Can you predict the next viral video craze?

The one thing we can be grateful for is that the advertisers, manipulators, and marketers aren’t the expert traffickers in human emotion they think they are — nobody can predict next week’s viral video, writes Clodagh Finn.

Pic: BBC News
Pic: BBC News

I can't be alone in this. Every time I hear that something has gone ‘viral’, I can’t help imagining some sort of catastrophe — a highly infectious virus has unleashed its contagion and we have only 14 hours to save the Earth.

It turns out, however, that the reality could be far worse.

Just look at what happened to poor Professor Robert E. Kelly, the so-called BBC dad who was speaking — very seriously, let it be said — live on air when his children barged into the room.

At first, I thought it was funny, but I had clearly missed the point. 

In the following days, the video went ‘viral’ and, depending on the analysis you read, what appeared to be an amusing family mishap was interpreted, by turns, as a commentary on patriarchy, an insight into casual racism, and/or a statement on parenthood.

Some people even put it about that Prof Kelly wasn’t wearing any trousers; that was why he didn’t get up to deal with his children himself. 

Others accused those of us who watched it of being racist if we mistook the woman who frantically shooed the children out of the room for a nanny when she was, in fact, the presenter’s wife.

There were those, too, who questioned Prof Kelly’s parenting approach because he appeared to push his child out of the way.

Viral is right. Not only had a seemingly benign clip circumnavigated the globe in a flash, it had also mutated en route. 

It had been mined, excavated, and picked over by pundits, commentators, and comedians who sought, and found, deeper social significance.

Hands up. 

I confess I was one of those guilty millions who shared the video. 

I did so because I thought it was a hilarious and touching portrayal of how private life can intrude on the professional without warning.

I pressed replay more times than I care to admit to watch the little girl march into the room with a confident swagger that I hope will stay with her for life.

Her father later explained that his daughter — four-year-old Marion — had been in a “hippity-hoppity” mood because of the school party.

He also explained he wasn’t shoving her out of the way, but trying to slide her behind the chair to a stash of toys and books that might distract her.

“Hippity-hoppity” was having none of it. She plonked herself on a perch next to him, refusing to budge. Marion is my hero.

All that was comedy gold. But it got better. 

Eight-month-old James came rattling in on his stroller followed by Prof Kelly’s wife, Kim Jeong-ah, who hit the floor in a seriously impressive dive designed to stay out of shot.

The internet alchemists couldn’t have come up with a better combination. So what, if anything, does it all mean?

If the video had any cultural message, it might be that it reflects the new realities of our increasingly globalised, connected world. 

If you want to talk to a political expert in another time zone, the likelihood is that you’ll have to speak to them outside the office environment.

Skype has made it possible to reach people outside the controlled environment of the TV and radio studio, but it also comes with the risk that real life might sometimes butt in.

The providers of news weigh up those pros and cons. In this case, they chose to hear from a regarded authority on South Korea — an associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea — from a makeshift office in his home.

Then, as Prof Kelly later put it: “My real life punched through the fake cover I had created on television. This is the kind of thing a lot of working parents can relate to.”

He also warned against attaching a deeper significance to what was just a family mishap.

Forgive me, then, for doing just that, but there are few better examples of how we have allowed the viral video — that very partial and often misleading snapshot of the world around us — to turn us into shrill social commentators. Did you see the stampede to judge Prof Kelly? Scary.

If the outpouring of vitriol tells us anything about society, it is that we are happy to condemn before we have even part of the story.

Speaking of the story, is there a person out there who can repeat a single word of Prof Kelly’s analysis of the impeachment of South Korea’s president?

We could confine ourselves to sweet or funny animal videos — the fireman who rescues a kitten or the hapless Jack Russell who fell on his snout at Crufts, another of last week’s hits — but we are still allowing ourselves to be played emotionally.

If viral videos have one thing in common, it is that they manipulate human emotions. The more intense the emotion evoked, the more likely the video will go viral. Or so the incomplete studies on the subject seem to suggest.

People tend to share videos that provoke strong emotional reactions, particularly positive ones. Even a cursory glance at the shameless ploys used to bait us on the internet bears that out.

Those studies can’t definitively say how, or in what ways, the ever-changing digital world is really affecting us.

It would be fascinating to know what propels a video into the digital stratosphere. 

Don’t believe anyone who says they have the formula to transform bog-standard content into internet gold.

The one thing we can be grateful for is that the advertisers, manipulators, and marketers aren’t the expert traffickers in human emotion they think they are. 

Nobody can predict next week’s viral video. Thank heavens for that. 

Consider how powerful people might become if they were able to predict which 90 seconds of banality would dominate next week’s conversation.

Everybody knows it’s a game, of course, but do we realise that we’re the ones being played?

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