"The internet isn't a music distribution platform, it's a place where people live and that's where we see new forms of cultural expression pop up," Xeni Jardin, co-editor of the popular technology and culture blog Boing Boing, tells Billboard about why in the wake of "Gangnam," viral music videos have evolved from full-formed pieces of content thrust on listeners by record labels to more organic, fan-driven challenges and dance crazes that take on a life of their own on social networks. "Technology doesn't work the way it was designed to, it works the way human beings end up using, or abusing it, or crafting it for new uses."
So, whether it's the endless GIF's and memes around such viral music ephemera as Pikotaro's? "PPAP (Pen Pineapple Apple Pen)," or Silento's "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)" -- the latter spawning endless fan videos -- or the thousands of up and down votes for Jake Paul's divisive "It's Everyday Bro" rap video, the popularity of one-off hits like those are impossible to predict and even harder to follow-up. Often birthed on YouTube in the recent past, the memes associated with Internet-conquering tracks such as Rae Sremmurd's 2016 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit "Black Beatles" have slowly migrated to social platforms like Twitter and Instagram in more bite-sized chunks over the past several years.
That doesn't mean that YouTube isn't still one of the key launchpads for those clips you just can't stop sharing with friends. Kevin Allocca, head of Culture and Trends at YT, tells Billboard that the video site helped "open up this new set of behaviors that exist about how people can connect with artists they love, which is perhaps the natural evolution of more people becoming comfortable... making those actions a part of how they interact with music on a more mainstream level." The whole idea that an artist has released a song that you can dance to, make a personalized video of and share with friends has been going on for years, from the fan vids for Soulja Boy's 2007 Hot 100 No. 1 hit "Crank That" to the millions of lip sync vids on Musical.ly.
"Now that's how you're supposed to react to something if you like it, it's a more mainstream thing," says Allocca, who wrote a whole chapter on the topic in his 2018 book Videocracy: How YouTube is Changing the World... With Double Rainbows, Singing Foxes, and Other Trends We Can't Stop Watching. "When you see a song blowing up, people ask, 'How do I interact with this artist/song and my friends through this music I love and make it an expression of who I am?'" Allocca says YT is still the place where many fans go to learn the dance moves they bust in their challenge videos, with artists increasingly thinking of the Google-owned service as a social media platform on top of a distribution platform on top of a music service, which is what helps it spawn its own unique culture.
On Twitter and Instagram, that culture can range from the sassy baby Cardi B meme to Blue Ivy telling her parents JAY-Z and Beyoncé to stop clapping, the ubiquity of the Justin Timberlake Super Bowl halftime selfie kid, and Mason Ramsey, who went from an uploaded clip yodeling in a Wal-Mart to releasing his aptly titled debut EP, Famous, in less than three months. None of these recent examples were meticulously plotted marketing schemes for the respective artist's new albums (as far as we know), but all served as welcome social media bumps that kept the artists' names in the headlines for weeks -- or introducing them there in the first place -- while potentially boosting sales as the memes kept endlessly playing out.
No one knows, or appreciates the commercial potential of smartly stoked virality more than human meme-machine Drake, who is currently sitting at No. 1 on the Hot 100 thanks to the wildly popular #InMyFeelings challenge, which has blown up on Twitter and Instagram, with celebs, sports figures, fans and even cops across the planet doing the dance created by the Shiggy Show founder. According to a Twitter spokesperson, since June 29 there have been more than 8 million mentions of "Drake" on the service and 3.4 million tweets about the "Feelings" challenge. (A spokesperson for Drake declined to discuss the impact of the viral "Feelings" challenge on the marketing of the rapper's Scorpion album.)
Drake gets it. He recently filmed the creator of the dance, who goes by Shiggy, at a party in Los Angeles to thank him (and Instagram) for helping him land his sixth No. 1 record on the Hot 100.
Artists and their teams are constantly searching for that kind of viral potential, but there's no exact science to making it pop. Sometimes for a company like Twitter it could be as simple as working with an act and their label to develop something like the eye-catching upside-down font and emoji that fans have flocked to in advance of Ariana Grande's Sweetener album. Savvy about how dedicated her fans are, Grande even seemed to pre-load a potential meme into her "God is a Woman" video in the form of an out-of-nowhere bit in the middle where screaming groundhogs take over the screen for several seconds. And, in a testament to how hard it is to create your own thing, to date that clever bit of subliminal social media engineering has not yet taken off in the way the singer might have intended.
With music consistently in the top three topics on Twitter, Kevin O'Donnell, manager of music partnerships at the site, always keeps an eye out for what people are talking about. "When people want to know about something they come to Twitter to find out about it," he says. "It has broken down the barrier between celebrities and fans because a fan can interact with an artist and vice versa." And when a video or clip goes viral, those same fans can not only weigh in with their take, they can get instant feedback from followers, and, if they're lucky, the artist they love.
O'Donnell says it's safe to say that when labels are cooking up a marketing plan they all aim for virality, even if it less a science than an art. When something does goes supernova, like a Drake "Feelings" challenge, Twitter works with the artists and labels to execute a marketing campaign that might raise awareness for an album or tour on the back of that viral heat. "Our job is to offer them tips or tricks we've used for other artists, but we don't necessarily say, 'This is is how you make something go viral,'" he explains.
One of the key ways Twitter works to raise visibility is by handing a trending topic or meme over to its Moments team to give users a quick look at the headline driving interest before allowing them to click through and see how people have reacted. With a president in the White House who communicates mostly through tweets, O'Donnell says viral sensations from Salt Bae to the Mariah Carey-fied "If You Don't Love Me" meme can quickly move from one Twitter sub-community to another, as those groups talk to each other and help blow something up into a full-fledged phenomenon.
"The very principle that enables both the flash-in-the-pan viral sensation to pop with a new meme that propels a song up the charts that an artist can build a career on is unpredictable," Allocca says when asked to forecast what could be next in the music meme space. "Because of that more artists are playing with those behaviors and spaces artists like Taylor Swift and Childish Gambino are releasing videos that are made for that environment, where they will be dissected and reassembled in different ways."
Those with a long-term, positive relationship with the Internet understand that it's not a force to be controlled and that sometimes it turns around to bite you because it's not easily controlled or manipulated, says Jardin. That's why the open ethos of the Internet created by its founders was such a wise move: "Like the kids in those videos who find a place to create, the limitations of the next platform that arises and its advantages will help shape the art form once again."