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The word ‘viral’ has lost its meaning

(Simoul Alva for The Washington Post)

In late November, popular influencers including Emily Mariko and Rachel Mansfield began posting videos of themselves making “the viral roasted feta soup.”

“Feta is having another moment!” the Instagram account @GrilledCheeseSocial posted along with the recipe to the soup. “The viral #roastedfetasoup turned mac and cheese, because that’s just who I am,” posted another influencer, touting the recipe.

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The only issue, as social media strategist Rachel Karten pointed out, was that there were only 19 posts on Instagram and 14 posts on TikTok featuring the soup. “Clearly not viral,” she tweeted.

In 2024, framing products, recipes, behaviors, clothing items, and more as having gone “viral” has become common: The viral mango ice cream. The viral Amazon scarf coat. The viral sushi cups, the viral bread dip, the viral H&M dress, the viral pizza, the viral French hot chocolate, the viral snow globe cocktail, the viral dresser hack, the viral clothing tuck, even the viral “chickle,” a pickle-themed pigs-in-a-blanket-like snack.

But none of these items has gained much traction on the internet, and the videos about them have amassed only modest views. None of them went “viral.”

Indeed, the nature of virality has shifted radically over the past decade as the internet has fractured into uncounted disparate algorithms, platforms, and niche communities. The volume of content being churned out every day has skyrocketed, the life cycle of each piece of media has grown shorter and social media platforms continue to inflate public metrics, devaluing previously impressive online stats.

All of these factors have rendered the term “viral” nearly meaningless, say experts, and have led to a condition we’ll call “viralflation.” The term speaks to the diminished meaning of virality. If everything is labeled viral, then is nothing viral?

“Back in the day, 1 million views was the thing,” said Marcus Stringer, a partner manager at Social Blade, a social media analytics platform. “That meant you’d gone viral, and you’d get picked up by news agencies around the world. Now, tens of millions of views is the norm for top YouTube channels. Soon, 20 million views will eventually become the norm.”

“Because the concept of virality has been so watered down, truly viral pieces of content must reach hundreds of millions of people at a scale that’s increasingly unattainable for anyone but MrBeast,” said Lara Cohen, vice president of partners and business development at Linktree, a platform that allows creators to aggregate links to their social media profiles on one page. MrBeast is the internet name of Jimmy Donaldson, YouTube’s most watched creator.

A decade and a half ago, there was a clear delineation between viral content and the vast majority of media that users would encounter every day. The internet was smaller, and most sharing was manual (people emailing and messaging links to each other) or via early internet aggregators such as sites like Digg and StumbleUpon.

Viral content, such as early YouTube videos like Chocolate Rain, a cryptically poetic song about systemic racism, or the Bed Intruder Song Remix, a catchy song set to a local news broadcast about a home invader, emerged slowly, so the life span of a viral video was long. Some content remained viral for up to a year, worming its way through the internet as it gained traction. Chocolate Rain took months before it found an audience.

“The Antoine Dodson, ‘Hide your kids, hide your wife’ “bed intruder” video got 810 upvotes on r/funny back in 2010, and that was considered viral,” said Don Caldwell, editor in chief of Know Your Meme, a website that catalogues memes and online cultural ephemera. “The meme Sad Keanu was one of the biggest memes in 2010 with only around 2,500 total upvotes on Reddit. Today, to hit the front page of Reddit, on the upper end you’d need at least 30,000 to 40,000 upvotes.”

When social media platforms began to switch to algorithmic feeds optimized for engagement in the mid 2010s, the viral content cycle accelerated, experts said. Brands began recognizing the power of virality and started to attempt to manufacture it. Content creators joined engagement groups where they’d reshare each other’s content in attempts to force virality.

Platforms themselves also began to realize the power of virality and sought to generate it, or at least generate the appearance of it. This was the beginning of the era of viralflation. Facebook helped lower the industry-wide threshold for what counted as a video view, and began inflating view counts on various Facebook videos in an effort to make them appear more viral than they were. According to a lawsuit filed against Facebook in California federal court in 2016, viewership metrics on some videos had been artificially increased by up to 900 percent. In 2019, Facebook settled the claim for $40 million.

Then TikTok broke into the mainstream in 2020, lowering the bar even further for what counted as a “view.” While a view on Facebook counts after three seconds of watch time, a view on TikTok is simply an impression, meaning the video was served to a user for at least a fraction of a second on screen. According to the company, TikTok also counts each loop of the video as a view, allowing videos to rake in massive view counts.

“The speed at which we cycle through trends and sort of moments of virality on the internet is faster now largely because of TikTok,” Cohen said.

This has created an arms race among tech platforms to see which could inflate metrics the most.

“If you keep on giving people views, they’re probably going to make more content,” said Kyla Scanlon, a content creator and author of the book “In This Economy?: How Money & Markets Really Work,” which breaks down financial and economic concepts, “and so it’s a product incentive for these platforms.”

After Elon Musk took over Twitter, he revamped its system for counting views, muddying the water even further. Some tweets from private accounts with zero followers amassed public view counts in the hundreds, leading many tech spectators to question Musk’s system for counting “views.” Last year, a reporter for The Post posted a tweet to a private, locked account with zero followers. Within minutes, the tweet amassed more than 700 views, by Twitter’s count.

“There’s been an incentive to have these numbers look bigger because they look better to advertisers, so there’s a financial incentive to cause this viral inflation,” Caldwell said.

A new class of content creators also has raised the bar for what’s considered viral.

“When MrBeast started to explode, things really started to change in the landscape,” Stringer said. “People didn’t consider [earlier metrics of virality] viral anymore, because he’s getting multi millions of views per video.”

Coco Mocoe, a trend forecaster in Los Angeles, said that along with these shifts, users are also consuming a higher total amount of content online per day, especially members of Generation Z, those born between 1998 and 2012. They are more likely to consume all forms of media through the internet and social platforms, rather than via newspapers or TV. And, much of that content is short form and less than 60 seconds long.

“I think one of the reasons that metrics have become so inflated,” she said, “is that even if a video does get 10 million views, the average length of videos are so short. The average young person is watching hundreds of videos within a day, whereas back in 2015, I’d maybe watch no more than 10 videos a day, because each were five to 10 minutes long.”

“The main reason there are bigger numbers now is because people are consuming so much more content in a given sitting,” she added.

This has made virality more ephemeral. “There’s not that same … permanence,” Mocoe said. “If you’re watching 50 videos with 1 million views, you’re less likely to remember one as opposed to a decade ago, when you might only watch five videos a day, and just one would have 1 million views.”

Virality is also increasingly niche as the internet has separated into disparate communities. A piece of content can go viral in specific regions, or only within a certain demographic or interest-based community.

“When someone used to go viral, they could leverage that to be on ‘Ellen’ the next day and have that moment of instant fame,” Cohen added. “Now, there’s a million different places to show up on the internet if you’re a creator. You can sort of have a big splash within a particular community, but it probably won’t resonate beyond that community.”

Viralflation is having a business impact in the creator economy. Several creators who spoke to The Post said they feel pressure to up the bar. Brands have become so hooked on bigger and bigger numbers that they look down on engagement numbers that would have been perfectly respectable just a couple of years ago.

Caldwell, of Know Your Meme, said that the website has restructured its editorial operations because of viralflation. “In the beginning, people were more generalized and we’d be covering the whole internet,” he said. “These days we have people on the TikTok beat, on the gaming beat, on the anime beat. There’s just so much more content going ‘viral’ these days … So people on the team are less general and more specific.”

For the average consumer, viralflation has made it increasingly difficult to tell what is and isn’t actually viral. Because we no longer have any shared sense of virality, it makes it easier for people who don’t understand the mechanics of the internet to fall for fake viral trends.

“The word ‘viral’ lost all meaning,” said Sami Sage, co-founder of Betches, a women’s digital media company. “People’s ability to understand the media environment has been completely destroyed.”

Mocoe said the word “viral” has become a buzzword that people use essentially to trick users into engaging with content. “Saying something is viral now, even when it isn’t already, could generate interest and potentially up its chances of actually going viral,” she said.

So claiming that something is “viral” these days is a bit like your local diner claiming it has the “world’s best cup of coffee,” Caldwell said - nice marketing, but not necessarily true.

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