It is essentially impossible to predict whether or not something will go “viral.” The best we can do is to look, carefully, at the videos that get massive, widespread attention and try to learn something from them that we can use. I think the Susan Boyle video, where a dowdy woman shocks the world on “Britain’s Got Talent,” with her extraordinary voice is filled with lessons. And, therefore, worthy of a deep and considered look.
The particular instance of the video that I’m going to explore is located here. I’ll use the video’s time codes, so you can follow along, if you’d like.
0:01-0:03 First Glimpse of Susan
The first time we see the star of the show, she’s sitting with drooped shoulders, putting a bagel (or something) into her mouth. The music starts as well and it is not celebratory at all. It’s the kind of music that you would imagine slow elephants stomping along to.
0:05-0:15: Susan Speaks
We hear Susan speak for the first time, as well as get a full-body look. She tells us she’s unemployed and 48 years old. Clearly, this is the opposite of the hot celebrity. The elephant music continues.
Susan reveals that she has a cat named Pebbles and that she’s not married. But she’s not depressed about it. In fact, she seems to totally able to laugh at herself as well. This is a key element. Susan is being set up as, well…a loser. But no one wants to feel bad about thinking she’s a loser. That she is able to laugh at herself gives us a bit of permission to laugh, because it is with her and not at her. This is picked up once more at 0:37 when she claims she is going to “make that audience rock”. She is nothing if not confident.
What follows are a number of instances where the judges and the various audience members openly sneer at Susan, including:
1:07 Simon Cowell
1:12 The male judge that isn’t Simon Cowell (sorry)
1:13 Cowell again
1:24 Young woman in audience (when Susan says she wants to be a professional singer)
1:35 Woman in audience (when Susan says she wants to be successful)
1:55 On the Brink
The music swells for Susan’s song and the camera cuts to two women in the audience holding their breath. Interesting that they don’t show any men sneering at her. In fact, the two main male characters (beside the judges) in the video are the backstage hosts who are clearly on her side.
1:57 Susan starts to sing
2:00 Cowell’s eyebrows go up
2:01 Audience goes insane
2:07 Backstage host wags his finger at the camera and says, “You didn’t expect that did ya? Did ya? No!”
What Is There to Learn?
This video is absolutely mesmerizing. To be honest, I can hardly stand this kind of music. Listening to this stuff feels like someone is pouring an unending bottle of maple syrup into my ears. But I keep finding myself drawn back to it. I’m not alone. As of today, the video has been viewed over 41.5 million times. Okay, a bit of perspective: that’s not even half the number of views that that other English sensation, the “Charlie bit my finger” kid got.
But this is a really different sort of a video than Charlie Bit My Finger in that it is not just something oddball or funny. This is an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end. The real charge of watching this video is not so much that you get to see a great performance. Millions of people are good singers and it’s not a big deal. Millions of unknown people are good singers and it’s not a big deal. Millions of (let’s be brutally honest) unattractive people are good singers and it’s not a big deal.
But what the producers of this show got is that they could take this asset — an unattractive and odd person with amazing talent — and make it into a story. The real charge of this video is that you, the viewer, has a front row seat to your own incredible transformation.
Because, really, who among us didn’t have the exact same thought as the woman at 1:24? The producers showed us this reaction because it helped to solidify our own thoughts. And then, at 1:57, just 30 seconds later, we have our whole world view shaken completely.
Why Videos Go Viral
Why some particular bit of content (and others don’t) remains a totally unanswerable question. Very few of us have ever been successful at making something go truly viral. And yet, we are continually drawn in by these things.
Usually, the reason that we give for why something goes viral is that it is absurdly funny or remarkable in some way. But the Susan Boyle video got spread along for an entirely different reason: because of the video’s fundamental effect on you. Now, I’m not claiming that this video has turned around hardened criminals. In fact, I’m not even saying that the effect is lasting in any way. But as a viewer, you go through a real change from beginning to end.
What is shared, then, is not so much the video itself, but rather the feeling. I don’t want you to watch the video nearly as much as I want you to experience the experience. And this just keeps happening. In fact, as I was writing this, I was invited by a friend to become a fan of Susan Boyle on Facebook. Me and 1.5 million others.
So, how do you make something go viral? Well, no one really knows. But maybe Susan Boyle revealed to us that, when we dig deep and try to give people something — instead of just showing them something — we have a greater chance of getting passed along.
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