“Harlem Shake:” The Rise and Fall of a Meme

Remember a few weeks ago when those “Harlem Shake” videos on YouTube were going around? To refresh your memory, sometime around early February amateur web comedian George Miller came out with a compilation video on YouTube that featured a a small 19-second clip of him and his sketch group dancing to an obscure, electronica song called “Harlem Shake” by DJ Harry Rodrigues, who also performed under the stage name “Baauer.” The content of the video really doesn’t matter, what matters is the speed at which this video was imitated and the rate at which it became a “meme.” A “meme” is like a catchy slogan, song sample, image, etc. that is created simply to go viral and spread among the Internet community. However, while the propagation of the “Harlem Shake” videos and the amazing amount of search queries that accompany them have been heralded as a form of consumer trend setting, the “Harlem Shake” phenomenon was in all actuality propagated and pushed towards mass exposure by corporations.

Typically, meme generation comes from Internet users, memes themselves being forms of absurdist humor and not something companies or corporations could profit off. However, online advertising and marketing works in an entirely different way than traditional  advertising practices. Advertising online is all about website links and traffic, meaning that the focus for advertisers is on directing you to specific websites. If you could anticipate popular trends on the Internet, such as parodies of a popular song (Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”), then you can create content relevant to that trend in order to direct traffic to your ads or site. That’s exactly what happened in the case of the “Harlem Shake” videos.

In the days following the release of George Miller’s initial “Harlem Shake” video, several users on YouTube released similar videos that garnered several hundred thousand views. You’ll notice, if you’ve been on YouTube, that a hundred thousand views doesn’t seem like much compared to Justin Bieber or something, so the “Harlem Shake” still wasn’t completely viral yet. However, someone at Maker Studios, a Los Angeles based, Time-Warner subsidiary that makes money off YouTube traffic and views, must have noticed the potential for a trend and they subsequently released their “Harlem Shake” video on February 7th, which featured their entire staff dancing to the song. In the days following the release of Maker Studios’ “Harlem Shake” video their was a marked increase in the amount of search queries and views of the videos. The record label that had signed Baauer, Mad Decent (itself a reputable label) immediately started promoting the videos and several other viral sites, such as CollegeHumour, released their own content, all capitalizing on the popularity of the meme.

The meme would finally be pushed to its “relevant limits” when Today Show‘s  Al Roker danced to the song during a broadcast; the phenomenon had finally hit mainstream circulation and subsequently, its popularity ceased. In the weeks following the initial release and hype around the “Harlem Shake” videos, Google’s trend charts show a significant drop in search queries. As interesting as the life and death of a meme is, what’s more interesting is the hand that companies played in pushing a trend to circulation.

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