The Year in Viral Will Make You Cry

Internet historians will no doubt look back at 2013 as the year we finally reached peak hyperbole.

Okay, so maybe that's an exaggeration, but there is no denying we encountered a lot of puffery this year: The viral videos of 2013 were louder, shorter, weirder, funnier, faker, heartwarmier, tearjerkier, and, most importantly, far more viral than ever before.

There was perhaps no better sign of things to come than "Gentleman." Attempting to repeat the success of last year's smash earworm "Gangnam Style," South Korean phenomenon Psy released his follow-up music video earlier this year, to record-setting fanfare. With over 600 million hits, "Gentleman" is officially YouTube's most viewed video of the year.

But just as 2013's viral videos experienced unprecedented rises in engagement, so too was their rapid return to Earth equally as meteoric. That is to say, they burned up on reentry. Go ahead: Hum the first few bars of "Gentleman." (And while you're at it, do the Harlem Shake and tell me what the Fox say.)

Of course, the reason these trending topics faded from memory so soon after becoming so ubiquitous is because of that other thing 2013 did so well: Take advantage of us.

It started innocently enough, with marketers doing what marketers do: Taking something organically wonderful and saturating the web with sickening simulacra. But after a while we stopped being able to tell the difference. Or it didn't matter.

Sure, we knew it was an ad for something, but we shared it anyway.

And sometimes we knew what it was an ad for and we shared it anyway.

And sometimes we didn't know it was an ad and we shared it and then when we found out it was an ad we weren't even mad.

And eventually everything on the Internet became a hoax and we shared it anyway.

But something had changed. We rarely let anything trend for longer than a few days. Psy trended for months after "Gangnam Style"; after "Gentleman," he barely made it out of April:

The Year in Viral Will Make You Cry

The Year in Viral Will Make You Cry

Maybe climbing the mountain of lab-engineered "viral content" has finally taken its toll on our collective attention spans. Or maybe we like to climb quickly to avoid uncomfortable revelations. Or maybe we're more aware of our own disorientation than we'd like to let on.

Or maybe we're worried about having to take the long way down.

Which brings us back here, to the peak. The acme. The confluence of exaggeration, and exploitation, and hoaxes. Or, as Upworthy calls them, the "awesome," the "meaningful," and the "visual."

It's no coincidence that the defining website of 2013 was founded by the former executive director of MoveOn.org and the former managing editor of The Onion, and funded early on by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. And it's no coincidence that 2013 was the year Upworthy took off.

My colleague Tom Scocca has already said everything there is to say on smarm and the cynics who promote it. I can only confirm: from the perspective of the viral-mongers, in 2013 at least, smarm sells.

The Internet's bread and butter continues to be its ABCs: Animals, Babies, and other Cute things. Local news reports and bloopers, public proposals and public pranks, YouTube celebrities and YouTube shows, WINs and FAILs can all still put asses in the ergonomic office chairs.

But the most efficient traffic-suck of the year has been the smarmy, saccharine, self-indulgent triviality cynically peddled by Upworthy, Viral Nova, and their ilk. Amuses bouches masquerading as seven-course meals. They are the natural product of these synthetic times: You'll Never Believe How Little Substance This Story Actually Has.

Maybe next year we can resolve to stop chasing light-headed headlines up viral slopes and maybe spend some time at base camp getting to truly know a story before making a mountain out of it.

[illustration by Jim Cooke]