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What makes a video viral?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 10:02 UK time, Monday, 9 May 2011

Last Thursday I wrote here about a plan to put an ultra-cheap computer in the hands of British schoolchildren in an attempt to get them interested in programming. The blog post - and the accompanying video which I'd shot on my phone - sparked a reasonable amount of interest, though nothing spectacular.

YouTube video of the £15 computer


But, in a hurry to get the video off my phone and into the BBC system, I had decided that the quickest way was to put it on YouTube from where it could be downloaded and processed. After the blog post was published, I linked to the original video on YouTube - and within hours my inbox was filling up with comments.

I watched with mounting amazement as views to my YouTube clip accelerated. By Thursday evening it was heading to 10,000 views, but through Friday and Saturday the line on the YouTube Insight page - which I admit became something of an obsession - climbed ever more steeply, passing through 100,000, then 200,000. On Sunday the rate of growth started to slow, but by Monday morning nearly 400,000 people had viewed the clip.

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Now I've put other clips onto YouTube over the years, and some have attracted a degree of interest, notably Stephen Fry praising Windows phones. But that got fewer than 9,000 views, so nothing in comparison to the Raspberry Pi clip.

The fact that the clip was shown and promoted on the BBC website obviously makes a big difference - but that was also the case with this clip about the auction of a very early Apple computer, yet it attracted fewer than a thousand views.

I've used the word viral in the title of this post, and many will quite reasonably object that a video promoted (though not linked to) from a mainstream site can never be described as viral. But it's still a puzzle to me to work out what catches the imagination of casual web clickers and what leaves them cold.

There's a clue in one previous viral clip posted by my former partner in blogging Darren Waters. His video of a Microsoft Xbox console at a games show suffering the notorious red ring of death proved immensely popular - and I think there are three reasons for that.

It was about a subject of great interest to a technically literate section of the web population, it was exclusive footage, and it was picked up and spread by a host of bloggers. Similarly, a lot of tech-savvy types are interested in new cheap forms of computing - and my video was the only way to see the Raspberry Pi device and hear David Braben talk about it.

All I need to do now is find something else that everybody wants to see and get some exclusive video. Any ideas would be welcome.


  • Comment number 1.

    Er... the Royal Honeymoon?

  • Comment number 2.

    Suggested uses for the Raspberry Pi ? - video of a robot cleaner, lawn cutter- any other menial tasks we all have to do!

  • Comment number 3.

    One way to go viral is to spam like mad. That's how most of the Youtube 'celebs' became famous. I remember iJustine spamming every video. I have tried to spam videos but it met with little Sex sells so if you put a video of scantly clad women and then spam/promote it, you will get hits. I uploaded a video about the "gils of the motorshow" and i got lost of views :)

  • Comment number 4.

    Like the video "loose change" on YouTube which covered 9/11 I am going to make a video in the same fashion about PSN being down.

  • Comment number 5.

    The chairman of a high street bank being taken to task...

  • Comment number 6.

    Any details behind Andrew Marr's Super injunction might get you a few hits!

  • Comment number 7.

    The popularity of the Raspberry Pi video YouTube variant might have something to do with being featured on the front page of Slashdot which is well known for bring websites to their knees due to the sheer popularity of the site.

  • Comment number 8.

    My guess is because a story with your YouTube vid embedded appeared on Slashdot. The Slashdot Effect is notorious.

  • Comment number 9.

    I was going to say that this seems to be more of a Slashdot effect but seem to have been beaten to it.

    If you really want something to go "viral" you almost certainly need a comedy element, preferably featuring a cat and/or someone suffering a painful and embarrassing accident. A liberal spattering of 4-letter expletives also helps.

  • Comment number 10.

    You were doing so well with a post on actual technology, and then slid straight back into how memes work on the web. You can do better than that!

  • Comment number 11.


    The problem with cheap computers is that they have always been around - the real problem is not the inexpensive nature of electronics but making sufficient money from the necessary sales marketing and support infrastructure to turn a hobby device - even if it is very useful - into a business that makes money - before one of the mega empires in the computer industry steals it and the business.

    There will be very few computer industry executives who have not had their business assassinated by one of the few mega corporations one or twice over the years. The geeks factor of having a small piece of plastic that can do things is the reason that you got so much interest - there are always a new batch of eager geeks every year but most (all!) will fail to turn their ideas into a business. Journalists never really understand or convey any reality of getting a technology business off of the ground - but please keep doing it! We haven't had a dot com bubble for a couple of years and it may be the twits in red braces can be persuaded to waste some of their customer's money on backing these ideas which will keep a few geeks from the breadline at least for a short while....

    The man with the better mousetrap - gets his fingers burned! (But may have some fun on the way! And that is what it is really about - the satisfaction of knowing that you invented something new.)

  • Comment number 12.

    When is 3D interactiveness going to get the official BBC health warning from the government watchdogs on automated page impressions. As for the digital age who in their right mind wants to walk around with a cheap plastic watch that comes free with half a tank full of petrol and only works with a ball point pen.

  • Comment number 13.

    So the "computer" is cheap, but then you need an HDMI enabled TV, a keyboard, presumably a power supply, some way to load the software onto the board, and your "cheap" computer is getting more expensive by the second.

  • Comment number 14.

    Do a video of a Raspberry Pi connected with a MS Kinect, sure winner

  • Comment number 15.

    Er... it's because word got around that Rory Cellan-Jones was, incredibly, talking about something other than iPhones, iPads, Apple TV, Apple this, Apple that, and what colour underpants Steve Jobs was wearing that day.

  • Comment number 16.

    John from Hendon, don't keep us guessing. What did you invent and who stole it?

  • Comment number 17.

    Rory, as a techie you should know your video was uploaded to YouTube not downloaded! If you want an assistant I would be happy to help.

  • Comment number 18.

    Ideas for a video? How about Rory trying Ubuntu again and fulfilling a promise he made in October 2009?


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