They both went viral and weirdly captivated people across the world, but social media analysis by London creative research agency FACE shows very different patterns in the battle between Gangnam Style and The Harlem Shake, bringing with it valuable lessons for social media strategists.
In a new series of data studies - 'How Stuff Spreads' - the agency used social media intelligence tool Pulsar TRAC to analyse hundreds of thousands of tweets and distinguish the differences in social media community behaviours throughout the videos' popularity. So, who won? The Drum takes a look.
1.) Bursts and rises - two models of virality: It turns out it's not just a case of an insane social media explosion, there are actual models explaining how it happens.
Gangnam Style: Gangnam found its success through the 'rise' model. The meme had leadership in the shape of Psy and copycat variations of the video were not as successful as the original. Gangnam Style originated in Korea and had a slower rise to viral fame, eventually spreading across Latin America, North America and Europe.
Harlem Shake: The 'burst' model brought a global audience to the Harlem Shake. The meme was more of a communal effort, it required groups and communities getting involved to sustain its popularity. Variations of the meme became as popular as the original and the concept enjoyed a wide burst of popularity.
So who won?: While the Harlem Shake burst onto the scene, it was short lived in comparison to Gangnam Style. The bubble burst on the Harlem Shake while the steadier rise of Gangnam Style kept people interested as the audience built a bit more gradually.
Gangnam Style 1-0 Harlem Shake.
2.) Triggers and glocality: Why did the Harlem Shake and Gangnam Style go viral in the first place?
Gangnam Style: The results found that virality was triggered by surprise, cultural relevance and endorsement by a leader or the media. Gangnam Style was relevant within its own market and its global appeal lay in the humour and existence of the strong character Psy - the fact that those outside the immediate geography didn't understand the lyrics became irrelevant.
Harlem Shake: Because the Harlem Shake sparked a wave of copycat videos, it had both global appeal and cultural relevance to communities because they could become directly involved. The Miami Heat Basketball Harlem Shake was a good example of how it could be adapted to have immediate appeal to an established community.
So who won? The results found that Gangnam Style grew a wider global appeal of 78 per cent in contrast the Harlem Shake's 63 per cent. Popularity of the Harlem Shake was more US-centric, while Gangnam Style had appeal across a more diverse range of countries.
Gangnam Style 2-0 Harlem Shake.
3.) Communities: It's all about small communities. Virality was driven by the engagement of groups, not just big name or media endorsement.
Gangnam Style: Both memes spread primarily through widening popularity with small communities and that can tracked by analysing share volume. For Gangnam 14 per cent of people who shared the link either passed it on to others or grabbed it from someone.
Harlem Shake: The results showed connected sharers for the Harlem Shake was higher than Gangnam at 17 per cent.
So who won? The statistics speak for themselves, even if they don't quite make sense. Community sharing was higher for the Harlem Shake yet Gangnam Style had a wider global appeal. Welcome to the mind-boggling world of strange statistics. Well played Harlem.
Gangnam Style 2-1 Harlem Shake.
4.) Waves and celebs: Whatever the trigger, virality is not a steady affair; it spreads in waves and spikes, and that's where the famous people come in. The method used to calculate this area is quite technical so for those who don't want to risk a headache, don't read the brackets (share variation was quantified by first calculating the standard deviation of the daily sharing rate - i.e. how much sharing levels varied day by day - then dividing by the mean to give the coefficient of variation. Or something.)
Gangnam Style: The meme recorded a variation rate of 196 per cent overall, but there were distinct spikes when the rich and famous got involved. Britney Spears learning Gangnam on the Ellen Show sparked a variation rate of 574 per cent, while the YouTube Gangnam Rewind boosted it by 807 per cent.
Harlem Shake: The variation rate in total was 338 per cent for the Shake, boosted massively by Miami Heat's Harlem Shake, causing a 517 per cent increase in shares and triggering 63,927 tweets.
So who won? With these stats, a low variation rate wins the day, slow and spiky wins the race. While celebrity and media endorsement is important in making something 'cool', in terms of shareability and variation, the impact was relatively short lived. In fact, the variation rates even suggest that celebrity endorsement decreases a memes shareability value; the public take the bull by the horns when they perceive the new concept is theirs, celebrities and media running with it means it's been done. People begin to lost interest, which brings us to the next point. However, a low variation rate reflects steady interest, and that wins the category.
Gangnam Style 3-1 Harlem Shake.
5.) Life and death: A viral has a relatively short life, please take a moment to bow your head.
Gangnam Style: The study defined the life of a viral as being the duration of time it received at least 500 URL Twitter shares per day. For Gangam, it lived for 172 consecutive days, hovering at the six month mark. Impressive.
Harlem Shake: Poor Harlem. Where did it all go so wrong? The Shake lasted a paltry 29 days.
So who won? Gangnam absolutely trounced Harlem on this one. The research concludes that narrative was important here; Psy of Gangnam Style was an easily identifiable character, a focal point. The Harlem Shake lacked leadership and definition, making it more of a phenomenon, but with a shorter lifespan.
Gangnam Style 4-1 Harlem Shake. We're probably not going to need extra time and penalties.
6.) Memes are like currencies: Apparently, memes can be viewed as currency. It's quite clever.
Gangnam Style: The meme's global accessibility largely came from top-down mainstream sources (high popularity). However, that gave Gangnam high social inflation, making it less valuable to share (low shareability). Scale was the key to sustaining its long term growth and maintaining interest.
Harlem Shake: As the earlier stats showed, Harlem Shake held strength in small community sharing, but this made it less accessible because it was not as mainstream (low popularity). However, that lack of mainstream interest meant it remained highly valuable (high shareability). However, the lack of mainstream scale made growth short term and was the reason the viral petered out so quickly.
So who won? In the long term, Gangnam Style clearly had it in the bag. The value of shareability may have decreased because of mainstream coverage, but its popularity was still massive. The phenomenon of the Harlem Shake made it highly shareable between communities but harder for the mainstream to get behind without a an established leader or hook.
Gangnam Style 5-1 Harlem Shake.
For crying out loud, who won?
Gangnam Style lived longer and it still has appeal, with a second single being released by Psy last month. The mainstream coverage may have gradually reduced shareability, but by that point the job was done, and shareability was still generally high. The Harlem Shake, however, had it's day and it was a much quicker one. It's been consigned to the YouTube vaults as a really weird thing that came out of nowhere and was a great testament to the power social media can give to communities to do utterly random, pointless, pretty cool things.
Gangnam Style was a more recognisable pop gimmick, enabled by today's media and technology to gain a massive reach, directed by every -day social media users prior to the mainstream picking up the baton. Gangnam wins the battle of the memes. And on that note, we leave you with Psy's new offering.