Rory Cellan-Jones

This is a viral blog

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 13 Mar 09, 09:16 GMT

"Well of course it isn't, you blithering idiot, you're abusing the language. You've completely misunderstood the term "viral" - and anyway this isn't even a blog."

That will, I'm sure, be the reaction of many of the weberati to my provocative headline. But I've been pondering over who decides what various web terms actually mean - and whether the increasing professionalisation of Web 2.0 and the social media (what on earth are they, you may ask) is diluting their original purity.

It's the Today programme "viral" that's got me thinking, of course. The project has been very well explained by Evan Davis, but the idea was to place a video on the web, and then sit back and watch it take off. Last time I looked, it had got nearly 18,000 views in two days - not so much a viral as a blockbuster - but then of course, Today has been cheating, hasn't it? Here are a few of the comments by those who've viewed the YouTube video:

"The idea of a Viral is that it spreads under its own "steam", not plugged by the author on a National Mainstream radio show."

"Well, I loved it, but it's not really a viral per se and it does not really stand on its own"

"This is very poor show indeed. Smacks of being forced and fake"

"Evan Davis rocks. I never thought I'd say that."

Well obviously the last point is true - but just how genuinely viral is this video? It has indeed been ruthlessly promoted, both on air on Wednesday morning - and by BBC people like me, Twittering and Facebooking about it. I've even stolen it to place on my Red Nose Day fundraising page - my own attempt to make my page go viral along with the Today clip.

So what is a viral video? Here's Wikipedia's verdict:
"A viral video is a video clip that gains widespread popularity through the process of internet sharing, typically through email or instant messaging, blogs and other media sharing websites." And here is the verdict of the Computer Encylopedia - whatever that is:

"A video that spreads quickly via the internet. It is often a short clip on a video sharing site such as YouTube that people reference in blogs, e-mails and instant messages."

Well, by those definitions, I think "Inside Today" hacks it. But the purists would say the essence of a "viral" is that it spreads in a slow, undercover manner, and that viral status can only be conferred by the democratic will of the people - in other words, the web community - and not by some media behemoth or shadowy marketing agency.

Too late, folks, I'm afraid - the marketing folks have seized on the "viral" idea like drowning men spotting a lifeboat. Just do a quick Google search for the word viral and on the front page you'll find nothing about infections, plenty about marketing - and the sponsored link is for what appears to be a professional viral video production company. The web purists have lost the battle - "viral" now just means another way to spend your advertising dollars.

So what about "blog"? Surely the whole idea was that blogging was a platform which gave a voice to millions of "ordinary" web users, the unheard who had no access to the mainstream media, and wanted to share their ideas, their prejudices, their jokes, with the world. But now those tired old voices we've all heard for too long - newspaper columnists, politicians, chief executives, and yes, BBC broadcasters - have all decided it's hip to blog. They're fooling themselves, of course, say the purists - they don't know what a blog is.

Back to that incredibly authoritative Computer Encyclopedia:

"Blog: A website that displays in chronological order the postings by one or more individuals and usually has links to comments on specific postings."

Well I think dot life ticks all of those boxes. But the purists are right to say that what we originally understood by the term "blog" - or "weblog" - was something extremely personal. That is now being diluted by the arrival of a new wave of bloggers with something to sell - whether it be a newspaper, a software company, or a broadcast news outfit.

So who is to decide what a blog is, or what viral means? Perhaps we need a National Institute of Web Terminology, appointed by the government to rule on these matters. Then again, perhaps not. Much better simply to let the people decide - go on, have a row about it on this blog. Or whatever you'd like to call it.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Today's video isn't viral because it doesn't spread under the force of its own hype. Today have plugged and promoted it, completely missing the point of viral content entirely.

    It doesn't matter who creates and promotes the content, it isn't a viral thing if the people creating it use the mainstream media to promote it.


  • Comment number 3.

    Congratulations on discovering that gaming works and is easier for those with massive reach. Hasn't the print media been guilty of slipping advertorials to the public for decades?

    Compare and contrast BBC Click's deliberate (and quite probably illegal) hijacking of 22,000 vulnerable PCs to demonstrate that it could be done, presumably in the public interest.

    There are far more worthwhile concerns for you to expose: why are you bothering with semantics?

  • Comment number 4.

    My first thought would be - do you get your readers by the strength of referrals, or by self-promotion via Twitter, subscriptions and by purely being on the BBC website? If the latter, then it's not really viral. Viruses spread by themselves without external influence - like that subservient chicken game promotion thing. Whilst it's been exploited by marketing to various intents, that doesn't preclude it from being viral. But for a *cool* instance of viral marketing, read William Gibson's fantastic 'Pattern Recognition'.

  • Comment number 5.

    Bothering with semantics is a *good thing*.
    Viral, in marketers terms, generally refers to 'free' distribution of a relatively cheaply made films opposed to buying spots on TV, creating buzz and commentary on the ol' interwebs.
    Anyone promoting a viral film would die for exposure on any channel at all. This little viral got no publicity and a million views. this little viral got lots of publicity and four million views. and this little viral got bad publicity and was withdrawn by Sony pretty quickly

  • Comment number 6.

    If Ben Stiller was parodying the viral video in his marketing for Tropic Thunder, wouldn't that indicate the phenomena is past the sell-by date?

    If blogs have been monetized and now, when you attempt to search for useful information you get blog after blog made of SEO keywords and Adsense instead of information, it also indicates that things have moved on.

    As usual, by the time the professionals have caught up with it the things that made a phenomena special and interesting have departed. "Today" making a viral video indicates that there's probably something much more interesting going on that we just haven't heard of yet.

  • Comment number 7.

    I think that there are two issues.

    Marketing departments talk about a video "going viral", meaning that they hope to create a video cheaply and then reach thousands or millions of viewers cheaply, because their content is so good.

    Only it rarely is, so the same department than spends lots of money on media to achieve the same reach. It makes them seem cool, but instead of being a new (and cost-effective) way of reaching an audience, it's just an ad. A cool ad, but an ad nevertheless.

    On the blog side, I feel a blog needs to be open, honest and prepared to be 2-way (via comments). Too many corporate blogs read like press releases. And a press release is a press release, no matter what you brand it.

    FWIW, I think dot life is a blog, but not viral...

  • Comment number 8.

    Most of the time, the term "viral advertising" is nothing more than marketing blurb. What they actually mean is just plain old "advertising'. More often than not there's nothing "viral" about it, regardless of what the advertising companies may claim.

    Internet memes on the other hand, are what the rest of us would call "viral". Songs about Badgers, Mushrooms and Snakes, "over 9000", Rick Astley, lolcats, Chuck Norris "Facts", that sort of thing. These are what your Wikipedia quote is referring to. They spread across the internet on their own steam, not because they've been advertised left, right and center.

    Try looking up "internet phenomena" on wikipedia for a long (but by no means complete) list of these. Note that there are only 3 advertisements on this pretty long list. These are, in fact, viral advertisements. That is, advertisements that actually went viral. Of course, these advertisements did extremely well. So marketing companies try to copy it... and... well... we're back at the start of my post now. Most "viral marketing" doesn't go viral, so it's really just marketing blurb. They can call it "viral marketing" all they want, that simply doesn't make it viral.

    As for Blogs... well, it's "User generated content". So yeh, this pretty much IS a blog, they come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe you could claim a journalists blog isn't really a blog, more of an editorial... but then that's just semantics.

  • Comment number 9.

    I'd take the Humpty Dumpty approach to what a term means: "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'"

    So by trying to analyse "viral" or "blog" you simply turn full circle and come back to what you took those terms to mean when you first encountered them.

  • Comment number 10.

    Whatever happened to being able to look up a word in a dictionary for its meaning ??

    If a word is not accurately defined in one's dictionary, then one should be using it, if clear communication is one's aim.

    Of course, if bamboozling with jargon and acronyms is one's objective, well, anything goes..

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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