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Just over a month ago, a group of young men from a fairly yokel part of Australia posted a video on YouTube. Nothing remarkable about that. Except that the video now has over 21 million viewings. More than 170,000 variants of the original theme have been posted on YouTube. A few have received even more viewings than the original, with one notching up over 63 million.
The wider repercussions have been even more dramatic. Australian miners have been sacked for recording their on version underground. People have been arrested in Russia for copying it on a World War Two tank. In Israel, two soldiers have been jailed. A flight from San Diego is the subject of a major investigation when the passengers attempted to redefine the Mile High Club and create a version in mid-flight.
This phenomenon of popular culture is called the Harlem Shake. Its essence is that a group of people perform a comedy sketch, accompanied by excerpts from the 1980s hip-hop song of the same name. King Lear it is not.
Instinctively, people think when something proves so popular and has such widespread consequences that it must somehow have some special qualities which explain its success. True to form, the internet is bursting with explanations. The august Washington Post pronounced that its popularity was due to ‘the jump cuts, hypnotic beat, quick setups, and half minute routines’. A fairly persistent theme is that the routine is easy to recreate in a different context. The terminal decline of the Shake is now being pondered. Atlantic Monthly considered the concept ‘murdered’ when a major mainstream US television programme produced its own live version. The Los Angeles Times cites many reasons, including the ‘extravagant’ departure from its humble origins in the multiple variants now being performed.
But the fact is that the phenomenal success of the Harlem Shake is due not to its inherent qualities, but to the networked structure of the Internet. Things become popular because they are seen as already being popular. The actual qualities of the product are virtually irrelevant. The original song goes back to the 1980s. A modern version by the American DJ and producer Baauer was released as a free digital download in May 2012. It had relatively little impact. But it is now number 1 on the on the US Billboard Hot 100, thanks to the success of the YouTube posting. So it was released, did not do that well, and months later unexpectedly becomes a tremendous hit. The product itself remained the same.
Consumer markets in general are becoming more and more like this. The Harlem Shake is at one extreme end of the spectrum, where quality and the attributes of the product count for virtually nothing, and the connections between people are crucial. But the selections which other people have made, and in particular whose selections you pay attention to, are increasingly the key to understanding what drives consumer behaviour. The qualities of the offer are no longer the main determinant of success.
Paul Ormerod is an economist at Volterra Partners LLP, a director of the think-tank Synthesis and author of Positive Linking: How Networks Can Revolutionise the World
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