2015: The Year in Viral Sensations
Feel good, especially feel bad then feel good, stories dominated social media in 2015. The feel-bad-first stories all begin in a similar way: Ahmed Mohamed was taken to jail for bringing a clock to school; Tim Tai was excluded from a protest; and Sean O’Brien was made fun of for shimmying in public. All three were excluded in real life and then radically included on social media, going viral as a result. For Jim Cantore, the definition of a feel good story, excitement about thundersnow proved contagious.
And then there are oddball outliers, like Emo Kylo Ren — heir to the viral throne of @DepressedDarth.
Do people who go viral for different reasons go viral in the same way? Will any of the 2015 viral sensations last, or are their fifteen minutes of fame collectively over?
Sean O’Brien, The Dancing Man
In March, a video of Liverpool native Sean O’Brien dancing his heart out was posted on 4chan. Caption: “Spotted this specimen trying to dance the other week. He stopped when he saw us laughing.”
The 4chan thread attracted hundreds of cruel jokes at Sean’s expense before LA writer Cassandra Fairbanks tracked Sean down on Twitter to voice her support. Others rushed to defend Sean and he snowballed into a sensation. A GoFundMe was launched and a party organized in his honour in Hollywood — Meghan Trainor, Monica Lewinsky, and Moby in attendance.
How did the faith-in-humanity-restored phenomenon play out on social media?
On March 6, Sean joined Twitter as @DancingManFound to respond to writer Cassandra’s inquiries. As Cassandra had already drummed up interest in Sean’s story, the tweet received 35,616 favourites and retweets. The story was picked up on major news outlets and crossed over into celebrity mags, including People, fuelling higher engagement on March 7.
Engagement lulled until the Hollywood party on May 23. That first week in March when he went viral, Sean averaged 3,586.8 likes or retweets per tweet. The week following the Hollywood party, June 1 to 8, Sean received 1,572 engagements per tweet.
For the rest of the year? From June 8 2015 to January 1 2016, Sean averaged 10.2 engagements per tweet. From the first week he went viral to the present, engagement with @DancingManFound has dropped 99.7%. As the Crowdbabble data visualization above shows, Sean’s virality faded quickly. But Sean sounds okay with that. Back in May, as he told People, “I’m not a celebrity and never will be.” With 92,556 likes or retweets total in 2015 and a current follower base of 71,265, Sean O’Brien is still more famous than most will ever be.
Ahmed Mohamed, Clockmaking Freshman
On September 14 in Irving, Texas, student Ahmed Mohamed brought a homemade clock to school. His teacher quickly decided it might be a bomb and Ahmed was taken to the local police station for questioning. The police chief later described him on camera as “passive aggressive” and suspicious.
The way Ahmed was antagonized was broadcast by local news as anti-STEM and anti-Muslim; news articles about him climbed to the front page of Reddit. Support poured in: scholarships, internship opportunities, and even praise from NASA and President Obama. On September 16, Ahmed joined Twitter as @IStandWithAhmed and gained 37,000 followers within 24 hours.
The graph above, made using Crowdbabble’s engagement tools for Twitter, shows the week Ahmed went viral. In those seven days, Ahmed averaged 10,121 likes or retweets per tweet.
Two months later, @IStandWithAhmed received 801 engagements per tweet.
In those two intervening months, Ahmed’s family sued the City of Irving. The lawsuit was criticized by some as opportunistic and may have put Twitter users off, though Ahmed still has 107,200 followers. Ahmed and his parents also moved to Qatar, accepting a scholarship from the Qatar Foundation. With a drop in engagement of 92.1% over two months, it’s likely that @IStandWithAhmed’s time in the spotlight is up.
Student photojournalist Tim Tai was trying to complete an assignment for ESPN when he was blocked from photographing a protest, by the protesters, at the University of Missouri. On November 8, a video of Tim being turned away was uploaded to YouTube.
Like Ahmed, with his viral event, Tim Tai touched the zeitgeist. In Tim’s case, the video was seen as the perfect expression of the overly sensitive trigger-warning generation — plus the death of freedom of the press.
Journalists with large follower bases celebrated Tim on Twitter and a The New York Times ran a story on the protesters who blocked him (linking to his @nonorganical Twitter handle directly). The week he went viral, Tim averaged 304 engagements per tweet and skyrocketed to more than 10,000 followers.
The graph below, made in Crowdbabble, shows the volume that Tim tweeted that week and the engagement his tweets received.
As of January 8 2016, Tim is tweeting less often and receives 7.5 engagements per tweet. He has 9,480 followers, 1,000 fewer than he did at the peak of his virality.
Jim Cantore, The World’s Most Excited Weatherman
What could be more thrilling than thundersnow? Absolutely nothing, according to enthusiastic weatherman Jim Cantore.
On February 15, Jim’s broadcast from Plymouth, Massachusetts was uploaded to YouTube by The Weather Channel and has since racked up 4.2 million views. As with Ahmed Mohamed and Sean O’Brien, cable news outlets picked up the story. Overnight Jim Cantore became known as the world’s most excited weatherman.
For @JimCantore on Twitter, this has translated into more than 2,583.1 engagements per week over the past four months, well after Jim went viral. Zooming in, Jim’s engagement looks nothing like those of his viral peers: it’s consistently high. The below visualization from Crowdbabble shows his favourites, retweets, replies, and mentions on Twitter from October 1 2015 to January 1 2016.
The excited weatherman now averages 21.2 likes, comments, or retweets per tweet. Why has he attracted double Sean O’Brien’s engagement? Cantore is more excited about Twitter than his viral peers: he averages 497 tweets per month. As a result, @JimCantore is began 2016 with 331,964 Twitter followers: more followers, more engagement.
Emo Kylo Ren, The Angsty Cape-Wearer
On the fictional end of the viral spectrum, no one has been more successful this year than Emo Kylo Ren, or @KyloR3n. Following in the footsteps of his [SPOILER ALERT?] grandfather @DepressedDarth, Kylo Ren’s frustrations and feelings have attracted 685,873 followers.
Sad Kylo created his account four days after the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As shown in the Crowdbabble visualization above, Kylo kept his viral momentum going; he frequently shared witty quips invoking the franchise. Will Kylo stay viral?
With so few days online in 2015, it’s hard to know. Providing that the character doesn’t turn into a sunny optimist in the next two Star Wars movies, @KyloR3n’s follower base could keep growing. The one foreboding sign is the account’s mentions, which have dipped over the past week as The Force Awakens fades at the box office.
Focusing Crowdbabble‘s Response Time tool on mentions, the above visualization shows a decline from more than 200 per day to almost 0 from January 4 to January 9.
15 Minutes, or Fame Forever?
Following and retweeting Ahmed, Sean, and Tim was a satisfying way for Twitter users jump on the right side of a hot button issue and showcase themselves doing it. The heartwarming nature of the turn of events for the three sensations — from cruel to overwhelmingly positive — drew in users, if only briefly.
Now, all three are experiencing a decline in followers. On average, every week Ahmed loses 1,026 followers, Sean loses 500 followers, and Tim loses 44 followers. The three cannot recreate the moments that made them famous: their exclusion and subsequent floods of support online by their nature can really only be one-offs.
Can anyone go viral in the same way? If liking you can make people feel part of something that says “faith in humanity restored,” the answer is yes. The feeling of satisfaction that comes from rushing to the rescue of a person wronged is likely what drove people to follow Sean, Ahmed, and Tim on Twitter. Giving social media users the opportunity to feel like upstanding human beings — when it’s as easy for them as a trackpad tap — is obviously a key ingredient in virality.
Not everyone’s viral fame is fading fast: Jim Cantore gains an average of 923.75 followers each week. Emo Kylo Ren is growing exponentially, with 124,002 new followers last week alone. Perhaps Jim and Kylo are staying viral because they are able to continue delivering the thing that made them viral in the first place. Jim’s excited weather videos and Kylo’s sardonic jokes, like Alex from Target‘s candid snaps, made them famous and are keeping them famous.
Who will go viral in 2016? Keep an eye out for those feel bad then feel good stories, overexcited oddballs, and anything Star Wars related.