Point At Issue: Can Videos Go Viral Organically Anymore?

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On Jan. 12, 21-year-old UCLA senior Katelyn Ohashi performed a minute-and-a-half floor exercise routine at the 2019 Collegiate Challenge powered by Under Armour. The routine was so complex, that some of the passes had to be resubmitted because they weren’t in the code of points. Ohashi tumbled and flipped and danced through the routine, throwing in some of Michael Jackson’s smooth moves in for good measure, and scored a perfect 10.0. Along with teammate Kyla Ross, who also scored a perfect 10.0 for her routine on the uneven bars, Ohashi helped UCLA to a first-place finish at the Collegiate Challenge. The video was shared by the UCLA Gymnastics, and very soon, it broke through the ranks and went viral, garnering about 40.7 million views on Twitter alone. This, however, wasn’t the only video of Ohashi which has gone viral. Her floor routine at the Pac-12 conference in 2018, where she also performed a complex routine, sprinkled with some of the MJ moves that’s a trademark of sorts, got a perfect 10.0 from the judges. That video also went viral.

In Katelyn Ohashi’s case, she was always in the spotlight, as far as the sport of gymnastics is concerned. She was an elite gymnast, having captured four gold medals as a 14-year-old competing at the US National Championships in 2011. She even defeated Olympic Champion Simone Biles at the 2013 American Cup. However, injuries and harsh criticism led her to retire from her elite career, till she chose to become a student-athlete at UCLA.

Ohashi’s routine got praise from all quarters. Prominent personalities, including sports journalist Jemele Hill, California Senator Kamala Harris and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared the video of Ohashi’s routine on their Twitter accounts. They tweeted about the routine only after it had gone viral.

What was it about this particular routine that made it go viral? As far as gymnastic routines go, there have been several others that have gone viral in years past. Most of those videos have been from the NCAA level competitions. According to journalist Rebecca Schuman, NCAA routines look more fun because the rules for NCAA competitions are different from International elite-level gymnastics competitions. Does this mean that videos that are more fun and have people doing extraordinary things the recipe for viral success? Are there rules for a video or a post going viral? At least for Ohashi’s video to go viral, there was a precedent. But what about posts that go viral on other platforms?

On Jan. , an unknown account holder with the name “@world_record_egg” posted a photo of an egg on Instagram with the caption: “Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram. Beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner (18 million)! We got this 🙌” The post had the stock photo of an egg clicked by photographer Serghei Platanov, who had uploaded the photo to his account on Shutterstock in 2015. Most of the photos that Platanov posts to his account are food photos on a simple white background.

When asked about his photo, Platanov was not able to point out any special feature for his photo, and simply said, “It is not hunting for anyone’s attention. It is a simple egg.” There could be other reasons for the photo to go viral too. Massachusetts-based 19-year-old marketing expert Ishan Goel, who has claimed to have helped the post go viral across all platforms, gave two core reasons for the success of the post. He said, “The first is that the internet fell in love with the idea of using a crowdsourced approach to be able to have a touchpoint to a celebrity that could potentially influence that celebrity's actions or, at the very least, garner a response from them. The second is that the internet quickly began to see it as a challenge, which inspired people to invest their time and energy into helping drive the post into a frenzy."

Goel has helped other such personalities achieve viral fame. He became the manager of Ryan McKenna, who became popularly known as ‘Selfie Kid’ after he took a selfie with Justin Timberlake during his performance at Super Bowl LII. He has also been a consultant for YouTube star Jake Paul and Russell Horning, popularly known as Backpack Kid. What Goel says isn’t a proven fact. Articles and listicles about going viral are dime-a-dozen. A simple Google search about making posts go viral showed up about 241 million results. According to a report by public relations professional Robert Wynne in Forbes, about 5 billion items of content are uploaded each day on Facebook, about 500+ million Tweets go out daily, and about 500 million users are present on LinkedIn. How do you even stand out from all of these posts?

There aren’t any blueprints for going viral.  Plus, not every user on every app can boast of the number of followers that celebrities like Selena Gomez have. The more followers you have, the more numbers you can generate for each of your posts. But celebrities like Gomez have garnered a following over years of work. Gomez is a successful singer, actress and producer. It is tough to compete with those numbers and come out of nowhere and have a viral hit. After all, being viral requires your post to reach millions of users and viewers within hours.

Unfortunately, ever since major companies have realized the power of the internet and social media platforms, it has become all the more difficult for a video by an unknown entity to surface. However, videos like Ohashi’s gymnastics routine and posts like that of the egg give us hope, that internet can truly remain a domain of the free. It remains to be seen how long it stays that way.