Web Puts Fame Within Our Reach, But It’s As Fickle As Ever

By Patrick May San Jose Mercury News

Karen X. Cheng wanted to do two things: learn to dance hip-hop in a year, and then share her joy with the rest of the planet.

She posted her two-minute dance video on YouTube one Tuesday morning in July. Facebook friends passed it around, and social media sites Reddit and Mashable grabbed it and flung it every which way.

By bedtime Wednesday, "Girl Learns to Dance in a Year" had 280,000 YouTube views. By Thursday, nearly a million had watched Cheng finding her groove. It got another million hits by Friday, and it's been hurtling through Internet space ever since.

"I'm overwhelmed," said the 26-year-old Web designer from San Francisco, still reeling from her byte-borne debut. "You can share a video all you want, but you can't make people reshare it. My message must have really resonated."

Uh, yeah.

What about the rest of us? With a clever idea, couldn't we all be as wildly successful as Cheng? We decided to make a video and find out.

We explored the changing nature of fame through our own quest to go viral, using our homemade video as a touchstone for the broader evolution of celebrity on the Internet today. And it's not only the Justin Biebers and Ashton Kutchers who have harnessed the power of social media to supercharge their careers.

The Internet and tools like Twitter and Instagram have turned scores of nobodies into somebodies. Some had huge talents; others relied on equal amounts of pluck and luck. But they all found cyberfame in ways that would not have been possible 20 years ago.

Our video was made to provide us a peephole into that phenomenon. But when we reached out for guidance from the social media mavens, the "experts" were all over the map.

Some warned us that it's impossible to "make" a video go viral; others assured us that by following the right steps any idiot could do it.

So, we brainstormed like Mad Men, kicking around storylines, from videotaping dogs sharing the driver's seat with their owners (dogs go viral, right?) to unleashing a herd of goats into the newsroom on deadline (chaos in the workplace!).

We settled on a spoof on our obsession with tech toys. Our video introduces the "iChicken," Silicon Valley's latest gotta-have-it gadget, just in time for the holidays.

Bay Area News Group reporters and photographers showed up with live chickens at coffee shops, city sidewalks, train stations, even at Apple's iPad Air launch in San Francisco.

The video bordered on slapstick, capturing those familiar scenes of digital distraction: drivers fixated on devices at stoplights; a romantic dinner interrupted by that glance under the table at a glowing screen. But instead of smartphones as the culprit, the iChicken had become our obsession.

Virality was just a breath away, right? Not so fast. We quickly discovered that if there were a foolproof formula for going viral, every cat owner with an iPhone would have achieved fame by now.

Fame ain't what it used to be. Red-hot and out-of-the-blue, the online notoriety Cheng and other individuals, companies and special-interest groups are achieving today are a product of our digital era.

As sharing technologies blur social boundaries, wiping away lines once separating private from public and local from global, the concept of branding has been turned inside out. It's as if the whole Internet were now some jampacked casting call in the cloud.

"The very fiber of fame has changed," said author and branding consultant Peter Shankman, who calls the viral video the "metaphor" for this new kind of celebrity. "The generation growing up now knows that fame can be achieved not only on a movie screen but by making a video that blows up on YouTube.

Yet while fame's much easier to grab, it's also harder than ever to hold on to because it unfolds in this sort of short-attention-span theater."

While stages like Pinterest and SoundCloud are there waiting for us all to shine, this re-engineered fame comes wrapped in as much illusion as the old-fashioned variety.

There's "this belief that the Internet is this amazing place to be discovered," said Jason Cieslak, president, Pacific Rim, for global strategic branding firm Siegel+Gale. "But while a lot of people will try, most of them will fail over time and eventually give up."

Cheng was the exception, and she's convinced her success was no fluke. In a blog post, she offered tips on how she did it, including keeping the video short (she shaved it to under two minutes), packing it with emotion (the viewer vicariously shares the hard work and dedication she put into the project), and most of all: telling a story.

"It's not just a story about dancing," she wrote. "It's about having a dream and not knowing how to get there, but starting anyway.

"People want stories. That's what all TV, movies and books are. Tell a story."

On the morning of Nov. 19, as we posted our nearly three-minute iChicken video on YouTube, we imagined tens of thousands, if not millions of viewers, clicking on our clip and passing it on. That's the thing about achieving Internet fame: It looks so damn easy.

Give it a catchy but not-too-clever name so it's descriptive and easy-to-search, our experts told us. Cheng tweaked her title several times so that it naturally followed "Hey did you see the video of (UNDERSCORE)? Fill in the blank," she wrote on her blog. "That's your title."

So we named ours "Introducing the iChicken."

Launch early in the week, our advisers suggested, when people are back at work, to build up momentum long before the weekend. And tweet it out to everyone we could think of, they said, including the influencers we'd never met. So we launched on a Tuesday morning and tweeted our brains out.

With Google Plus, emails, Facebook, Instagram and even a boost from social media superstar Guy Kawasaki, "Apple nails it again: iChicken. What the cluck?" we tried to create the buzz that would make iChicken a hit. A link from Kawasaki, the self-dubbed "former chief evangelist of Apple" with more than 5.5 million people in his Google Plus circles and almost 1.4 million Twitter followers, should have been the golden egg.

And, yes, YouTube's view meter started moving. By noon, we'd been viewed in 16 countries, including Sweden and Fiji. Encouraging comments, "I want one!" started pouring in. Yet the YouTube click box had moved up to only 1,025 by Day One.

Still, we held on to hope. Tomorrow, we go viral!

We had found ourselves in the same roiling digital waters that every business, entertainer and content provider in our hyperconnected world must now navigate. Whether it's bedroom bootstrappers promoting their talents from an in-home recording studio or large corporations pushing shaving cream or HoneyBaked hams, branding today is a messy mosh pit of crowdsourced chatter.

"Your image is no longer controlled by your ad agency or designers but by your customers and their relationship to you," said tech marketing consultant Andy Smith. He's co-author of "The Dragonfly Effect," a sort of Frommer's guide for navigating social media as an agent for change. "And if you screw up, you can no longer ignore it or pave it over with PR."

Branding has been redefined by this mad scramble into social networking, but none of it's a cakewalk.

Bryan Kramer, a social media strategist with PureMatter in San Jose, Calif., said that "while going viral is the cherry on the top, you can't force things to go viral; you can only make them as good as you can and hope for the best." Or as Smith sees it: "Virality is not a strategy; it's an outcome."

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