Saturday, September 15, 2012

Seoul Man: Viral Videos and the Shrinking World

I have been thinking recently about Psy and the K-pop phenomena of his video "Gangnam Style" that broke out of the internet and onto mainstream television and media. This video was destined to become the Numa Numa of the year (Gary Brolsma's lip-synching of the Romanian pop song Dragostea din Tei by O-Zone) except for one thing: the world is smaller now. Or rather, the internet and other media are quickly collapsing into a single macro-market. The video "Gangnam Style" was released in July and in two months, after being kicked around Facebook and Twitter, the YouTube video has gotten nearly 181,000,000 views. I believe it took Numa Numa a year or so to hit 2,000,000 views. Which is remarkable in itself seeing that Brolsma was just a kid with a web cam. (Mike Wesch has an excellent presentation on viral videos and YouTube that discusses Brolsma's video and many others called "An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube" that is really worth watching.)  Psy from Korea is part of the pop industry there, but there has been little breaking out of the K-pop world and into the mainstream until now. By mainstream, I mean Psy's appearance on the Ellen Degenere's show and his appearance at a Dodger's game. That would not have been possible without Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can't set out to create this kind of content on purpose. Most people who are watching the video are not familiar with the Korean TV personalities and comedians in the video, they do not understand the context. They don't really need to. The dancing is funny, and the music has a catchy beat. To many Western viewers, the randomness and cultural alienation is part of its appeal.

Of course, there is a darker side to the shrinking world too. Another viral video with a definite air of cultural alienation is circulating and being used to basically dismantle the Arab Spring and as a pretext by extremists to attack all things Western. The same connections that can create a pop sensation can create chaos.

We have to recognize this change in how unpredictable information can be. Psy and his producers could not have predicted anything like the reception he has gotten. We no longer live in a world of "media outlets" and consumers. The consumers of the past are creating responses to media using the same tools that were once only available only to "The Media." We are the media. And when something goes viral, we have no idea how it will be perceived. I am not saying that we have to be careful what we put out there, but learning how these new connections are changing the world has never been more important. A theory of how meaning or dissonance is created through connections, like George Siemen's Connectivism, would be very useful about now.
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