The Gatekeepers Aren’t Gone

Viral content seems democratic. But it’s still mostly controlled by big media companies.

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The first YouTube video went live in 2005. The following year, the site began seeing its first viral hits.

Judson Laipply’s “Evolution of Dance,” posted in 2006, reached seventy million views in about eight months. Justin Bieber started uploading videos of his performances in 2007, and within a year he was an Internet star.

Laipply’s and Bieber’s successes seemed extraordinary and astonishingly fast at the time. But the pace and frequency of such viral rises only continued to increase. In April 2010, Greyson Chance became YouTube famous less than a week after posting a cover of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi.” Three months later, Yosemitebear’s “Yosemite Mountain Double Rainbow 1-8-10” video blog entry skyrocketed to prominence just as rapidly as the Gregory Brothers’ auto-tuned “Double Rainbow” song.

The subsequent years have provided abundant evidence that our communication paths are becoming even more networked and seamless. We’ve reached a point where anything — not just a song, but any kind of cultural production, including a tweet — can go impossibly, massively viral. Seemingly random online events can attract global attention within days, or even hours, of being posted.

These episodes of sudden ubiquity have sparked dreams of an alternative, more democratic aesthetics. And at first glance, virality might seem like an equalizing, socially subversive phenomenon — a way for the online masses to choose their stars directly, circumventing the traditional gatekeepers and tastemakers.

In 2012, writing in a special issue of Women’s Studies Quarterly on virality, Christine Bacareza Balance hailed the rise of Asian-American YouTube stars as part of a new, grassroots aesthetic movement in which the disadvantaged and the marginalized were finally getting the chance to speak directly to crowds. Similarly, Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley speculate in their 2013 book Going Viral that virality might offer observers an extraordinarily clear picture of current social norms and interests.

But a closer look reveals a grimmer reality. Virality is not really a democratic, participatory phenomenon. Instead, it is shaped by the extreme inequalities that the digitally enhanced capitalist market creates. Indeed, one might describe virality as our most immediate, everyday model for what it’s like to live among the 99 percent.

The apparent contingency and grassroots origins of viral events are something of an illusion. Ordinary people on the Internet aren’t usually the ones who make an event go viral. Major sites, like BuzzFeed or the New York Times, or already-popular figures, like Kanye West or Donald Trump, more regularly trigger the process. In fact, as Sharad Goel and his collaborators argue, performers backed by powerful broadcasters and celebrities are the only ones statistically likely to go viral.

Goel and his colleagues distinguish between two kinds of “popular” (i.e. massively shared) online events: those originating from very large broadcasts, and those originating from a huge number of individual acts of social sharing.

The former — for example, a post on the New York Times website, a BuzzFeed listicle, or a Twitter comment made by Beyoncé — bear a strong resemblance to the mass media model that prevailed from the sixties to the nineties; the latter — for instance, the average Jane Doe bringing something to the attention of the John Does on her mailing list — has the feel of a bottom-up movement and is more associated with the term “virality.”

Yet as Goel shows, the Internet’s giant broadcasters — its version of the mass media — are overwhelming the ones that make an online event stand out. The vast majority of the episodes we describe as “viral” have preexisting online celebrities and major news sources to thank. Indeed, being picked up by one of these network hubs is the only reliable predictor of mass online recognition.

In addition to these oligarchic drivers, going viral is extremely rare in statistical terms. Networked dissemination obeys what mathematicians call a “power law.” The vast majority of online content — more than 99 percent of it — inevitably spreads among only a handful of users. But given the structure of our online networks, it is also almost statistically inevitable that a very small percentage of content will shoot around the globe, reaching a vast audience in little time at all.

While the number of viral events continues to increase, the chance that any single video or meme will take off has not substantially increased. What has expanded is the number of Internet users trying to attain viral status.

As Goel and his coauthors report, “even moderately popular events occur in our data at a rate of only about one in a thousand, whereas ‘viral hits’ appear at a rate closer to one in a million.” By contrast, “the vast majority of [sharing] cascades — over 99 percent — are tiny and terminate within a single generation.”

This distribution pattern seems relatively constant no matter how large the network. A huge gap separates the 999,999 posts that nobody re-shares and the one that gets apparently boundless airtime.

In this sense, the few artists or performers who manage to go viral are less a grassroots cultural movement and more an unwitting 0.01 percent. They are the tiny minority whose exorbitant, disproportionate success overshadows the innumerable artists and performers who do not receive — and can never really hope to receive — such exposure.

Unsurprisingly, the difference in remuneration between the less networked artists and performers and those backed by broadcasters is stark. For most artists, online distribution of creative content does not bring in much money, even if one of their songs manages to garner the coveted thousands or millions of views.

Data journalist David McCandless reports in a series of infographics re-published last year in the Guardian that a signed solo artist needs to sell 457 CDs per month to earn the US minimum wage. Online, sales must be higher: 450 or so CDs equals 1,826 downloads on iTunes or 5,478 on Amazon. Streaming services pay even less. To earn a living wage, an artist must net 172,206 plays on Google Play, 666,158 on Rhapsody, 1,117,021 on Spotify, or 4,200,000 on YouTube. This is actually an improvement from McCandless’s 2010 figures. But the numbers are still sobering.

Few artists other than expensively produced, well-advertised stars achieve this kind of download and play rate. Even the most popular singles by recognizable alt-pop bands — say, Chairlift, Matrimony, or Beach House — typically take one or two years to reach a total of forty or fifty million YouTube views. The Internet simply isn’t enough. Online success must be parlayed into a concert tour, an advertising gig, or a contract with a major label before musicians see a healthy jump in their income.

That’s not to say that nobody is making money from mass online dissemination — quite the opposite. Despite the relative unpopularity of most of their content, companies like Amazon and iTunes generate a disproportionate share of their profits from what Chris Anderson has called “the long tail” — songs, books, and other products that only find small, niche audiences.

Consumers value the seemingly unending array of content Amazon and others can offer, and firms are rewarded handsomely. Artists in “the long tail,” meanwhile, don’t make anything close to a living wage.

In addition, as Astra Taylor notes in The People’s Platform, artists who post their work online (especially to open-access sites) often risk losing copyright control over their art altogether: those who copy or re-embed creative content often do not credit — let alone compensate — the original author. Instead of fledgling artists rising on the shoulders of empowered consumers, the contemporary viral-centric paradigm further calcifies the economy’s deep inequalities.

One relatively recent attempt to think about virality in this fashion is the 2013 film 20 Feet From Stardom. The documentary follows a number of predominantly black and female backup singers who worked for mostly male and white pop stars from the eighties onwards. The women interviewed sang with Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, and Joe Cocker; they also sometimes dubbed white female stars.

But none of them went on to attain star status. They see the documentary as a final chance to achieve appreciation and recognition. This hope is slowly corroded by the fatalistic gaze the film turns on the Internet — through which the youngest of these singers, Judith Hill, has just briefly become a viral celebrity.

Hill was one of Michael Jackson’s backup singers until his death in June 2009. Shortly before the documentary was shot, her cover of one of Jackson’s songs exploded on YouTube, garnering millions of views within days. Repeatedly set against her predecessors, Hill at first appears to be a figure of hope for a more democratic music industry. But after her sudden spike in popularity, Hill fails to immediately receive a solo offer. (The one she does obtain a few years after the documentary immediately gets embroiled in its own Internet-derived controversies.) In the end, none of her own songs achieve the same prominence as her hit cover.

Despite her lack of independent success, Hill soon finds that her online fans criticize her if they see her doing backup work again. She goes so far as to wear a wig while singing backup, but after discovering her ruse, her fans shame her. As the film follows Hill walking around New York or practicing a refrain, it is unable to either account for her brief spurt of fame or her frustrating fall.

In the end, rather than embodying an alternative to the undemocratic status quo, Hill’s story exemplifies the unequal dynamics of an older musical economy — and shows how contemporary online culture has intensified them.

Contrary to what many seemingly scientific self-help books want us to believe, we can do very little to ensure that our artistic contributions will attract a large following. Already-established celebrities and organizations overwhelmingly make these decisions, not ordinary content creators. Indeed, virality shows that equal distributions of attention are an ideal that is very easily abandoned in our contemporary public sphere, extremely open as it might appear to be to any and all forms of self-expression.

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