In the 1990s, when modems were still the primary internet connection tool, the potential for online video was limited. Nevertheless, savvy marketing people still saw opportunities early on. Successful advertising aims to get customers as personally involved in a brand as possible, and must do so to prevail against the constant media bombardment from every direction. So ads have evolved into a form of content that is engaging enough to be worth consuming in its own right. If an advertisement is actually appreciated in itself, then it can become content that is talked about in the same way as pure TV content – down the pub, in the office corridor, over the breakfast table. So it wasn’t a huge leap that encouraging the desire to share ads with your friends via the new global information-sharing system called the Internet would seem potentially good for building brand awareness.
In the 1990s, though, the prevalent modem connection at home wasn’t really up to even postage stamp-sized video. Fortunately, companies were starting to install faster connections to the Net, from ISDN upwards. So employees began to send low-resolution TV captures of their favourite ads to work email addresses. Some videos even appeared that were never seen on TV, clearly having been created with this kind of sharing in mind. Favourite adverts included the Flat Eric Levi’s Sta-Prest series, such as the classic Police Check (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M54wjiJYQaI), where a man and his indeterminate soft toy are pulled over by a cop, who checks the perfectly folded jeans in the boot of his car before sending them on their way. The many variations on Budweiser’s Wassup! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W16qzZ7J5YQ) were also frequently popular. It was very gratifying for advertisers to realise they could get other people to pay for the distribution of their messages. Viral Internet marketing had arrived.
This was the era when the Internet “meme” was born – that much-maligned word coined by Richard Dawkins, which refers to a cultural item that spreads and is shared compulsively almost as if it has a life of its own. This is a “fertile symbol”, which Henry Jenkins calls Spreadable Media. What makes something spreadable remains somewhat of a mystery, but it clearly has links with what makes a successful advertisement. A piece of content that can grab the attention in 30 seconds is also potentially content that people will want to share with their friends. In the 1990s, viral content was very much an offshoot of the advertising industry, at least in spirit, although this wasn’t going to remain the case.
By the end of the 1990s, however, corporate network administrators had become wise to employees using the lion’s share of their precious Internet bandwidth to send non-work-related video and graphic attachments to each other, and started limiting the size of emailed files. This essentially killed the email era of online video, as most people still had modems at home, and pushed video towards files downloaded from websites. The URLs didn’t bring corporate email servers to their knees, they were harder for companies to block, and you could leave downloads running at home if you really had to, ready to watch later. This was still not as immediate as an email attachment, but only a few years later bandwidth would increase sufficiently.
Fanning the flames
Even if emailing funny videos had been nipped in the bud, Internet users had gotten a taste for sharing amusing video clips, funny pictures and quirky animations – especially if they were low on bandwidth. One of the earliest low-bandwidth successes was the Hamster Dance (http://www.webhamster.com/). This rocketed across the fledgling Internet with abandon. Its insanely gyrating rodents and irritating vocalisation have lodged themselves in the public psyche ever since, even if cuter, more feline lifeforms have supplanted them as the Internet’s favourite animals more recently.
However, a consistent theme from then onwards has been video which takes as its inspiration content which is already well known. Since the majority of the first Internet users were computing early adopters, this has often meant cult science fiction. One example from the pre-broadband era is 2001’s The Polos of Death (http://www.thepolosofdeath.com/), created by a pair of Cambridge University undergraduates. Using a webcam, a Boba Fett figurine, and lots of Polo mints, this stop-frame animation tells the sad tale of misfortune caused by a lack of ammunition. But, as it predated the era of video sharing websites, The Polos of Death has gone somewhat unnoticed as a viral hit since its initial interest, despite being extremely funny and well made, illustrating that these are not particularly important criteria for popularity.
Much more widely known is Star Wars Troops (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXMnK3E04QY). This spoof retells sequences on Tatooine from the first Star Wars movie, but in the style of the COPS TV show. Star Wars Troops shows a much higher level of production skill than many fan videos, with believable props as well as decent special effects and 3D animation. Although the Internet has provided the global means of distribution and a huge potential number of viewers for these viral videos, the cheapness of camcorders and editing kit allied with constant improvement of 3D animation software have been equally important. Camcorders costing under a grand became capable of video quality which only £20,000 models of the past were able to produce, and a basic PC was sufficient for editing video and creating 3D animation, albeit more slowly than a professional workstation. This has allowed amateur videomakers to embark on increasingly ambitious projects, even full-length TV shows and movies.
Although the budgets for these longer projects are much bigger than most amateur works, they are still chicken feed compared to a Hollywood movie or broadcast TV production. Star Wars: Revelations (http://panicstruckpro.com/revelations/) is a 47-minute film set in the Star Wars universe and cost over $15,000 to make, using a crew of nearly 200 people. Released in April 2005, it was downloaded nearly a million times in the first two weeks. Star Wrek: In the Pirkinning (http://www.starwreck.com/) is a curious mashup parody of Star Trek and Babylon 5 made in Finland, of all places, which cost over €13,000 and took seven years to make. It was finally released in 2005. At 103 minutes, it’s one of the longest fan movies ever made, yet 300,000 copies were downloaded in the first week of release, more than 1.5 million by the second week, and over 2.9 million by the second month. Contrast these budgets with the tens or usually hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the average Hollywood blockbuster, and the return on investment for these fan videos looks decidedly spectacular.
Perhaps the most elaborate fan endeavour of all is the Star Trek: New Voyages series (http://www.startreknewvoyages.com/). The original Star Trek starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy ran for only three seasons, but it was supposed to be a five-year mission. So New Voyages aims to fill in the remaining episodes. Using an exact recreation of the Enterprise bridge, which purportedly took 20 years and over $100,000 to put together, the team have finished multiple 51-minutes episodes. The series has even managed to attract a number of actors from the original Star Trek series as guests, including Walter Keonig and George Takei, who played Chekov and Sulu respectively in the original Star Trek series, and Denise Crosby, who played Lieutenant Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation. New Voyages also boasts some of the best-looking animation of any fan film, thanks to an anonymous contributor who worked professionally on the Star Trek: Enterprise series. So the 3D models are truly professional grade.
However, even though these fan movies all have remarkably high technological production values considering their non-profit status and low budgets, they generally have something less positive in common – the acting is mostly pretty poor, sometimes laughably so. This has marked out fan movies, and viral videos made by amateurs in general, as different from their professional counterparts, even if they can approach the same levels of popularity. The technology is now so cheap anyone can make reasonable-looking video, but the technical skill required for good acting remains a rare commodity. Nevertheless, Internet stars are being born surprisingly frequently, and their non-standard skills are a part of what makes them attractive to viewers.
Interestingly, although George Lucas would come down on anyone using his intellectual property for their own profit, he’s remarkably sanguine about people making their own amateur films using his characters and settings. In fact, now-defunct Web video pioneer AtomFilms hosted an annual Star Wars fan festival in which Lucas himself participated, choosing the winner in one of the categories. The entries had to be parodies – serious films weren’t allowed. For example, 2007’s winner, chosen by George Lucas, was the Blame Society’s Chad Vader – Day Shift Manager (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wGR4-SeuJ0), about the hilarious misadventures of Darth Vader’s less-famous brother Chad, who works in the Empire supermarket. At the time of writing, the video had been viewed neary 12 million times on YouTube.
George Lucas is so encouraging towards fan-produced movies because he has understood maybe for longer than any Hollywood film maven just how valuable this level of engagement with a content brand can be. Star Wars is the archetypal “transmedia” franchise. George Lucas famously kept the merchandise rights for the films, then made a significant profit on the licensing of material for toys and supplementary products. Although the movies have made a fortune in themselves, they almost act as a loss leader for the plethora of other playthings that accompany them. The movies are the central content for a multi-faceted strategy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be the portion making the most money.
Fan videos fit well into this model. They may bring no income to the franchise, but they maintain engagement when no official story content is being produced. This is one of the reasons why Star Wars has remained so popular with successive generations. In contrast, the rigidly protected Disney characters have somewhat faded from favour, losing relevance for recent generations. Although fan culture predates the explosion of Internet video, and even the Internet, the two were clearly made for each other. Henry Jenkins has analysed this in depth in his seminal Convergence Culture. What’s particularly amazing is just how popular this fan-produced media can be.
One of the first videos to really make it big on the Internet was Star Wars Gangsta Rap (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEeAjy-05OI). This flash animation first arrived well before YouTube brought millions of viewers to the Web, with the original version first recorded in 1999. But it won the Audience Choice Award in The Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards 2002. By 2005, the original version of Star Wars Gangsta Rap had been viewed nearly four million times on AtomFilms, and the updated SE version with better animation (http://www.freetheflash.com/flash/star-wars-gangsta-rap.php) over six million times. Unofficial estimates put its viewership at over 20 million, taking into account all the other sites hosting it, peer-to-peer sharing and email distribution.
But one pre-YouTube viral video blows this away completely, and has been voted the world’s favourite viral video of all time. According to online video research group The Viral Factory (www.theviralfactory.com), Star Wars Kid had been viewed over 900 million times by November 27th 2006 in all its various forms. The story behind Star Wars Kid exemplifies the completely serendipitous way viral clips find success. The maker of the original video, Ghyslain Raza, had no intention of releasing it or even showing the video to anyone. Unlike the British education system, Canadian high schools (like US ones) often have their own TV production studios, and it was in one of these in 2002 that Ghyslain Raza recorded himself using a golfing implement to represent Darth Maul’s double-ended light sabre. He left the tape in a drawer and forgot about it.
But then the original owner of the tape discovered the video, sandwiched in between basketball footage. Finding Raza’s antics amusing, he showed his friends, and their general approval led him to capture the footage and put it up on the KaZaa file sharing network. Within two weeks, it had been downloaded millions of times. The original Star Wars Kid (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPPj6viIBmU), however, is just the beginning of the story. Star Wars Kid’s subsequent life in the form of remixes, mash-ups and parodies is what has given it such a wide viewership. Hundreds of versions with visual and sound effects added have been created, some of the best of which can be found on Screaming Pickle (http://www.screamingpickle.com/humor/legends/StarWarsKid/). The video has even been parodied on American sitcom Arrested Development. Many of these mash-ups blend in cultural references from other works of science fiction, such as the movie series The Matrix (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRiJVMASwjI). The story of Star Wars kid didn’t end well, however, with Ghyslain Raza unhappy about his unwanted fame – despite a petition to get him a part in Star Wars: Episode III. Instead, he sued the families of the schoolmates who released the video into the wild, and reportedly settled out of court in 2006.
A better ending has come for the The Numa Numa Guy, aka Gary Brolsma, a New Jersey high school student who recorded himself chair-dancing to a song by an obscure Moldovan pop band called O-Zone (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60og9gwKh1o). This had been viewed on YouTube nearly 48 million times at the time of writing. Brolsma originally shied away from the attention he created, but has since created a new video and engaged in numerous TV appearances. This shows how viral video has moved on thanks to the coming of age of video sharing websites like YouTube, and has become a surprisingly common story over the last few years.
Broadband was of course the technology which really enabled video on the Web to become a viable reality. But the actual form it has taken could not have been predicted a decade ago. What we like to watch on the Web is really very different from the kinds of content we have traditionally enjoyed in the comfort of our living rooms. Its popularity is also unprecedented, and this should be put in context of traditional TV viewing figures. On a global scale, the most watched programme is the World Cup, garnering billions of viewers across its many matches, although this figure is arrived at by counting groups of viewers in bars, not just families at home. As a more conservative estimate, the 2006 Final was watched by 260 million people, according to Initiative (www.initiative.com).
The most watched programmes in UK TV history managed about 30 million viewers – these are events like royal weddings and deaths, or soap opera special episodes (Who shot JR? from Dallas), and England winning the World Cup in 1966. But all of them dated back to the 1990s or before, until the 2012 London Olympics, and these days a British TV programme will consider itself a blockbuster if it exceeds ten million viewers. This is clearly the effect of more choice from cable, satellite and digital TV. Only the soap opera series Coronation Street and Eastenders regularly manage this level of viewing. Everyday hit drama series like The Bill still get 5-6 million, very little on Channel 5 gets more than 3 million, and tiny cable and satellite channels like Men and Motors survive on hundreds of thousands.
Most broadcast TV programme viewing figures are quoted as averages for a single broadcast. Web viewing figures, in contrast, are accumulated over time, as this is an on-demand medium. So the two aren’t directly comparable. But it’s still pretty interesting to see just how many people watch web videos now. The top figures are getting decidedly close to TV, and often blowing it out the water. With over 770 million views of Justin Bieber’s Baby music video on YouTube at the time of writing, the potential is there not just to challenge TV, but to thoroughly trounce it. Not everything is ephemeral pop fare, either. The meteoric rise of the KONY 2012 documentary, about child soldiers in Uganda and war criminal Joseph Kony, shows that the huge power of viral Internet video can be harnessed to spread a political message, too. A few years earlier, Loose Change and Zeitgeist Movie Series also showed that well researched conspiracy theories could find significant audiences online. The stage was clearly set for a new form of online video celebrity.