“Audio never goes viral,” writes radio and podcast producer Nate DiMeo. “If you posted the most incredible story — literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories, it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.”
Never is a pretty strong word. Rare might be a term I agree with, but not never.
Let’s look at what viral means. Again, from Stan Alcorn:
Taken literally, “viral” brings to mind an infectious agent bumping around inside its host, spreading accidentally by breath or touch. When “viral marketing” emerged in the 1990s, the medical referent was apt. The disease vector typically took the form of email and “virals” — as such ads were then called — that lived in the inbox. Invisible to the wider world, they spread from individual to individual, as when Hotmail stuck a sign-up ad beneath its users’ signatures. Or when the movie “American Psycho” sent compulsively forwardable emails from its psychotic main character, Patrick Bateman.
Today, those seeking to “go viral” have the same essential goal — to increase their audience by reaching the audience’s audience (and their audience, ad infinitum) — but the web has changed beyond the dynamics of disease transmission. Instead of invisible, one-to-one emails, today’s Internet infections spread by a cascade of publicly visible, one-to-many “likes,” “shares,” “tweets,” and “reblogs,” accelerated and amplified by an expanding web publishing industry. “Sharing” implies a deliberate effort, but social media sharing skews toward a mix of self-representation and what Tumblr creative technologist Max Sebela refers to as “speaking in content”: You might share Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” not because you want people to watch the video, but to make a joke about the fact that today is Friday.
I think that covers it pretty well. I think you should read the entire thing. It’s well written, and has some very good points to it. But to say audio never goes viral is not quite accurate. Mr. Alcorn does give an example of an individual piece that went viral, but what he is really talking about is podcasts, and the article gets into how podcasts aren’t designed to go viral.
I can think of two very striking examples of audio podcasts that did.
The first is Welcome to Night Vale. If you haven’t listened to WTNV, I would recommend getting on board now, not because it is going away, but because your listening life will be so much better for it. From the show’s site at Commonplace Books:
WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE is a twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff’s Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events.
I found out about WTNV in a viral way: Tumblr. People I follow on Tumblr started talking about it and it sounded interesting enough to give a listen. From there, I was hooked. I’m not the only one. Listeners create fan art and go to live shows. Joseph Fink, the creator of WTNV, talks quite a bit about how Tumblr launched the show into a viral hit. From The Awl and their post entitled “America’s Most Popular Podcast: What The Internet Did To “Welcome to Night Vale”:
“It took us about a week to figure out that it was just somehow we had exploded on Tumblr and we don’t know why or how that happened,” Fink said.
By the way, I found that article via a post on Nerdglaze and a post titled Welcome to Night Vale: The Viral Rise of an Impossible Town. You see where I’m going with this.
If you want to hear Fink talk more about the show, check out the conversation he had with Michael Wolf on the NextMarket site and his Podcast Project here. Or listen to it below.
OK, so now you are versed in Welcome to Night Vale. The second one I want to talk about is so obvious, I can’t believe it took me a whole day to realize it.
OK, it’s been a while since it launched and the initial hype has died down, but Maron certainly went viral with his hit podcast. His show has spun off into a public radio show and an IFC television series. His stand up career has taken off. WTF found it’s way into the mainstream in ways few comedian-hosted podcasts have. I can hardly think of one bigger.
Maron has expanded his base by interviewing people outside the comedy space, keeping him supplied with a steady stream of guests and high quality interviews for over 450 episodes. He has taken WTF and made it bigger than the initial podcast, and none of that would have happened were it not for the viral nature of it’s success.
What makes the viralness (not a word, as far as I know, but I’m going with it) of Maron’s show so interesting is that he spurred on more comedians to do their own podcasts, and the space has filled up with stand up performers hosting their own creations. Without the viral success of Marc Maron, the comedy podcast space would look a lot different.
I want to explore more of why these two podcasts were able to get over the hump of “never going viral” in another post. But for now, you have a bit of listening to do. Go download the pilot to Welcome to Night Vale and see what it is all about. Grab a few episodes of WTF and see what you think makes the show the hit that it is.
Never is a big word. Even Sean Connery found out that never wasn’t as absolute as he thought.