Google's trend charts of the phrase "Harlem Shake" are seismic. No one looked for the words until Feb. 7, then searches surged faster than any term Google ever had, except for "Whitney Houston" after her death. A few weeks later, they fell close to zero.
Experts said the "Harlem Shake" phenomenon was emergent behavior from the hive mind of the internet--accidental, ad hoc, uncoordinated: a "meme" that "went viral." But this is untrue. The real story of the "Harlem Shake" shows how much popular culture has changed and how much it has stayed the same.
The word "meme" comes from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Bits of information, memes, propagate from brain to brain through imitation, are subject to selection and can be regarded as living structures, he says, "not just metaphorically but technically," because new information changes our brains. They are often made deliberately--think catchphrases, slogans, melodies--and makers may try to propagate them as fast and far as possible, or make them go viral. The myth of the "Harlem Shake" is that its viral spread was spontaneous, not directed by financial interests--a pop culture, popular uprising. Here's how the meme and the myth began.
On Jan. 30, a Japanese-American college student named George Miller, posted athree-and-a-half minute compilation of comedy on YouTube. Miller has been posting videos since 2008 and had developed an absurd comic style and an audience of tens of thousands. Miller's movie began with 19 seconds of "Pink Guy," (a character where he is mime in a pink body suit who dances and pratfalls) and three friends dancing in Miller's bedroom to an obscure piece of electronic dance music: "Harlem Shake" by a little-known DJ called Harry Rodrigues, or "Baauer." Miller's audience loved the dance. Within hours, one fan had posted a video that looped the 19-second sequence for three and a half minutes.
Musical imitations are part of YouTube culture. The dance for Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" was an imitation of a video the singer saw on YouTube. It then became asubject of imitation itself. On Saturday, Feb. 2, five teenage longboarders from Caloundra, Australia, imitated Miller's dance to "Harlem Shake." In response to requests from fans, Miller also posted all 36 seconds of the dance footage he had shot originally. In Orlando, Florida, longboarders Anan Lagana and Jackson Foltz saw the Australian video and, with the help of three friends, imitated it with no knowledge of Miller's original. Miller's meme was replicating, but not fast or far. At this point, the Harlem Shake videos only had few thousands views.
The next day, Sunday, Feb. 3, America came to its annual standstill for the Super Bowl. Shortly after Beyoncé sang "Single Ladies" as part of her half-time show, there was a 22-minute power outage in the Mercedes Benz Superdome in Louisiana. A few advertising agencies reacted quickly via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube: Walgreens pointed out it sells candles; Oreos reminded people they could still dunk their cookies in the dark; and Tide said it could not get your blackout but it could get your stains out. The next day, Forbes declared it the "Super Bowl of real-time marketing." The talk of the nation was not expensive Super Bowl ads but the brands that took advantage of the power outage. The vice president of global media and consumer engagement at Mondelēz International (parent company of Oreos), B. Bonin Bough, boasted that his tweet "not only shows the power of real-time engagement, but also the sheer importance of understanding the overall media ecosystem." Advertisers and their agencies started the week determined not to miss the next big social media opportunity.
Through Wednesday Feb. 6, the five "Harlem Shake" videos (three featuring Miller, two featuring the Australian and American longboarders imitating him) received several hundred thousand views. It was what happened next that made it viral. It had nothing to do with community and everything to do with commerce.
A new imitation of "Harlem Shake" appeared. It came not from YouTube users, but from Maker Studios, a Los Angeles company that specializes in making money from YouTube and is partly owned by Time Warner. Maker Studios employee Vernon Shaw noticed the longboarders' "Harlem Shake" videos on Reddit, a major tributary of information on the internet. Shaw thought the videos looked "pre-viral" and saw an opportunity to exploit them to promote Maker. On Thursday, Feb. 7, Maker employee Rawn Erickson uploaded an imitation of the Florida video with Maker Studios staff dancing in the Maker Studios office. Maker promoted the video across its many YouTube channels as well as on Twitter.
At the same time, an influential electronic dance music blogger called "EDM Snob" made one of the first Twitter references to the "Harlem Shake" along with a link to the Australian video:
Rodrigues and his record label Mad Decent immediately started promoting the video. Rodrigues, using his stage name "Baauer," record label owner Thomas Wesley Pentz, and Chicago deejays Josh Young and Curt Cameruci, signed to Mad Decent all posted tweets and messages to send traffic to the Australian video on YouTube. Six Twitter accounts--EDM Snob, Baauer, Diplo, Mad Decent, Major Lazer and Flosstradamus--were the cause of views of "Harlem Shake" on Thursday, Feb. 7 and Friday, Feb. 8. EDM Snob was selling himself. The other five were selling the record.
YouTube rewards this kind of behavior. People who post videos make up to $6 per thousand views in return for letting YouTube show ads on their videos. When a new video is uploaded, YouTube automatically checks for matches to copyrighted material. Copyright holders can block videos or share advertising revenue. Maker got paid every time someone watched its video. Mad Decent got paid every time someone viewed any video featuring Baauer's song.