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How Memes Are Orchestrated by the Man

Feb. 10

The advertisers and agencies who spent the week after the Super Bowl looking for the next big thing in social media spent the weekend after the Super Bowl believing they had found it: because of the tweets by Maker and Mad Decent, they started copying the Florida longboarders, doing a two steps removed imitation of George Miller dancing to "Harlem Shake," believing it to be a pure product of the YouTube community. On Sunday, Feb. 10, while Wouter "Gotye" De Backer was acceptingthe "Record of the Year" Grammy for "Somebody That I Used to Know" (a record that was popularized by YouTube imitation videos), these companies started posting and promoting their own "Harlem Shake" videos. They included College Humor, a website owned by IAC, a publicly traded company that also owns Newsweek; Vimeo, a YouTube rival also owned by IAC; and BuzzFeed, a viral content website that promoted its video with a story subtitled "If you haven't done one yet, you better get on it right away!" (The Huffington Post also ran a story, "The Harlem Shake: A '00s Classic, Having Another Moment"). Thousands of "Harlem Shake" videos were uploaded during the week of Feb. 11, many of them from businesses with something to sell.

This is abnormal. "Single Ladies," "Somebody That I Used To Know," Carly Rae Jepson's "Call Me Maybe," and Psy's "Gangnam Style" were made by professionals and first imitated by professionals--Saturday Night Live in the case of "Single Ladies," indie Canadian band Walk Off The Earth in the case of "Somebody That I Used To Know," and Justin Bieber in the case of "Call Me Maybe"--then later by fans and amateurs. "Harlem Shake," was a meme made by an amateur, George Miller, but its rapid replication was driven by media and marketing professionals, led and orchestrated by three companies: Maker Studios, Mad Decent, and IAC.

On Feb. 13--after Today Show host Al Roker danced to "Harlem Shake" in a cupid costume and 82-year old economist Alice Rivlin, former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, danced to "Harlem Shake" in a stars and stripes top hat to promote deficit reduction--David Wagner, writing in The Atlantic, declared the "Harlem Shake" dead.

March 19

On March 19, a new video was posted. A bespectacled boy danced alone in a crowded high-school cafeteria for 15 seconds, then yelled "Everyone! Do the Harlem Shake!" The cafeteria fell silent. A few people cursed. The boy crept away.

What has changed?

Google's YouTube, not Apple's iTunes, is now the dominant force in music. Nearly2 billion music videos are viewed on YouTube every day. When Baauer's "Harlem Shake" entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1 on Feb. 20, only the 21st song in Billboard's 58-year history to do so, and the first by a previously unknown artist, it was because of YouTube. This highlights a broader point: Google has amassed unprecedented power as a medium. It is massive, global and central. In addition, its claims about viewership are not audited. Television, radio and newspaper audiences are measured by independent entities like Nielsen and the Alliance for Audited Media. Advertisers can be reasonably certain how many people are seeing their messages. Google's and YouTube's audience claims are not measured independently. Everyone initially involved in driving traffic to the "Harlem Shake" had the same incentive: to increase the number of views. Unlike other media, there were no checks and balances except YouTube's own secret view verification system. Google regards clicks and views as a "currency," and take pains to get the numbers right, but unlike most other mass media, its figures are not verified by anyone who does not profit from higher numbers.

The brain-to-brain propagation of Dawkins' memes can now happen worldwide within seconds. We have a new real-time, global culture that is not only technological but also social. Experiences like imitating the YouTube videos for "Single Ladies," "Somebody That I Used To Know" and "Call Me Maybe" create instant traditions, or "meta-memes," that prime us to become ultra-efficient human information routers. Memes become themes become meta-memes become norms. A few years ago, few people would have posted a video of themselves singing or dancing on YouTube. Today, for many, doing so is not only second nature--it's urgent. In our real-time culture, meme speed matters. Primacy is more important than privacy.

What has stayed the same?

Who wins? The "Harlem Shake" originated with a drunken man named Albert Boyce dancing at Harlem's Rucker Park basketball court in 1981. It was sobered up by children in the bleachers and became a popular dance in the hip-hop community. When Boyce died in 2006, the dance had found its way into some rap songs and videos. In 2012, Harry "Baauer" Rodrigues sampled one of these songs, Plastic Little's "Miller Time," and dropped it onto a piece of electronic dance music made in a style called "trap" that is only somewhat related to hip hop. The song was a commercial failure until student George Miller included it in his YouTube video. As the "Harlem Shake" moved from the Rucker to Al Roker, Alice Rivlin and beyond, money moved too: to Google, where more searches and more views mean more dollars, and its large investors like Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, Blackrock, and J.P. Morgan Chase; to Warner Bros, which owns global distribution rights for the recording; and to Time Warner, with its part ownership of Maker Studios.

Relatively little went to Philadelphia, where Thomas Wesley Pentz, the minor Svengali who signed Harry Rodrigues, collects royalties from Warner Bros., every time a recording is purchased, and from Google, every time the song sells an ad. Harry Rodrigues will benefit, although not as much as many may assume, and he will have to share what he gets with the people whose work he sampled. Boyce, the no-collar black man on the corner who gave world culture a twist, gets a little credit and no reward. George Miller, the originator of the whole thing, gets nothing. On Feb. 20, he tweeted at Rodrigues:

He didn't even get a reply. The technology may have changed, but the money still flows the same way: to creators of contracts not creators of content.

Presented by

Kevin Ashton helped conceive of the “Internet of Things" as an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 14 years ago. In 2010, he sold his energy tech company to consumer electronics firm Belkin, where he is now a general manager.

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