Viral video: Which communities work?

In the fall of 2009, Abby, Gus, and social networking intern Lindsay sat down to discuss outreach. We decided to follow a “watch where you are” strategy, trying to reach viewers where they were already viewing, sharing, critiquing, and remaking videos with their friends. But which communities would best support the kind of interaction we needed — comments and responses which would spark new episodes and discussions with us?

We had already decided some time before that YouTube was an ideal site for a main publishing platform. While YouTube had a reputation in some circles for attracting terrible, brainless comments and flame wars among users, its community also had a rich tradition of video responses, and it gave very good support for accidental discovery of videos. Many users there were posting mashups, fan videos, and even episodes of their favorite shows, a practice which YouTube was trying to discourage (under pressure from media corporations) but which we thought made for a user base which would be very interested in episodes we’d made about copyright.

The other communities we decided on had a few different focuses. LiveJournal, deviantArt, and FurAffinity were websites users would be on in their free time. Users of these sites share art, stories, and journal articles, soliciting feedback from other users. We thought this would be a great match for The Media Show. Again, many users here made fan art, and we thought they would be interested in learning more about copyright.

We also decided to reach out to teachers and students in classrooms through TeacherTube and Making Curriculum Pop. The appeal of our episodes would be different here: rather than inviting fan critique in viewers’ spare time, we figured that educators might want to use these episodes as cornerstones for media literacy and production lessons. We hoped that teachers would give us feedback and post the results of these lessons.

Along the way, we ended up reaching communities we had not really planned to. When we made episodes about TVTropes and Snopes, we posted links to forums on these websites. We hadn’t expected the traffic this would deliver! We got hundreds of views from each site, and a number of subscriptions. The Tropes community engaged with us beyond our wildest dreams — they left dozens of thoughtful comments with ideas we had overlooked and requests for new episodes. Many of them came back again to comment on subsequent episodes. We were so overwhelmed by the response that we made an entirely new TVTropes episode to answer their questions and recognize their great interactions.

Another unexpected source of community engagement came from participants in the show. Writing intern Nicola McEldowney linked to her episodes from her blog, as did Rob Vincent, who was invited on as a writer and puppeteer after his participation in the House Party episode. Rob regularly tweeted about new episodes. When his first script (TV Tropes) was produced, he mentioned it on b3ta.org, a long-running British humor site which he’d participated in for years. Within hours, we’d seen a few hundred hits from b3ta participants.

We got a lot of subscribers and additional publicity from our relationships to the hacker community. (Gus, Rob, and intern Robert Barat are on a radio show called Off The Hook which covers stories about computer security and privacy; they all appeared in the House Party episode, along with legendary hacker Emmanuel Goldstein.) We saw a slight rise in traffic, and a significant rise in subscribers, when we talked about The Media Show on the air.

Then, in early May 2010, Robert recommended guest Greg Conti’s episode about “Evil Interfaces” to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends users’ digital rights. The EFF liked the phrase as a way of describing Facebook’s privacy issues (a hot topic at the time), and linked to the episode. Then Slashdot picked up the phrase, and views on that episode rocketed over three thousand in just a few days.

So connections with guests and staff who were part of a larger community which we were in dialog with amplified our voice in that way. What surprised us more was the number of hits we got from a community where we only knew one person — Greg Conti, who teaches at the US Marine Academy. His department embedded his episode on their page, and over time we have gotten a tremendous number of views from their site.

Finally, we also got a little bit of traffic from 8bitcollective.com. I decided early on that not only was Creative Commons-licensed music a good decision from a financial and legal standpoint (a decision the AfterEd channel came to well before The Media Show started), but 8bit or video-game-themed music also made a great, energetic soundtrack for a puppet show about the media. Every time I used a song from an 8bc artist, I dropped them a note and a link on the page for that song. Artists and their listeners dropped by our page on YouTube, and some of them friended us from their own YouTube accounts. Some of them wrote us saying how pleased they were that their music was used.

Each community we interacted with delivered a different level of traffic, and this very often did not match up with our expectations.

For example, we expected to be a huge hit on FurAffinity, LiveJournal, and deviantArt, but our traffic there started out very low. Why? First of all, random discovery from a main page or user pages on these sites is not supported all that well. Unlike YouTube, where we could expect our content to regularly be served up in links alongside related videos, the only place to see random content on deviantArt and FurAffinity is a front page which features recently uploaded work. The amount of work which appears there is small and scrolls off quickly. These two sites and LiveJournal feature user pages which mostly feature content the user has pre-selected — streams from friends, updates from pages they are following, recent comments on their work, etc.

And that was our problem: nobody knew us yet. We weren’t reaching out to anyone individually, and there was no other way besides friending people to have them see your content. So when Weena finally showed off our fursuit, we shared that episode on a number of furry discussion groups on LiveJournal. That worked: we saw a bump in traffic from LiveJournal. Some of the traffic came by way of individuals’ pages on LiveJournal, which registered in our YouTube Analytics page as username.livejournal.com — so we went and added them as friends on our LiveJournal accounts, natch! A number of these furries commented and subscribed (we could tell, because their usernames were the same on YouTube) — and one or two even friended us on FurAffinity as well. deviantArt was still a minimal source of traffic for us. We tried a little interaction over there, giving feedback to artists and soliciting feedback on our own videos, but did not get too much response.

Watching the views we got from b3ta, Slashdot, and the Marine Corps Academy site was an education in itself. The traffic from the Marine Corps Academy adds up quite a bit, but it was spread out over months. The traffic from b3ta and Slashdot, meanwhile, was intense over the course of a day or so, then just about stopped. Why was this? Our embedded episode was placed at the top of the MCA page for a long time, and did not scroll off due to new content for quite some time. Content on b3ta and Slashdot, by contrast, scrolls off the front page very quickly as new posts are added by editors or readers. After that, content is very hard to find — like LJ and FA, it is not suggested randomly to users.

As far as our outreach to teacher communities went, reaction was mixed. We did get some views from Making Curriculum Pop; like the MCA views, these were spread out over time as the activity there was relatively low. We have also gotten a number of hits from other educators’ sites — Blackboard and other education pages from the University of Florida, Sierra College, Eastern Michigan University, and a K-12 school district in upstate New York — though we are not sure how they found the videos. Aside from the Eastern Michigan University site, which had some very interesting dialog about our Online Predators episode, we weren’t able to see the conversations about our videos from these other sites, as they were generally password-protected.

TeacherTube, by contrast, has netted us hundreds more views than we ever got on YouTube — without a single comment or response from a teacher or student. We think this has a lot to do with what the site supports and when and why people use it. TeacherTube is set up as an educational alternative to YouTube, which is blocked in many classrooms. We have our suspicions that many of our views on TeacherTube come from students; but especially because there have been no discussions on our videos on TeacherTube, it’s impossible to tell.

To sum up: different online communities engaged our videos in different ways. Some talked about them; some didn’t. Some came and stayed; others showed up once and never came back. Some have been long-term creative partners, while others were simply viewers.

Which viewers do you think are most important to cultivate, and why? What do you think is the best measure of a community’s “support” for your website? What do you think The Media Show should have done more or less of to bring in the kinds of viewers we wanted?