of stuff but I sure hope that one day I can figure something out so that my videos become a little more enjoyable or just down right fun for my viewers. If they go viral then bravo to me but if they help one person, that’s what I’m aiming for.

    It’s good to know though that it’s not as out of reach for any of us now then it use to be in the past.

    Great share Jeannette, thanks!


    • Adrienne — I love your attitude, helping one person at a time. Customers really do want personalization, that each of us feels special to a brand. I had this experience with L.L. Bean last week. I called because I couldn’t decide if I should buy jeans in regular or petite (I’m not short but my legs are!). It depends on the brand. The L.L. Bean phone rep couldn’t have been more helpful. She told me to go get a pair of my favorites pants out of the closet, get a ruler and measure the inseam. Turned out the petite was the right length and so I ordered that. All the while she was chatting away as if we were best friends. You can bet I’ll be back when I buy my next pair pants. We all want loving care!

  14. Dan — I know with that much video uploaded how can you stand out!? The creative director at my former agency said something that has stuck with me. “There are no big ideas, or small ideas, only powerful ideas.” It’s so true. An original idea for a video that doesn’t cost much to make still can be found. Not easy, for sure. But possible.

  15. My husband and I watch the funniest videos on you tube. Look up Winnebago man. That is a real treat and you will laugh so hard! I love the funny YouTube videos the most! I watched to Oscars and saw so many people tweet that famous picture! So crazy! Great post! =)