Social Memes & The Harlem Shake

Like everyone else in the nation, we jumped up and down for the Harlem Shake. The dance – described by its 1980’s founder Al B as “an alcoholic shake” – was revived by a group of teens in Australia as a YouTube video, which quickly spawned thousands of similar videos and a wildly popular global Internet meme. But what does its rise and fall tell us about viral content and memes?

We’ve all seen the Harlem Shake video and its host of imitators. Each lasts between 30 and 32 seconds and feature part of the 2012 song “Harlem Shake” by American electronic musician Baauer. Usually, a video begins with one person (often helmeted or masked) dancing to the song alone for 15 seconds, surrounded by other people not paying attention or unaware of the dancing individual. When the bass drops, the video cuts to the entire crowd doing a crazy convulsive dance for the next 15 seconds.

There’s a big difference between a viral video and a video meme. A viral video is a single video that is passed along and viewed by millions; a video meme is a video that inspires thousands of new videos that replicate or imitate the original. Gangnam Style is a viral video; Harlem Shake is a video meme.

What can we learn from the Harlem Shake meme?

  • Originality.  In this case, virtually every aspect of the video was arrestingly original. It walked the fence between something that seemed familiar and something that seemed completely new.  Contributing to the sense of originality was its origins: a US-based dance in the 80’s being resurrected by a group of Aussie teens in the 10’s.
  • Easy production/easy viewing.  What made Harlem Shake an achievable meme was the fact that it was very easy to imitate. Its low production values, simple setup and execution demanded only a soundtrack and some simple cross-cut editing.  Its short length made it very simple to view; people could “snack” on multiple Harlem Shake videos in a single sitting.
  • Catchy as hell.  The Harlem Shake was a total package with a great song/beat, simple to follow dance and editing that matched the music perfectly.
  • Humor/surrealism. In the past, we’ve noticed that a humorous or surreal aspect within videos can increase their virality. A video that inspires moments where you say “Did you hear/see that?” has a great chance of being passed along.
  • Shamelessness.  Related to the humor noted above, there is nothing more entertaining than seeing someone – especially someone unexpected – “let it all hang out.”
  • Short shelf life.  To really be a meme, a video can’t outlive its welcome.  Here’s the trajectory for the Harlem Shake:
    • People fuel the meme.  The meme started in Australia on February 2 and spread like wildfire.  By February 15, about 40,000 videos had been uploaded worldwide.  At its zenith, the meme had been imitated by ordinary people and celebrities around the planet, crossed into a very broad demographic and inspired new versions that depart significantly from the original.
    • Media kills the meme.  On February 13, when The Today Show ran its own version of the video for its millions of viewers, it was declared officially dead.
    • Commercialization buries the meme.  When companies start getting into the picture, the meme is given its death certificate. Ad Age later identified sixty advertising agencies exploiting the meme, calling it “played-out” after PepsiCo released a Harlem Shake video featuring dancing soft drinks.

Our friend and meme expert Damon Brown (@browndamon), author of the TED book Our Virtual Shadow: Why We Are Obsessed with Documenting Our Lives Online (http://www.ted.com/pages/tedbooks), notes that the most popular passed-along media today is often stripped of its context along the way.  By the time it reaches a Today Show (a high-level but low-brow platform), its origins are almost always obscured and the message lost.  As something of pop cultural significance, The Harlem Shake unfortunately is being labeled as a cute video trend, and not a theme that has been repeating for decades.

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