The World’s (Viral) Fair

David at the World’s Fair wants to know what makes a good viral campaign:

Essentially, as scientific types who tend to analyse, over-analyse, supra-analyse things, and who like to categorize and follow empirical trends, I’m interesting in hearing what you think it is that sparks these viral outbursts of information outreach? This question (and apologies for its convolution) also relates directly to your role as a blogger, where the assumption is that you revel in increased traffic, and are kind of looking for these tricks anyway. I guess, I’m just interested in hearing a scientist’s opinion on this, as oppose to the usual IT expert/academic.

Something that’s low budget, campy, and so embarrassing you’d never want it to appear on the internet. As a blogger, I know that the posts in which I put in the least amount of effort get the most visits and comments. David, if you want your query to go viral, you gotta clean it up a bit. My own viral story lies below the fold.

Sometime in middle school (I think it was seventh grade), I read The Great Escape in English class. As was quite normal for a middle school English class, everyone was required to produce some sort of project centered on the book. My friends and I decided to make a video recreating some scenes from the book. The only one I can remember was of us emerging from a friend’s dark basement into a hallway in his house much like the prisoners emerged from the ground outside the German POW camp. Realism wasn’t our forte.

Once we had completed the project, we still had some blank tape at the end of the reel. In a fit of adolescent naivete, we recorded ourselves jumping around our friend’s living room singing along to Smells Like Teen Spirit. We shared our recreation of The Great Escape with the rest of the class figuring they would never find the music video tucked away at the end. We learned the hard way that when you assume, you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. But mostly us.

The teacher asked us if we would be willing to let the other students watch our video during lunch one day. We thought they wanted to see an encore presentation of The Great Escape. Turns out they found the Nirvana sing along and wanted everyone in the school to see it. This was, by all accounts, the first viral video. I know how the Star Wars kid felt.

Incidentally, there is a video floating around somewhere of me dressed up as runaway slave that some friends and I made for our AP US History class. This slave also happened to be a chick — the girl who was supposed to star in the movie backed out at the last second — so I was decked out in a wig and I stuffed two balloons under my shirt. To differentiate between the whites and blacks (we were all a bunch of white-bread suburban kids, and blackface seemed a little too “dated” for our production), we had the black characters wear black shirts and the white characters wear white. This wasn’t some low budget affair either. One of the co-producers had connections in the TV industry (his father edited movies so that they could be shown on network TV), and we had access to some fancy video editing equipment for a full day. I was the writer and star of this production, and I hope it never again sees the light of day.