Update, 12/21: And it's official: "Gangnam Style" has now amassed over one billion views. Get on your imaginary pony and celebrate.
Original post follows.
Psy's Gangnam Style is now the most-viewed YouTube video ever, and as we go to press Monday morning that means it's been watched coming up on 830 million times. That means that the single biggest pop culture event of 2012--the video you're most likely to talk about with your grandma at Christmas--was, as I predicted back in 2011, an LMFAO-soundalike dance-pop track performed entirely in Korean and wrapped around a novelty horse-dance.
The particulars of every cultural phenomenon are different; Psy's as good an example of that as we're likely to get. But behind his success there has to be something that can be dissected, generalized, and exploited, or at least that's what I'm going to tell you if you send a message to my "Web 2.0 New Media Social Trend Analysis Analyst" LinkedIn profile.
So what makes a billion-view video? What's the formula? So far as I can tell, there are two options: The Gangnam and the Bieber.
If Psy avoids the full measure of fame-backlash from the 13-year-olds who downvote YouTube videos because they enjoyed them two years ago and they are stupid! and for little kids!, it'll be because the video his putsch deposed was Justin Bieber's "Baby," which had 800 million views and almost no casual fans.
That's the Bieber method, and if you watched the American Music Awards last week (or talked to someone who did [or watched the M.C. Hammer thing on YouTube last week, or talked to someone who did]), you saw it in action. Winning a pop culture popularity contest isn't about being the most popular, or having the most fans--it's about having fans who are devoted enough to mobilize themselves into ballot-stuffing, YouTube-watching brigades. Contrary to the usual knock on them, awards like these measure neither talent nor popularity--they measure fandom.
If your hyperdevoted fanbase is large enough (and hyperdevoted enough), it doesn't matter how much of an anathema you are to everybody else. The last four AMA winners (Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, twice each) and the overall success of niche-targeted country singers and American Idol contestants illustrates just how successful the Bieber method can be when an award requires some marginal effort on the part of a singer's fanbase.
They're the musical equivalent of midterm elections; the absence of the people who can't be bothered to send 50 text messages to a special phone number or drive out to the elementary school at lunch increases the value of the determined few who would swear a blood oath to get Justin Bieber's name over One Direction's on a commemorative package of deli meat.
Those hyperdevoted fans can also be mobilized to watch videos 100 times, or at least until their dad (who just doesn't understand) kicks them off the computer in the living room. They can push somebody to the top of the charts because they're the only people who care about the charts.
The constant churn of social media means this strategy will remain viable indefinitely. But as YouTube expands it's going to be more difficult to get your contingent of Beliebers or Directioners or Taylor Swift veterans for truth large enough, relative to YouTube's broader population, to exercise this kind of control.
Which leaves the Gangnam method.
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