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Viral Virality and Social Change

What makes a video go viral?

What creates the impulse for shareware across the interwebs? What stimulates the mirror neurons to activate?

According to Harvard’s Marshall Ganz, three elements contribute to virality in video-sharing:

1. The Story of Me
2. The Story of Us
3. The Story of Now

With the continuing saga of The Government Shutdown, the five minute version of Elizabeth Warren’s October 4th speech racked up over 830,000 views:

Plain speech repeatables proliferate with “anarchy gang” a clear headline catcher, underscoring the value of clear, tweetable messages in viral media. Her previous week’s five-minute video just after The Government Shutdown occurred, has reached over 1,300,000 views. (See last week’s post “Truth, Truthiness and the Shutdown“)

Clearly this video fits all three criteria.

Last week, Louis CK’s interview on The Conan O’Brien Show garnered over 5 million views. “Why Louis CK Hates Cell Phones”:

Once again a comedian becomes the philosophical voice of the moment. He asks: do smartphones keep us from a fear of loneliness? With the video showing up across Facebook and twitterati feeds, Louis apparently struck a nerve. Though YouTube statistics show views and shares, ironically it’s highly likely many viewers watched the clip on their iPhones…in another example of a piece of media that reaches the storytelling trifecta truth of me, us and now.

In the blip history of the Internet, the most widely shared viral videos for social change may or may not surprise you:

Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, launched in 2004 has proven to be aligned with one of the most widely viewed short-form video advertisements of all time, “Dove Real Beauty Sketches,” at over 56 million views. And that figure applies not just to a video with a social change message, but for all ads ever posted online. The video, with its long-tail approach to messaging, has been used in media literacy and girls empowerment programs (like Seattle’s Reel Grrls) worldwide. How many corporate ads garner that level of reach and can be linked to that much social good dialogue?

And of course, there’s Kony2012, which despite extreme controversy and viral blow back for the organization and especially one of its founders (featured in the 30-minute video) broke all records for video viewing online, at over 98 MILLION views (and of that, millions took place in the first few months after launch).

As FastCo’s Neal Ungerleider points out,

Invisible Children has for some time had a complicated place in the aid community. On the one hand, their on the ground work has been judged by some to be ineffective or naive. Yet on the other, the power of their media to engage people is undeniable. The vast majority of young Americans who know about the conflict in northern Uganda know about it because of Invisible Children.

The Viral Media Lab’s Stephanie Spiro provides a comprehensive overview of the impact of Kony2012 in her May 2013 post “What Happened to the Kony2012 Campaign?

Additional reading on virality and social change:
Allyson Kapin’s FrogLoop blog on Care2: Can “Viral” Videos Really Create Social Change?
Marshall Ganz: Why Stories Matter: The Art and Craft of Social Change
AdAge Digital: Is Dove’s Real Beauty ‘Sketches’ Really the Most Viral Ad Ever?
FastCo: How The Most Viral Video In The History Of Social Change Gave Uganda A Voice
Unruly Media.com




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  1. Walder Sinclair

    The Kony video is emotionally manipulative (as most ad campaigns are.) Anything with children is sure to tug at the heartstrings of the American public, an understanding that the most successful politicians have come to grasp. (“Think about the children…” “For our children’s future…” so on and so forth blah blah)

    This is not a criticism of the video. You need to get people emotionally invested in order to motivate them towards action.

  2. natashia t

    The most watched videos on the Internet and ads on TV are the ones that feature children and animals. That said, the KONY 2012 works really well because it leverages on this and shock factor, it shows pictures of children in unthinkable situations: a child brandishing an AK-47 and children with mutilated faces. It also gives us a picture of the villain – the Lord’s Resistance Army’s leader Joseph Kony, so we can put a face to those horrible deeds. Call it manipulative if you will, but the campaign successfully tug at our heartstrings. It also touched upon the 3 factors we discussed in class, the story of us, the story of now and the story of me. The story of now, KONY 2012, shows pictures that’s associated with war, everyone’s memory was fresh from America winning the war from terrorism – Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. So the pictures might have moved people who viewed the video with feelings of empowerment. The story of us and me dealt more with what can I and we, collectively do, to change this situation, for the future of our children.


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