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A Lesson in Viral Video

February 7, 2007

Last Wednesday, Michael Wesch was one of thousands of Internet users to add material to the video-sharing site YouTube. He posted a  five-minute clip, set to techno music, that helps explain Web 2.0 -- the so-called second wave of Web-based services that enables people to network and aggregate information online.

The next morning, Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, sent the link to 10 colleagues and friends. It was a second draft. He mostly wanted their feedback. And they responded positively by forwarding the link to a few of their friends. Within hours, the video had more than 100 hits on YouTube.     

“I was elated,” Wesch said. “By that time I was already satisfied that I generated a viral video.”

Eventually, a popular blogger discovered the video and posted it onto his site, which helped send the hits into the thousands. Scores of people saw the clip through the Internet blog search engine Technorati, and a number of them promoted it to the front page of the news aggregate site digg. By then, the blogosphere was all over Wesch's project, and some were calling it a must-see video for anyone wanting to understand the hottest features of the Web.  

The video page had been viewed 19,000 times by early Monday, 30,000 times by the afternoon and 91,000 times by early Tuesday.

"I was totally amazed," Wesch said. "My guess is that [the subject matter of the video] is attractive to the people who can make a video become popular," -- the bloggers, techies and news junkies who habitually pass on their favorite links to others.  

Wesch's experience of quick Web exposure is hardly rare in an age of hyperlinks, blogs and constant content sharing. And it has helped illustrate the power of Web 2.0 to his class on "digital ethnography." Students, who have been discussing what makes a video popular on sites such as YouTube, viewed the video on Thursday, before it became an Internet hit. Wesch said the class is researching the social and cultural phenomena of the Internet and how the technology has spawned new language (HTML-speak, for instance).

Wesch graduated from the Kansas State's undergraduate anthropology program 10 years ago, received his doctorate from the University of Virginia and returned to Kansas State as a faculty member in 2004. He said he created his first Web page in 1998 and has been looking at ways of presenting ethnographies in a more visual way. (Much of his research has focused on cultural practices in Papua New Guinea.)

As part of an article on Web 2.0 that is intended to appear in a journal of anthropology, Wesch created the video to appear on the publication's Web site.

"I was trying to explain this stuff in the traditional paper format, and I thought, 'This is ironic,'" he said. "I can illustrate this much better in a video."

The difference between HTML and XML, the formation of blogs and the nonlinear quality of digital text are topics addressed in Wesch's piece. The title, "The Machine is Us/ing Us," is a reference to a point made in the video -- that we are teaching our computer new ideas every time we click on a link. As Wesch says: "The more we are aware of the machine, the better we can make it serve us."

And as he writes in the video, “Digital text is no longer just linking information. The Web is no longer just linking information. The Web is linking people.”

Wesch said the video is meant to remind the programmers and techies that they have a "profound impact on societies" with their ability to write open source software. He said it's also intended to remind the policy wonks and politicians who debate Internet privacy and copyrighting that "the media we are responding to is constantly changing."  

 

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