Subjective Virality in the Internet Age

Liz Foster ’22

Managing Editor

The coveted career title of “influencer” is more popular than ever. This isn’t a critique of those who are “famous for being famous,” but rather an examination of what it means to have internet clout or virality in the year 2020. Does the term exist anymore? I found myself wondering this after watching countless Tik Toks over the past few months. For those unfamiliar with the platform, the app is perfectly designed to encourage its users to attempt to “go viral.” Unlike other photo and video sharing sites like YouTube and Instagram, Tik Tok allows users with measly follower counts to get a taste of fame if their video can game the algorithm correctly. Similar to YouTube, there are established creators on Tik Tok. Some have formed collaborative households, the most popular being the Hype House, as YouTubers have before, see the infamous Team 10 or the ever fluctuating “Clout House.” 

What separates Tik Tok and YouTube in 2020 is the need to be established. On YouTube, the platform is incredibly saturated and the emergence of new, super popular creators is rare. On Tik Tok, seemingly anyone can blow up out of nowhere. I experienced this second hand as I watched one of my roommates garner over six million views for a video of some red food dye on a bathroom floor. Three million of these views were within a week, qualifying the video to be at least on the borderline of a technically viral video.

Her follower count climbed but nowhere near the number of the views, she was approached by no brands for sponsors, and the video did not leave the platform and transition to other social media sites. How can one “go viral,” yet not reap the benefits previously awarded to popular videos?

In 2005, 65,000 videos were uploaded daily to YouTube, yet no one at the time was seeking brand deals and sponsorships. Many had no idea what virality even was, uploading videos solely for their own purposes and not looking for public attention. However, users began taking advantage of the platform to put out original content, typically sketch comedy videos or video blogs that would lead the words “vlog” and “webisode” being entered in the dictionary in 2009.

Music videos consistently remain the most viewed videos in pure numbers, but viral videos that caught on and became memes that still exist within internet culture today held more power despite their numeric shortcoming. Juggernaut videos like “Star Wars Kid” amassed 900 million views in the year 2006 and anyone who was using the internet was familiar with the poor lightsaber-waving teen.

Star Wars Kid was relentlessly bullied for his choreographed lightsaber filled dance and reportedly sought psychiatric help because of his virality; he did not receive offers for brand deals or an invite to a movie premiere, but he became an icon of the internet.

Everyday, photos, videos, and tweets garner millions of likes. Attention falls everywhere as more niche communities grow larger and as the ability to get eyes on your content expands. However, within this sea of success is an even larger pool of failed aspiring influencers. Regardless of one’s wealth, beauty, or talent, not everyone can become a viral star.

Yet, is virality even the goal? Are people seeking fame or just an easy income? As consumers increasingly turn to the internet over traditional media, the tantalizing prospect of becoming “internet famous” grows both more attainable and impossible. We create platforms and apps that we aim to take control of, creating a cycle of consumption that only serves the corporate elites and few in front of the camera or behind the profile picture.

Virality is no longer objective, and it is this subjectivity that will continue to make or break the careers of creators everywhere. 


Brendan W. Clark '21 is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Trinity Tripod, Trinity College's student newspaper.

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