BIZ: When Viral Video ATTACKS!!!
By Kevin Drefyfuss/EB Insider
That video starring the animated Superfriends spoofing the Budweiser "Whassup" ad - you've seen it by now, you've laughed, wondered where it came from and who made it, and you've passed it on to everyone else you know. It's clever and stupidly funny, but why on earth does a particular short film like this one catch hold of the everyone's attention on the Web? What is driving the huge underground culture of video and animation being zapped back and forth via subterranean emails between friends, family, co-workers (and it ain't all just odd bits of animal porn)?
Anytime one of these videos washes through my email inbox, I marvel yet again over the unique culture of the Net - a place where all walls are leveled and any random piece of bizarreness can hit the big-time for no good reason whatsoever (ask our old friend Mahir from Turkey). On the Web, instead of getting Warhol's 15 minutes of fame, it's more like 15 seconds. It reminds me why there are 5 million streaming entertainment start-ups - and the VCs who love them - eager to tap into this hungry, dedicated, tightly interwoven audience, mine them for data, and sell to them, of course.
What actually takes place between the point at which a viral video infection (in this case the Superfriends "Wassup" clip, emailed to me last month by some remote e-friend, whom I've never actually met) begins to hit random In boxes and when it reaches 'critical mass' (where it gets mentioned on Hollywood message boards and resides snugly on IFILM and other sites)? Here's a nice little case study - the dissection of an underground next-gen hit:
[To protect the illusion of a hard-working office environment - where no one has time for this tomfoolery - the identities of sources cannot be revealed.]
Stage 1: The Random Email
I'm still not sure exactly how the email made its way to my office, but it seemed as if everyone got it simultaneously, and the halls were filled with the sounds of speakers turned up loud, "Whassup!" echoing everywhere. "As soon as I heard the first "whaaasup!" I spat some food out on my monitor," noted one of my co-workers.
"I get that kind of stuff a few times a week. But actually, it's usually much more boring, usually one of those 'heartwarming - tale - that - illustrates - how - important - friendship - is - so - if - you - do - not - send - this - message - to - all - your - friends - you - are - a - heartless - bastard' stories," noted a Silicon Alley-ite friend of mine at an office nearby. He continues, "but occasionally I get a gem like the Japanese girls puking on each other in a hotel bathroom. I get that one quite often, usually from an old high school friend. He just keeps sending and sending. Must really like it, I guess."
The first instinct is always to try and trace the path of where it came from. It's like trying to unravel an urban myth, which always seems to happen to somebody's cousin's brother's trainer, who you're pretty sure never existed in the first place. But in this case, somebody had to have made that animation. But when a woman I work with quizzed the closest source we could identify on this elusive Streaming Citizen X, we got a wary response typical of true, paranoid Netizens -- "I'm not sure where the movie came from, it was in some e-mail someone sent me. Hey, you ain't no copyright-narc, are you? Cause if so, then fuck the whole thing, copyright is absolutely wrong and runs contrary to the interests of the artistic community (though they are generally a bunch of ignorant money-hungry fucks who can't see the issue clearly for all the dollar-signs in their eyes)."
Stage 2: The Underground Sites
The animation kept popping up. First, on a small but well-known underground film site, My Boot. Clues left on the site hinted that it was actually a Comedy Central promo or was perhaps planted by Budweiser itself as an underground marketing technique similar to the oddball hit-and-run "Andy Lives" campaign that surrounded the film "Man on the Moon". By this time, nearly two weeks had passed and the animation was beginning to pop up in odd, and increasingly commercial, corners of the Web: AdCritic, a storehouse for the best and strangest videos of the advertising world, streaming player iFuse, and on content sites like IGN, Maxim Magazine and Ain't It Cool News.
Stage 3: Full Exposure
The cherry on top came when I happened to surf by IFILM and saw the Superfriends up front and center on the home page as their featured underground video. Whoever had put the animation together had managed to put the networking capacity of the Web to work for them, to create their own viral distribution channel and build their own buzz.
And fascinatingly enough, it worked.
In a matter of weeks, that video was being passed around by thousands and thousands of fans, posted at prestigious sites, and was starting to garner some film interest - "Our on-air people are trying to find out who did it," Cartoon Network spokesperson Laurie Goldberg told iFuse's popculprit magazine. "We'd like to hire them. We're not going to sue them or anything, I mean we're not some big scary corporation, we just want to hire their creativity."
So there you have it -- viral video, DIY distribution in action, and at Internet-speed taking full advantage of the explosive network effect. Of course, the flaw here is that nobody knows who the hell made it, and thus there is no one to reap the benefits from all the acclaim and free press. But still, the model is there, and the unknown Superfriends creator will soon be followed by legions more, all attempting to build their own value and buzz, all by themselves, Hollywood be damned.