Q&A: The 3 Main Traits of Viral Videos, According to YouTube’s Kevin Allocca

If aliens wanted to understand us, YouTube Head of Culture & Trends Kevin Allocca would give them YouTube, he writes in his new book, Videocracy.

YouTube shapes our culture. We use the platform to express ourselves, to be entertained and oftentimes to learn. Like any social media platform, while YouTube is often a force for good and represents a unique way of creating a community, it faces its fair share of challenges.

We spoke with YouTube Head of Culture and Trends Kevin Allocca about his new book, what defines a viral video, how the platform has evolved and if YouTube’s hypothetical future in television.

Adweek: So, what do you think those aliens would see when they looked at us via the YouTube lens?
Allocca: 
I think they’d see a diverse collection of people who have passions and interests, who really care about the things they care about and are in a constant state of seeking unity and connection with one another through those things. In 2018, we are seeking to understand each other, and to understand the construct that exists, and try to bring down certain ones and reshape other ones as we evolve as communities and as a society.

Give our readers your synopsis of Videocracy and why you wrote it.
It’s a book about how the new ways we interact with media technologies are affecting our culture—from art to education to entertainment to world events—and how we perceive these things, how we shape these things. It uses a lot of famous trends … to dissect what these things say about us, and how we’re shaping culture in new ways. While the book is about YouTube, it’s really about a larger movement than any one platform. It’s about sort of a larger shift in popular culture where individuals have much more influence than ever before—not just today, but for the coming decades.

Tell us how you and your team measure and analyze YouTube trends.
I have been doing this for almost eight years, and I think what has changed over time is how we think about what is trending, what a trend is, and the different types of things that are trending. Questions we ask ourselves can include, What are the types of things that get a lot of views quickly? What are the channels that are getting subscribers quickly? What are the topics that are seeing a lot of uploads? What are things people are searching for? What is our intent behind something? What are we seeking? What is it that we desire out of a video at a given point? … You can take all of these things and extrapolate different information from them.

I imagine there’s no secret formula to creating a “viral video,” but as a trend spotter, what are a few commonalities you’ve noticed?
There are three common traits:

“Unexpectedness.” This means they can be surprising, unique. We live in an environment of so much content, so much communication, and for things to really stand out and grab our attention, they need to be unique and surprising.

“Participation.” … For instance, if you go back to 2011 and Rebecca Black, that video became popular because everyone wanted to talk about whether they liked it or how bad they thought it was. It became an ultimate example of something that became popular because people had a strong reaction to it.

“Accelerators.” … [Y]ou need to spread [your content] to people very quickly through these different networks. People can build their own followings, they spread it through their own network of viewers, their own subscriber base, and from there, people go and spread it somewhere else. But you need a rapid distribution.

Major brands, media companies and celebrities put out some of the most-watched YouTube videos these days. Are the days of the average person having a one-off viral video becoming fewer?
I think it’s that those videos are no longer the predominant form of popular video or entertainment on the web, [but] they still happen, they still exist. People are watching way more content on the internet in general, and there’s more content being created, so therefore you have a much larger pool. You’re also seeing more content of a higher production value, things that are from people who build huge audiences and are able to reach the top echelon a lot more easily than someone who is posting a video for the first time. The one-offs still happen because that’s the magic of the internet, but it’s not the same saturation that we used to have.

Tech juggernauts like Facebook and Apple have launched their own studios, hoping to compete with Amazon, Hulu and Netflix in the original series space. Will YouTube follow suit? Should they?
We launched a YouTube TV product last year, which provides live television and more traditional broadcast content. We also have an originals that are part of our YouTube Red subscription, where you can receive original scripted and non-scripted programming. I think those are analogous of this ecosystem.

I think that YouTube will always be a bit different because it’s a different product. You’ll have kind of a more random mix of things that’s more reflective of the diversity of content on YouTube. I do think that the definition of “what is a TV show?”  as a concept in culture has changed. … [W]e’re seeing a lot of different companies, including YouTube, stretching the boundaries of what we traditionally think of as television versus what we traditionally thought of as web video.

What do you think YouTube can work on in 2018?
I think the biggest challenge facing any platform in this particular era is dealing with the scale of activity and the diversity of things that people wish to engage in and participate in. When you have something like YouTube where you have 400 hours of video getting posted every minute, and you have a billion people all over the world watching … you’re inheriting the complexities of all these different societies and cultural institutions that exist around the world. I think that is ultimately the challenge that will forever be a problem for our society, for these platforms, for us as individuals, not just in this year, but in the coming decade.

What’s your favorite viral video?
My all-time favorite viral video is the one that I opened the book with, which is the double rainbow video from back in 2010. The video is hilarious, it makes people happy and makes them laugh. I think that video represents the things that are good, positive and fun about the internet.

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