How Susan Spread and What It Means

I’ve done four interviews over the past few days — with the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Mainichi Shimbun (Japan) — which in one way or another have touched on the dramatic story of Susan Boyle, the dowdy and musically gifted contestant on Britain’s Got Talent who has become the new queen of both broadcast and participatory media.

What I’ve been telling all of them is that Boyle’s success is perhaps the most spectacular example to date of spreadability in action, and indeed, since we’ve discovered a fair number of busy corporate types out there who don’t feel like reading the eight installments of “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead,” I figured I’d use this space to spell out again some core principles of spreadable media and show how the Boyle phenomenon illustrates how they work.

The statistics are moving so fast that it is impossible to keep track of them but here’s the basic data points as reported on Monday by the Washington Post:

According to Visible Measures, which tracks videos from YouTube, MySpace and other video-sharing sites, all Boyle-oriented videos — including clips of her television interviews and her recently released rendition of “Cry Me a River,” recorded 10 years ago for a charity CD — have generated a total of 85.2 million views. Nearly 20 million of those views came overnight.

The seven-minute video that was first posted on YouTube and then widely circulated online easily eclipsed more high-profile videos that have been around for months. Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin has clocked in 34.2 million views, said the folks at Visible Measures, while President Obama’s victory speech on election night has generated 18.5 million views.

But it’s not just in online video where Boyle, the unassuming woman from a tiny Scottish town, has dominated. Her Wikipedia entry has attracted nearly 500,000 page views since it was created last Sunday. Over the weekend, her Facebook fan page was flooded with comments, at some points adding hundreds of new members every few minutes. The page listed 150,000 members at 1 p.m. Friday. By last night there were more than a million.

By comparison, the 2008 Season finale for American Idol, one of the highest rated programs on American broadcast television, attracted almost 32 million viewers, or between a third and a half the number of people who had watched Susan’s video as of Monday of this week. So, what’s happening here?

Contrary to what you may have read, Susan Boyle didn’t go “viral.” She hasn’t gained circulation through infection and contagion. The difference between “viral” and “spreadable” media has to do with the conscious agency of the consumers. In the viral model, nobody is in control. Things just go “viral.” In the Spreadability model, things spread because people choose to spread them and we need to understand what motivates their decision and what facilitates the circulation.

While she originated on British broadcast television, her entry into the American market was shaped more by the conscious decisions of 87 plus million people who choose to pass her video along to friends, families, work mates, and fellow fans than by any decision by network executives to put her on the airwaves in the first place.

This is not to say that the original video was not professionally produced and edited in such a way as to maximize the emotional impact of what happened to her at that particular talent composition. This is not to say that our interest in the content wasn’t shaped by our general familarity with the genre conventions of reality television (leading us to expect another William Hung kind of moment) or by our particular perceptions and investments in one Simon Cowell, whose boyish grin and sheepish expression represents the ultimate payoff for her spectacular performance (which we can appreciate because we’ve seen American Idol and know what a tough-minded SOB Simon can be). And that’s not to say that the visibility of Susan Boyle hasn’t been amplified as she’s gotten interviewed on Good Morning America and spoofed on the Tonight Show, to cite two examples. We have to understand the Susan Boyle phenomenon as occurring at the intersection between broadcast media (or to use Amanda Lotz’s term, television in the post-network era.) In other words, this is convergence culture at work.

The Susan Boyle phenomenon would not have played out the same way if there wasn’t YouTube, if there weren’t social networks, if there weren’t Twitter. Indeed, the very similar video of Paul Potts making a similarly surprising success on the same program generated nowhere near the same level of circulation a year ago (though it may have also prepared the way for the public’s interest in this story). What allowed the Susan Boyle video to travel so far so fast was that it could travel so far so fast.

For most of the people who saw it and decided to pass it along, they had a sense of discovery. They could anticipate that they were sharing the video with people who probably hadn’t seen it already, precisely because the content was not yet being broadcast on commercial television. The fans found Susan Boyle before the networks did — much like that old saw that by the time a trend makes it to the cover of Time Magazine, it’s already over. There was an infrastructure in place — across multiple communication systems — which would allow anyone to share this content with anyone else who they thought would like to see it with minimal effort. We can send links. We can embed the content in our blogs.

The role of Twitter in all of this is most interesting. Twitter Twits did what Twitter Twits do best — they tweeted alerts about an interesting bit of content and were able to embed micro-links so their followers could quickly access the content. I think of Twitter as like a swarm of bees that spread out in all directions, searching for interesting materials to share. When someone finds it, they come back to the hive, do a little honey dance, and send the swarm scampering behind them. This is how collective intelligence outsmarts the broadcast decision-makers: The Twitter Tribes can figure out what content the audience wants to see because the Twitter Tribes are the audience, making decisions in real time.

Equally important is that we had the agency to decide which content we wanted to pass along — out of all of the possible video clips posted on YouTube last week or indeed, out of all of the many segments of media content which are circulating around us.

We believe that we can only understand what happened here by identify the choices which consumers made as they decided to pass along this content and not that content. The USA Today on Monday sought to identify a range of different motives which shaped the decisions to pass along this particular content: “Vindication . . . Surprise . . . Guilt . . . Shame . . . Psychology . . . Hope . . . Distraction . . . Empowerment . . . Authenticity . . . Spiritual Solace.”

There’s no need to identify a single cause for why people spread this content. Different people spread this content for different reasons. Hell, often, the same person spreads this content for different reasons. I sent the link via e-mail to my wife with a note saying “want to feel warm and fuzzy,” to a close friend with a note suggesting “this will crack you up,” and to my Twitter and Facebook mobs with the suggestion it illustrates something important about reality television because you wouldn’t believe this if you saw it in a movie. My sharing of the video meant something different in each of these relationships. We can certainly identify a range of common reasons for why the emotional structure of this video might motivate people to circulate it.

Does the wide-spread circulation of reality television suggest the triviality of what constitutes public interests? I don’t think we can answer that question without knowing what we are using Susan Boyle to talk about. Her meaning doesn’t reside in the video itself — we won’t exhaust it no matter how many times with watch it. The meaning rests in the conversations that Susan Boyle enables us to have with each other. As it starts to circulate, the Susan Boyle video gets inserted into all kinds of ongoing conversations across a range of different communities, so that I’ve stumbled into prayer circles for Susan Boyle; I’ve found scientists talking about how someone with that body could produce such a sound; I’ve seen discussions amongst Karaoki singers about her techniques, and I’ve seen reality television fans trying to explain why her success would never be possible given the rules of American Idol which exclude someone her age from competing in the first place. Susan Boyle circulates because she’s meaningful on many different levels and after a while, all of this has started to go meta so that we are spreading Susan’s videos to talk about how fast they are being spread.

For many of the people who are spreading her videos, the transaction is understood through the lens of a gift economy. We share her because she allows us to make someone we care about have a somewhat better day. We share her because of what she allows us to say about ourselves, our world, and our relationships. I sent Susan to my wife as something like a Facebook Gift — a short, quick, friendly gesture on a day when we weren’t going to see each other until much later.

Yes, there were other groups who had other motives for getting me to pass along the content — the producers of the programme and the network on which it aired, perhaps YouTube itself — but their motives had very little to do with why I chose to share that video with people I cared about. So my circulation of the video needed to be negotiated between their interests and mine.

The fact that YouTube makes it easy to embed the content makes it easier for me to share it. The fact that Bit.ly allows me to reduce the length of the url allows me to tweet about it. And all of these technical innovations makes it that much easier for the video to spread, but at the end of the day, it also spreads because I and all the rest of us have become more literate about social networking, because we are linked to more people and have more regular contact with them, because we now often interact with each other through sharing meaningful bits of media content.

Keep in mind a fundamental fact: many of the 97 plus million people who downloaded the video are part of a surplus audience from the perspective of the people who produced and marketed Britain’s Got Talent. Indeed, beyond a certain point, Susan Boyle’s rapid visibility becomes a liability rather than an asset. Keep in mind that Boyle stars in a British program which does not get commercial distribution in the United States. I can’t turn on a television network — cable or broadcast — and watch the next installment of Britain’s Got Talent. I can’t go on Hulu and download that content. And I can’t at present go on iTunes and buy this content. Market demand is dramatically outpacing supply.

What I can do, though, is consume illegal downloads of the series via various torrents or fan distribution sites, which have the flexibility to get the content into circulation without having to negotiate international deals or work through protectionist policies which make it hard to bring international content into the American market. Even with Cowell’s production company already having working relations with multiple American networks, my bet is that he can’t get that show on the air quickly enough for Americans to be able to catch up with the Brits.

Sure, Simon Cowell has already signed her to a contract and talks about how “”there’s every chance Susan Boyle will have the number one album in America” if she appears on Oprah . But the record can’t go on sale fast enough to capitalize on this burst of public interest and by the time it reaches the market, there’s a good chance that her 15 minutes of fame will have expired.

Wired tells us that even where the media producers might have made money from the spread of Sarah’s video, they are so far choosing not to do so: “a Google spokeswoman responded to our e-mail and phone queries with some surprising news: “That video is not being monetized.” We’ve contacted Sony (Simon Cowell’s label) and FremantleMedia (the show’s producer, owned by RTL Group not Sony as appeared in this update earlier) to try to determine why the $500,000 or more Boyle’s video should have generated so far is apparently being left on the table — despite the fact that both companies are confirmed revenue-sharing partners of YouTube.” So, whatever calculations have gone into getting us to help spread this video, they don’t make sense in terms of a simple and direct economic equation. This isn’t about counting impressions and raking in the cash.

Keep in mind that what we’ve seen so far is her first appearance in a season long competition and the implication of this blockage becomes clear. I’ve argued here that piracy often reflects market failures on the part of producers rather than moral failures on the part of consumers. It isn’t that people will turn to illegal downloads because they want the content for free. My bet is that many of them would pay for this content but it is not legally being offered to them. We can compare this to the global interest generated by Ken Jenning’s phenomenal run on Jeopardy: Jeopardy was already syndicated in markets around the world so when he generated buzz, he drew people back to the local broadcaster who was selling the content in their markets. They could tune in and see day by day whether he stayed in the game. Right now, everyone’s still acting as if Susan Boyle was only one video but they will wake up tomorrow or the next day and discover that lots of those people want to see what happens to her next.

When many of us write about the global circulation of media, the American circulation of British reality television isn’t necessarily what comes first to mind. Indeed, there’s some kind of mental block in terms of understanding this content as international in the first place. Yet, there is already a strong fan base in the United States for British media content which had already been downloading and circulating Britain’s Got Talent, even though no commercial producer had guessed that this series might generate this kind of American interest. And that fan base is now in a position where they may need to service Susan’s growing audience.

Part of the reasons Americans like Susan Boyle is that she’s so damned British. USA Today says her story is like “a Disney movie,” but it isn’t: it’s like a British movie, like Calendar Girls or Billy Elliot or The Full Monty, one of those down to earth dramas where average Brits cut across class and taste boundaries and do something extraordinary. The mixture of gritty realism, portly stars, eccentricity, class consciousness and wild-eyed optimism is what draws many of us to British media in the first place.

We are used to talking about things that could only happen in America. Well, Susan Boyle is something that could only happen in Great Britain — get used to it because the next one will be something that can only happen in India or Japan. When we talk about pop cosmopolitanism, we are most often talking about American teens doing cosplay or listening to K-Pop albums, not church ladies gathering to pray for the success of a British reality television contestant, but it is all part of the same process. We are reaching across borders in search of content, zones which were used to organize the distribution of content in the Broadcast era, but which are much more fluid in an age of participatory culture and social networks.

We live in a world where content can be accessed quickly from any part of the world assuming it somehow reaches our radar and where the collective intelligence of the participatory culture can identify content and spread the word rapidly when needed. Susan Boyle in that sense is a sign of bigger things to come — content which wasn’t designed for our market, content which wasn’t timed for such rapid global circulation, gaining much greater visibility than ever before and networks and production companies having trouble keeping up with the rapidly escalating demand.

And as we discover we like someone like Susan Boyle, we seek out more information. Suddenly charity records she made years ago spring up videos on YouTube. Suddenly there’s a flood of interest on Wikipedia about this previously unknown figure. And people are seeking out videos of Elaine Paige, the queen of British stage musicals, who Susan identified as her role model. Many Americans had never heard of Paige before so we can chart dramatic increases in downloads on her videos though they are dwarfed by the Susan Boyle original. Most of the thousands of comments posted on the Paige videos make unfortunate comparisons with Susan Boyle, suggesting that even though she has been a much bigger star historically, has a string of commercial successes, that for this week at least, Susan Boyle’s got a more dedicated fan base. Just to give us a baseline, some of the Elaine Paige YouTube videos reach more than a million viewers, where-as the rest don’t get over 100,000. My theory is that Susan Boyle’s fan base have discovered some of them and not others, accounting for the huge gap in traffic.

Or consider the fact that Susan Boyle gained more than a million Facebook subscribers in less than a week at a time when Oprah and Ashton Kutcher have been battling it out to see who could be the first to get a million subscribers on Twitter. (Yes, Facebook has a much larger user base than Twitter but it’s still an impressive accomplishment!) This is not to say that long-term Oprah could help Susan Boyle open up her record to a much larger audience, just that in this frenzy of interest, she doesn’t need Oprah or any other old style broadcast celebrity to turn YouTube on its ear.

So, that’s what Susan Boyle can teach us about Spreadability. So what happens next? Talk among yourselves. And while you are at it, spread the word.

Comments

  1. Just a thought… with the exception of Twitter, the technology isn’t much different this year as opposed to last. I think the material itself hindered Paul Potts from being quite the sensation that Susan Boyle now is.

    Most Americans aren’t familiar with opera; we recognized a good voice, but couldn’t appreciate his performance the same way we can both recognize and appreciate a song from Les Mis. High culture and low haven’t entirely assimilated yet, and I suspect opera will be one of the last holdouts.

  2. It would be interesting to compare Boyle’s spreadability with Andrew Johnston’s from the last year’s show. A very similar case: a choir boy from an obscure town who was bullied at school for his singing performs Pie Jesu and sends chills down Cowell’s spine.

    You’ll find the editing almost identical, too, which makes one think that this year the show’s producers found the pieces needed to replicate past success.

    Here’s a YouTube link (if it can be posted here): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9K2EA8SWhh8

  3. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both dawned on my awareness with a ferocity similar to the Susan Boyle Experience, in that these two improbable-looking performers weren’t remotely electrifying until the music started.

    Jim Nabors, on the other hand, seemed to play that action potential to its fullest, by creating an initial, conversational impression that utterly contradicted the shock of his singing presence.

    That’s why the tears that Susan Boyle’s appearance brought to my eyes felt, not only like a vindication of “the common person”, but a familiar vindication.

    I think the respective grassroots, garden-variety castes from which these two performers come changes the definition of “ordinary”, at least for the duration of the song.

  4. I think there’s also a definite socio-economic element at play (if I can appropriate the term to describe this)…

    Globally, due to the economy, we’re feeling rather hopeless as a society, and like a Disney movie, or any of those British films you mention, the idea that the ordinary can reveal itself to be the extraordinary has additional appeal. Western society has a need to feel better about itself at this point in time, and as we saw during the American presidential election, there is a definite hunger for “hope” and to see our dreams, even the modest ones, fulfilled.

    Susan Boyle has become an Everywoman, a reflection of those hope and dreams to which we all aspire, and which many of us are personally feeling gloomy and despairing of.