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Web puts fame within our reach, but it’s as fickle as ever

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 7:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 1:22 p.m. CDT
Caption
Karen X. Cheng poses for a portrait at the South San Francisco BART station where she filmed her viral YouTube video "Girl Learns to Dance in a Year," in San Francisco, Calif., on July 25, 2013. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group/MCT)

Karen X. Cheng wanted to do two things: learn to dance hip-hop in a year, and then share her joy with the rest of the planet.

She posted her two-minute dance video on YouTube one Tuesday morning in July. Facebook friends passed it around, and social media sites Reddit and Mashable grabbed it and flung it every which way. By bedtime Wednesday, “Girl Learns to Dance in a Year” had 280,000 YouTube views. By Thursday, nearly a million had watched Cheng finding her groove. It got another million hits by Friday, and it’s been hurtling through Internet space ever since.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said the 26-year-old Web designer from San Francisco, still reeling from her byte-borne debut. “You can share a video all you want, but you can’t make people reshare it. My message must have really resonated.”

Uh, yeah.

What about the rest of us? With a clever idea, couldn’t we all be as wildly successful as Cheng? We decided to make a video and find out.

We explored the changing nature of fame through our own quest to go viral, using our homemade video as a touchstone for the broader evolution of celebrity on the Internet today. And it’s not only the Justin Biebers and Ashton Kutchers who have harnessed the power of social media to supercharge their careers. The Internet and tools like Twitter and Instagram have turned scores of nobodies into somebodies. Some had huge talents; others relied on equal amounts of pluck and luck. But they all found cyberfame in ways that would not have been possible 20 years ago.

Our video was made to provide us a peephole into that phenomenon. But when we reached out for guidance from the social media mavens, the “experts” were all over the map. Some warned us that it’s impossible to “make” a video go viral; others assured us that by following the right steps any idiot could do it.

So, we brainstormed like Mad Men, kicking around storylines — from videotaping dogs sharing the driver’s seat with their owners (dogs go viral, right?) to unleashing a herd of goats into the newsroom on deadline (chaos in the workplace!).

We settled on a spoof on our obsession with tech toys. Our video introduces the “iChicken,” Silicon Valley’s latest gotta-have-it gadget, just in time for the holidays. Bay Area News Group reporters and photographers showed up with live chickens at coffee shops, city sidewalks, train stations, even at Apple’s iPad Air launch in San Francisco.

The video bordered on slapstick, capturing those familiar scenes of digital distraction: drivers fixated on devices at stoplights; a romantic dinner interrupted by that glance under the table at a glowing screen. But instead of smartphones as the culprit, the iChicken had become our obsession.

Virality was just a breath away, right? Not so fast. We quickly discovered that if there were a foolproof formula for going viral, every cat owner with an iPhone would have achieved fame by now.

Fame ain’t what it used to be. Red-hot and out-of-the-blue, the online notoriety Cheng and other individuals, companies and special-interest groups are achieving today are a product of our digital era. As sharing technologies blur social boundaries, wiping away lines once separating private from public and local from global, the concept of branding has been turned inside out. It’s as if the whole Internet were now some jampacked casting call in the cloud.

“The very fiber of fame has changed,” said author and branding consultant Peter Shankman, who calls the viral video the “metaphor” for this new kind of celebrity. “The generation growing up now knows that fame can be achieved not only on a movie screen but by making a video that blows up on YouTube. Yet while fame’s much easier to grab, it’s also harder than ever to hold on to because it unfolds in this sort of short-attention-span theater.”

While stages like Pinterest and SoundCloud are there waiting for us all to shine, this re-engineered fame comes wrapped in as much illusion as the old-fashioned variety. There’s “this belief that the Internet is this amazing place to be discovered,” said Jason Cieslak, president, Pacific Rim, for global strategic branding firm Siegel+Gale. “But while a lot of people will try, most of them will fail over time and eventually give up.”

Cheng was the exception, and she’s convinced her success was no fluke. In a blog post, she offered tips on how she did it, including keeping the video short (she shaved it to under two minutes), packing it with emotion (the viewer vicariously shares the hard work and dedication she put into the project), and most of all: telling a story.

“It’s not just a story about dancing,” she wrote. “It’s about having a dream and not knowing how to get there — but starting anyway.

“People want stories. That’s what all TV, movies and books are. Tell a story.”

On the morning of Nov. 19, as we posted our nearly three-minute iChicken video on YouTube, we imagined tens of thousands, if not millions of viewers, clicking on our clip and passing it on. That’s the thing about achieving Internet fame: It looks so damn easy.

Give it a catchy but not-too-clever name so it’s descriptive and easy-to-search, our experts told us. Cheng tweaked her title several times so that it naturally followed “Hey did you see the video of (UNDERSCORE)? Fill in the blank,” she wrote on her blog. “That’s your title.”

So we named ours “Introducing the iChicken.” Launch early in the week, our advisers suggested, when people are back at work, to build up momentum long before the weekend. And tweet it out to everyone we could think of, they said, including the influencers we’d never met. So we launched on a Tuesday morning and tweeted our brains out.

With Google Plus, emails, Facebook, Instagram and even a boost from social media superstar Guy Kawasaki — “Apple nails it again: iChicken. What the cluck?” — we tried to create the buzz that would make iChicken a hit. A link from Kawasaki, the self-dubbed “former chief evangelist of Apple” with more than 5.5 million people in his Google Plus circles and almost 1.4 million Twitter followers, should have been the golden egg.

And, yes, YouTube’s view meter started moving. By noon, we’d been viewed in 16 countries, including Sweden and Fiji. Encouraging comments — “I want one!” — started pouring in. Yet the YouTube click box had moved up to only 1,025 by Day One. Still, we held on to hope. Tomorrow, we go viral!

We had found ourselves in the same roiling digital waters that every business, entertainer and content provider in our hyperconnected world must now navigate. Whether it’s bedroom bootstrappers promoting their talents from an in-home recording studio or large corporations pushing shaving cream or HoneyBaked hams, branding today is a messy mosh pit of crowdsourced chatter.

“Your image is no longer controlled by your ad agency or designers but by your customers and their relationship to you,” said tech marketing consultant Andy Smith. He’s co-author of “The Dragonfly Effect,” a sort of Frommer’s guide for navigating social media as an agent for change. “And if you screw up, you can no longer ignore it or pave it over with PR.”

Branding has been redefined by this mad scramble into social networking, but none of it’s a cakewalk. Bryan Kramer, a social media strategist with PureMatter in San Jose, Calif., said that “while going viral is the cherry on the top, you can’t force things to go viral; you can only make them as good as you can and hope for the best.”

Or as Smith sees it: “Virality is not a strategy; it’s an outcome.”

Our own strategy, we were starting to realize within a few days of the iChicken launch, was producing a disappointing outcome. We were learning firsthand just how hard it is to make a video go viral. You can’t MAKE Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak tweet about your video (we tried, he never called back). You can’t MAKE Twitter super-user Bob Scoble tell his nearly 400,000 followers to watch the iChicken (we tried, he never called back). And even when someone agreed to give the video a nudge, as did a colleague’s ex-wife who works for a large Chinese Internet company, it didn’t always have the intended effect (she tweeted for us, but not much happened).

After pushing this digital boulder up a hill for two weeks, with only 15,000 YouTube views to show for it, it felt as if the rock had rolled back down on all of us.

Part of the problem we faced is that anyone seeking a spotlight will find an already packed stage. More than 100 hours of mostly original content is uploaded every minute to YouTube, making any particular snippet of video a mere droplet in a digital ocean.

At the same time, there is hope because the audience is so huge. According to digital-metrics trackers at comScore, 189 million Americans watched 49.1 billion online content videos in October, while the number of video ad views totaled 24.5 billion, up from 13.2 billion in March.

Photojournalist and Instagram star Richard Koci Hernandez said that “the moment I got onto social media, my career took a decidedly different turn.” With more than 180,000 followers now devouring his black-and-white, multi-filtered dreamscapes, the Emmy award-winner describes initially feeling like “a sandwich-board guy on the side of the road saying ‘Look at me!’ ”

But as he reached out to others and saw his audience mushroom, Hernandez realized he had it backward. The reason some people find Internet fame while others don’t, he said, is because the successful ones learn quickly that “the power of social media is not about ‘Look at me,’ but about starting a conversation with others. It’s about connecting with other people who are also creating something.”

And the iChicken, obviously, was more like the sandwich-board guy by the side of the road.

In this redefined world of sudden mass exposure, YouTube serves as the center spotlight. Much more than 140-character tweets or Pinterest boards, videos seem to carry that emotional heft that marketing executive Devra Prywes with video-tracking service Unruly said is crucial to making people want to share what they see.

“We study why viral videos work,” Prywes said. “And we’ve found that they don’t have to be sexy or flashy to be highly shared. A video goes viral because it makes people feel something. What matters most is making that emotional connection, which then makes people who feel it want to share it with others.”

That’s where the iChicken failed and “Girl Learns to Dance in a Year” succeeded.

“It takes guts to put up videos of yourself dancing, especially if you’re just learning,” one fan wrote on Cheng’s YouTube page. “That last shot by the train is super satisfying. It doesn’t just show that this girl has progressed with dancing but it seems to show her moving outside of herself as she takes the dance from out of the shelter of her home.”

So what exactly went wrong? It was time for the iChicken’s post-mortem, but it would feel more like a colonoscopy.

We used animals like “the experts” told us to do. We made sure the final cut didn’t exceed three minutes. And we recruited dozens of colleagues to help us push the thing. Yet we still hit that same wall that most YouTube creators hit.

“I couldn’t tell why I should continue to watch it,” said Emmy award-winning journalist Kare Anderson. “What’s the reason people would share it? Why is it ‘clever’? It’s too much about you; what does it say about ‘us’?”

So the iChicken wasn’t funny enough?

“People share things that they expect a self-expressive (this is me/I am cool) benefit from,” consultant Andy Smith wrote us in an email. “This, unfortunately doesn’t bring this out of me. Comedy is hard. It feels more tongue-in-cheek than funny. People seem to be poking fun at something, but is it themselves? Or the viewer? Or Apple?”

That distinctive “wow moment” that has made videos go viral — like Jean-Claude Van Damme’s splits on a pair of moving Volvo trucks or Carrie’s telekinetic freakout at a coffee shop — was more like a ‘“hmmm moment” in our video.

Despite the fleeting nature of digitalized notoriety, a simple truth endures: While the online stage is very public, it is often the very personal that attracts the most attention.

Cheng was passionate about this point: Seeing someone perform at the top of their game is seeing only a small part of the whole picture. What you don’t see, she said, is the blood, sweat and tears that eventually gave birth to the performance.

“You don’t see the self-doubt, the lost sleep, the lonely nights spent working,” explained Cheng, who has turned her success into a startup to inspire and showcase others’ 100-day projects. “You don’t see the moment they started. The moment they were just like you, wondering how they could ever be good.”

But then you see the girl learn to dance.

And you can’t help but pass it on.

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