published Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Inside Coonrippy — the science that makes videos go viral (with video)

Mark Brown holds up a T-shirt advocating his cause.
Mark Brown holds up a T-shirt advocating his cause.
Photo by Maura Friedman.

Anthony Scotti saw Mark Brown dance with his raccoon, and then about a million other people did.

On July 28, Scotti stumbled upon the 1-year-old video while scanning through the website Buzzfeed. He thought it was funny. But at the time, he said, only about 25,000 people had watched it.

So Scotti, 31, checked to see if anyone had posted the clip on Reddit, a social news and entertainment site. He couldn't find the video anywhere, so he posted it and tacked on a headline: "Hillbilly dances to Aretha Franklin with a bewildered raccoon."

By the end of that week, more than half a million people would watch the video. By now the count is more than 1.2 million.

It's an odd juncture: the middle-aged dancing Southerner and the Orlando, Fla., man who works as an operations analyst for a university. But without Scotti, Brown's video would not have gone viral.

Why does this matter? Like many elements of 21st century pop culture, a viral YouTube video represents the sidelining of established, powerful media institutions.

In the past, people who wanted fame needed some sort of connection. A filmmaker needed a studio to greenlight his idea, and a musician needed a record company to promote her album. This required connections with the right people, connections that some unlucky performers never cultivated.

Now, though, elements of the game have changed.

When Justin Bieber was 13 years old, his mother put videos of him singing around the house on YouTube. She wanted family members to see. But a music manager stumbled on the videos, and six years later Bieber has produced three No. 1 albums and starred in a concert film that grossed about $100 million.

No other YouTube star has reached anywhere near this level of fame. But plenty of them have created niche careers out of their time in the spotlight.

"Web video has made it so any of us, or any of the creative things that we do, can become completely famous and a part of our world's culture," Kevin Allocca, the trends manager at YouTube, told his audience at a 2011 technology-based TED Talk lecture.

"Any one of you could be famous on the Internet by next Saturday."

How exactly does this happen? To be sure, Allocca said, there is no perfect formula, no viral video science. But many viral videos share three common traits: They are weird; they get promoted by tastemakers, people with plenty of online connections; and viewers take some sort of ownership -- they want to make their own versions of the video or at least talk about it with their friends.

In Brown's case, people don't expect to see a man with a beard that hangs down to his chest. And they don't expect to see that man dancing to Aretha Franklin. And they don't expect to see that man dancing to Aretha Franklin with his fat pet raccoon.

Two tastemakers helped this video go viral: Scotti and Chelsea Marshall, the associate animals editor at Buzzfeed, who thinks she stumbled on it while watching something else. She decided to share the video on Buzzfeed on July 26, and Scotti picked it up two days later.

Scotti spends much of his day cycling through blogs. At any given time, he keeps about 20 websites up on his computer.

"I cruise the Internet hard," said Scotti, who added that he has helped turn videos into viral sensations before.

First, he found a video of a shark circling a surfer in 2010. The surfer shot the video with a GoPro camera, and Scotti shared it on Reddit. Several versions of the video exist online now, the most popular of which has gained more than 500,000 views.

In 2011, Scotti said he found a video of an 80-year-old grandmother in Iowa defending gay marriage. He thought it broke down stereotypes about the elderly and residents of the heartland. He shared that video on Reddit and watched the view count increase to 300,000, and he believes the clip has influenced -- in some ways, at least -- the gay rights discussion.

So in July, after watching Brown and Gunshow the raccoon, Scotti thought that video, too, had the potential to go viral.

"A hillbilly dancing to Aretha Franklin -- how eclectic is that?" he said. "Well, maybe it's not eclectic at all. Maybe this is everyday minutiae in the life of at least one hillbilly. Maybe hillbillies are not a mystical "Deliverance"-esque piece of Americana and simply abstracted individuals with whom all others could hang out."

The Reddit website is divided into countless "Subreddit" pages with titles like "Random," "Funny" and "Aww." Pictures and videos are first posted on one of the Subreddit pages. If enough people vote for a post -- signifying that they like it -- the video will get pushed to the front page of the website. This can cause a lot of online content to go viral.

On the evening of July 28, Scotti's post was one of the most popular posts on the "videos" Subreddit.

The next day was a Monday. Many people returning to work found Brown and Gunshow, and they liked it. The video moved to the Reddit front page for about half the day. Around 12:45 p.m., a blogger at The Huffington Post UK shared the video.

The next day, someone at Gawker posted it, and then someone at Yahoo! did, and then someone at the London Daily Mail fell in line. Then the video was everywhere: The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, CNN.

The video's popularity continued to climb.

In addition to the weirdness of the video and its tastemakers, the clip featured the third characteristic: People took ownership of the video. This part was unpredictable.

Soon after the clip became popular, officers from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency took away Brown's other raccoon, Rebekah. Owning raccoons is illegal. But the officers would not have known, Brown said, without his fame.

So Brown took to the media. He did interviews about losing his raccoon, about the injustice of it all. People started online petitions As Brown's case got more attention -- though no raccoon -- more people watched the video and talked about it. And when they talked about it, their friends watched it.

And now, more than a year after Brown made the video and three months after Scotti found it, Brown hopes to star in a reality TV show. And if this happens, Scotti will have played a part.

"Pop culture has always been passive-aggressively curated," Scotti said. "Now we're all the curators."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 4230757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com

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