What makes something go viral? A video, meme, or other content can be uploaded one day and rack up hundreds of thousands of views and shares by the following morning. Going viral can happen with positive or negative content and has resulted in everything from raising millions to support someone, to “cancelling” a celebrity over past or present behaviour.
Since the beginning of COVID, the phrase “going viral” has taken on a more sombre hue, but its popular definition is the wide sharing and spread of a piece of media online in a very short time, like hours or days. Going viral does not apply when something amasses hundreds of thousands of views or shares over an extended period like ten years, but rather a rapid explosion of popularity that can catapult the creator or subject of the media to instant internet fame.
A few recent examples include memes based on a photo of Democrat Bernie Sanders wearing knitted mittens at the Presidential Inauguration, the sea shanty “The Wellerman” being sung ad nauseam on TikTok and YouTube, or Master KG’s “Jerusalema” dance that got the entire world bopping.
It is almost impossible to predict what is going to go viral online. In fact, some pieces of media that have achieved viral status are only able to do so because of deliberate marketing and the “buying” of likes and shares. Achieving that level of visibility would obviously be an amazing advertising tool, but it’s harder to do than just putting out entertaining and relatable content. Occasionally, very occasionally, an individual can strike gold and find their life changed overnight, but the reality is that only one in a million posts on Twitter goes viral.
The basic answer is yes, but, as we’ve just discussed, it’s highly improbable that you will. You could churn out multiple videos or memes a day and still not achieve viral status. The types of content that often make that leap are sometimes in the areas of politics, humour or charity, but someone who uploads a video with no intention of gaining likes or shares could also crack the algorithm. There are many tips and tricks – use the best social media platform, be evocative and be relevant – but those don’t guarantee viral popularity.
Over the past year the very word “viral” has been reclaimed to some extent by the world of medicine, and some people think it should stay that way. The concept began before social media with “viral marketing”; advertising achieving maximum spread through various techniques.
Now, people usually don’t think of viral content as having been promoted to that status, despite the fact that algorithms boost certain posts over others. When you see instruction to check this site, you don’t think of it as viral, but as a call to action. Which is what it is.
Content that is accurate or of an excellent standard often does not go viral, because that leap to fame thrives on triggering strong emotions – often evoked by misinformation, such as posts about COVID being a hoax. For better or for worse, however, going viral is here to stay, at least for the meantime.