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Monday, Aug 19, 2019

The secret behind online viral trends

Despite the number of avenues available (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter), it’s not easy for songs, videos or blogs to get noticed on the Net. Yet some of them go viral and become urban legends. What’s the secret?

brunch Updated: Dec 10, 2011 20:35 IST
Pranav Dixit
Pranav Dixit
Hindustan Times

On the evening of November 21, 2011, a strange-looking 10-letter word became the number one trending topic on Twitter. No one knew what it meant but everyone was suitably intrigued. The word read #kolaveridi. Clicking on it opened up a series of tweets, all with links to a YouTube page. Loading the video revealed a wholly unremarkable-looking man singing strange lyrics to a catchy beat in a recording studio as two pretty women looked on. Closer inspection revealed that one of those women was actress Shruti Haasan.

Then, the dam exploded – something happened along the way (God knows what!) – and the song Why This Kolaveri Di from an upcoming Tamil film called 3 went viral. It broke all records to become the number one searched-for song on YouTube from India. In less than two weeks, it received 17 million views and more than 75,000 comments from over 130 countries. Kolaveri, a chilled out, irreverent song about heartbreak, became the national anthem for a generation of ‘soup boys’ who ensured its popularity by playing it 24/7 on cellphones, in cars, as dialer tunes and more; and Dhanush, superstar Rajinikanth’s son-in-law, went from being a South Indian star to a household name. “It was like magic. Like some superior power was at work. You can’t predict these things. Never,” he says.

Indeed, the video has sparked hundreds of spin-offs, sequels, spoofs and remixes, each of which has gone viral in its own right – there’s a heavy metal version of Kolaveri Di, a Marathi version, a female version, a cute-as-hell version by Sonu Nigaam’s four-year-old son and even one that stars – go figure – Adolf Hitler! The Japanese are dancing to it; heck, there’s even Kolaveri merchandise. And despite some criticism – lyricist Javed Akhtar called it a song with an ordinary tune, substandard singing and words that insult sensibilities – the juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down.

So what makes things go viral on the Internet? As it turns out, there is no easy answer the rhythm’s gonna get you...

Viral videos are videos with a high percentage of social views. They are videos that become popular – no, larger than life – through sharing. The hits come from external links, embeds, typed or copied URLs. You would typically stumble upon virals on your Facebook wall shared by friends, in your Twitter stream and sometimes, in your email. But there really is no science to figure out why videos go viral. “Trying to predict which videos are going to ‘go viral’ is a bit like catching lightning in a bottle – extremely hard to predict!” says a YouTube spokesperson (and you thought at least they would know!).

Sometimes, a video can be on the site for months (the famous

Double Rainbow

, a 2010 video about a vivid ‘double rainbow’ at Yosemite National Park in the US that now has over 31 million views) before it is picked up. Others, like the hilarious

David After Dentist

(a video about a little boy with a cute lisp describing what happened at the dentist) had 10 million views after just two weeks. The most viewed video on YouTube is

Charlie Bit My Finger – Again

, which got 85 million views in the first year and now has a massive 250 million and is the most watched video on YouTube. “The only thing that we can say about viral videos is that they tend to share a few characteristics,” says the YouTube spokesperson. “Like any news story, they are authentic, surprising and often topical.”

To be fair, 99 per cent of the videos on YouTube don’t get anywhere near Kolaveri’s 17 million views. Most are lucky to get even a thousand. 2008’s hilarious

Benny Lava

video that featured Prabhudeva is still shy of 30 lakh views even after almost four years. So what makes a video stand out from a crowd? Last year, a company called Dynamic Logic that analyses Internet trends studied popular online videos to solve the mystery. According to them, any viral piece of content should have the following characteristics:



It should be unique, something that has never been seen before

* There should be considerable shock value

* A local or global community participates and becomes a part of it

* It has a compelling and heart-touching message

All of which, we think, Kolaveri does exceedingly well. “I think the song appeals to so many people for a number of reasons – the music is hummable, the lyrics are really simple and heartbreak is an emotion that appeals to everybody. We put it up on the Internet because somehow, we were sure that the song would travel beyond its core markets of Chennai and South India,” says Arjun Sankalia, director, special projects, Sony Music India.

The way in which a piece of content begins its long and arduous journey to becoming a sought-after viral is fairly innocuous. A creator – the person who creates the content, either for the express purpose of posting it online or simply on a whim – uploads the video to a site like YouTube (or a blog) and starts sharing it in the usual hubs on online activity – typically social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. “This initial seeding is extremely important and is the toughest part,” says Simarprit Singh, internet evangelist and founder of

“The trick is to subtly push your content but not shove it in people’s faces.” The first 1,000 views are the most difficult to get, says Singh. “If you reach 10,000, you’re slowly getting some traction. If you reach a hundred thousand, you’re really on a roll. And if you cross a million, boy, have you made it!” he says and adds that he expects Kolaveri to peak at about 25 million views before the hype slowly dies down.

I want to break free

Adman Prahlad Kakkar has a completely different take on viral content. “One, you must remember that the viral phenomenon is nothing new,” he says. “Before the Internet, it existed as word of mouth. Later, it existed as chain emails. The only difference today is that what took a month to propagate now takes less than 24 hours.”


Kakkar believes that the rise of viral videos today is the beginning of a new war – the war between the suits and the yahoos, as he calls it. “Conventional advertising,” he muses, “or publicity, is essentially done under a brief from a (suitably) suited corporate honcho who handles the money. It is the complete anti-thesis to viral. These ‘suits’ cannot realise the potential of something going viral unless they are willing to become unconventional and break all the rules that the yahoos (the creative people) yearn to break all the time.” Viral videos are essentially successful because they are in essence non-conformist, anti-convention, anti-establishment, thinks Kakkar.

“The viral phenomenon is a free beast by nature. The content is viral because it takes on a life of its own. Then, it is not in the creators’ hands what happens to it. And I will tell you this: anything that is designed to go viral is designed to fail. You can never plan these things. The success of Kolaveri is nothing but a gigantic stroke of luck for its makers,” he says.

Being spontaneous, believes Kakkar, is 90 per cent of the battle. “If you don’t have an open mind and if you plan things in advance, you will never, ever go viral,” he says and cites the example of the popular ‘Nothing Official About It’ campaign for Pepsi (the longest running campaign in the history of advertising at 25 years). “We were given total creative freedom; we wrote all the lines on the spot on the sets minutes before shooting those commercials,” he laughs.

So is there no secret sauce? “None, whatsoever. It’s luck, luck, luck all the way to the end (or the bank). Whatever they teach you in marketing schools is b******t.”

Meanwhile, at the offices of Sony Music India in Mumbai, a party is on in full swing. Even as you read this issue of Brunch, the official soundtrack of 3 is already hitting your neighbourhood music store, due to release tomorrow. On iTunes in the US and the UK, digital downloads of Kolaveri are going through the roof. “We’re releasing a number of products and exclusive merchandise across the country. We are even going to focus on the Hindi-speaking market now and not just South India,” says Arjun Sankalia.

In the first five days, cellphone service providers saw more than 22,000 downloads; and thousands have Kolaveri as their new dialer tune. Revenues for a single have never been better. You remember when we said that getting a video to go viral on the Internet is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle? Well, the Kolaveri guys just caught it.

Dhanush‘They want us to make versions of kolaveri... maybe even a sequel’

Dhanush, the man behind the ‘funny’ lyrics of Kolaveri Di, on how it feels to be part of a viral phenomenon

From South Indian star to global viral phenomenon! Are you on top of the world?
It feels REALLY nice, especially because this is not something that we were aiming at. It was a humble, honest attempt and it paid off splendidly. I must say that the response we got was completely unprecedented.

Whose idea was it to record a video of a recording session and put it up on YouTube?
Well, what happened was that a rough version of the song was somehow leaked from our computer on to YouTube. We didn’t want to the public getting their hands on an unfinished version like that. So we decided to release it officially on YouTube as well.

It was around midnight and we were exhausted after an entire day of shooting for 3. But we still managed to shoot and record it in about 30 minutes. To tell the truth, we simply recorded a regular jamming session. It’s not like we laboured over the lyrics and the composition for hours. We didn’t rehearse, there were no retakes or anything like that. I think that the video reflects the simplicity of the song itself.

When did you realise it had gone viral?
In about two or three days. Suddenly, we were getting swamped with calls and messages. When I saw the number of views on YouTube, my heart jumped into my mouth.

You have your fair share of critics who say that the song isn’t really that special. Why do you think it has become such a rage?
I really think it’s because of the funny lyrics…

You wrote them yourself, right?
Yes, I did. I just strung together the most commonly used English words in the Tamil language. The irreverence of the song, the Tamil accent, the mood, the simple tune… I think these are the things that broke all barriers and made it work. It’s crazy to be a part of something like this!

Have you sung playback before?
Oh yes, I’ve sung about six to eight songs in various Tamil films here and all of them have been hits regionally.

So what’s next? Bollywood?
(Laughs) You know it’s funny. Last year, I won the National Award for Best Actor for my Tamil film Aadukalam. No one there knew my name. It’s amazing now that when I visit other parts of the country, people say “Oh, you’re the Kolaveri guy!” That said, I’m getting a lot of offers to cut an album… they want Anirudh (the composer of the song) and I to make different versions of the song…maybe even a Kolaveri sequel! Also, the pressure to release the film nationally has now gone up, so we’re looking into that as well.

How to become an internet celebrity (whether you mean to or not)

Brunch tracks down the people behind two of the latest Indian viral sensations and finds out just how they did it

flashmobShonan Kothari (23)

Claim to fame: Organised a flash mob at Mumbai’s CST station which saw 200 people dancing to Rang De Basanti right in the middle of the station

How did the idea for the CST flash mob video come about?

I wanted the city to just liven up. I wanted us to laugh more. I thought we needed to have more art in the city, popular art, citizen art, etc. Cities all over the world have a lot of cultural activity. I felt that Bombay needed that. Why do you think it went viral?

I think the fact that it was done with no agenda was very important to its success. It’s very pan India; everyone can relate to the location and the song (Rang De Basanti). I think what makes viral videos go viral is spontaneity. That’s the thing about the Internet… everyone is always looking at the next big entertaining thing. That said, we did NOT expect it to become so popular. We thought we would get about 10,000 views tops.

ShonanAt what point did you realise it had become so popular?

Oh, even before putting it up! People at the station had recorded us on their cellphones and even those videos were getting over 20,000 views in a matter of hours! So I knew ours would really rock.

Wasn’t it difficult getting permissions to shoot at CST?
It certainly was time-consuming and involved talking to a ton of people! But quite contrary to my expectations, all of them were extremely cooperative and heard me out. So getting permissions was fairly easy. Also, I didn’t have to pay anyone off like I thought I would have to!

Has life changed after the video?
Yes, lots of people have written to me and there has been such an outpouring of wishes that it’s like a dopamine high! I have been interviewed by the The New York Times and the BBC World Service. Celebrities like Abhishek Bachchan and Akshay Kumar have tweeted about the video too!

Shahana Nair-Joshi (24)
Claim to fame: Wrote an open letter to a Delhi boy that went viral in September this year
So what was with the VERY caustic letter to a Delhi boy?
Nothing particularly. I was bitching about Delhi boys with a girl friend so I wrote it on a whim and posted it to my (recently created) blog. It wasn’t based on anything at all, just a rant.

ShahanaWhen did you realise it had gone viral?

I didn’t even know what viral meant when it did. I didn’t even have a Twitter account – I was made to open one after I woke up that morning and saw over 7,000 comments on my blog! It became too much and I had to get four friends to moderate and respond to those. Then, I saw #OpenLetterToADelhiBoy trending on Twitter and that’s when it hit me.

We heard you received death threats post the letter going viral!
Oh yes, I did. And once, I was sitting in a coffee shop and I heard two girls whisper “Isn’t that the Madrasan (my screen name)?” I was a little overwhelmed and I thought somebody was going to hurl something at me any time.

So you become a reluctant Internet celebrity…
Yes, and there are a few pluses: my blog has become really popular, I have a Facebook Fan Page and I have been approached to write by various publications. I am still trying to figure out exactly WHY my letter went viral and I think the humour just clicked with people.

Do you think going viral is simply about getting your 15 seconds of fame?
It depends. I think it’s up to you to sustain it. For example, I have been regularly blogging ever since the letter. I write at least one post a week. I also take requests from readers and write about the topics they care about most. I have got a fairly decent following on Twitter now. I have also discovered a lot of new bloggers since the incident and follow them regularly. I’ve even been offered advertising space on my blog by a lot of people!

Viral hot favourites
Overweight Kid Dancing to Dhinka Chika
We almost feel sorry for him!

Benny Lava
If you haven’t seen this, you’ve been living under a rock

Flash Mob Mumbai – CST official video

Flip to page 12 for more on this


Charlie Bit My Finger – Again

The most watched YouTube video of all time!


David After Dentist

Even Lady Gaga thinks this one is cute


Double Rainbow
Yup... we bet you never saw two at the same time before! 31,730,538 views

From HT Brunch, December 11

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First Published: Dec 10, 2011 17:27 IST

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