Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

“Fame, fame, fame… what’s your [screen-]name?”

Chris Wilson has an article up on Slate about the prospects for becoming famous on Web 2.0:

I crunched the numbers to find out what percentage of YouTube videos hit it big, cracking even 10,000 or 100,000 views. The results: You might have better odds playing the lottery than of becoming a viral video sensation.

His method:

On Friday, May 22, I used Web-crawling software to capture the URLs of more than 10,000 YouTube videos as soon as they were uploaded. Over the next month, I checked in regularly to see how many views each video had gotten.

His findings:

After 31 days, only 250 of my YouTube hatchlings had more than 1,000 views—that comes out to 3.1 percent after you exclude the videos that were taken down before the month was up. A mere 25, 0.3 percent, had more than 10,000 views. Meanwhile, 65 percent of videos failed to break 50 views; 2.8 percent had zero views. That’s the good news: Your video is slightly more likely to get more than 1,000 views than it is to get none at all.

Which he uses justify his conclusion:

When the odds of even 1,000 people viewing your video in a month’s time are only 3 percent, however, it’s tough to argue that hitting it big on YouTube is anything more than dumb luck.

The core assumption of his whole experiment (which he pays lip service to but doesn’t unpack) is that a large portion of YouTube videos are created and posted with the goal of fame in mind.


If someone was seriously interested in YouTube “fame”—defined by Wilson conservatively as cracking 10,000 views—they could begin by posting many videos. All else being equal, with every additional video posted the odds multiply of hitting on that one “hit” of every three-hundred and thirty three. Post 10 and they’re at 1 in 33, post 100 (which is far from inconceivable) and they’re at 1 in 3.3.

And that’s not even considering the impact of self-promotion and reputation building (not difficult to do on-line with a bit of initiative). Further, if in fact someone was seriously interested in fame, they would also put serious effort into making videos that appeal strategically to those target communities within which they are simultaneously promoting themselves and building their reputations.

My biggest issue is that Wilson makes no mention of quality. In keeping with the lottery analogy he begins with, the question of merit is completely ignored (perhaps as a projection of hope that the yardstick of quality wouldn’t be applied to his crappy piece). He further stacks the deck away from considerations of quality by framing his piece with the anecdote of the “Charlie Bit Me” video, whose “discovery” was exceptionally attributable to dumb luck. In hindsight I’m surprised he didn’t go with something Boxxy. And returning to “Charlie Bit Me,” its initial discovery may have been a fluke, but its prominence has everything to do with its unbelievable cuteness (a major motivator for a lot of people to advance memes).

Overall I suppose this is a pretty banal article to take issue with, but I found this sentence in his concluding paragraph particularly annoying:

Not everyone uses YouTube to launch their showbiz or political career, but the potential to do so is central to the Web 2.0 narrative that figures in so many newsmagazine panegyrics.

He seems to me to be blatantly misreading the Web 2.0 narrative. Of course it doesn’t make sense for everybody to be famous, that would defeat the meaning of the word. What’s critical about the tools of Web 2.0 is that because they have so lowered the cost of entry into the realm of media production and distribution, the potential—as he even says but somehow ignores!—to become famous is democratized. You don’t have to have Coppola as your last name to have any shot at becoming a “promising young director.”

The entire issue is about potential, freeing individuals to produce media of an appeal (whether mass or to certain groups) that enables them to live up to it, which some can—though most can’t, or don’t have the will to—purposefully do.

Final point: To Wilson’s article’s title question:

Will My Video Get 1 Million Views on YouTube?

—to which he answers “not a chance”—my upstairs housemate is a hairsbreadth away from a million views on a video she posted over the Christmas holiday. Let’s get her there.


3 Responses to ““Fame, fame, fame… what’s your [screen-]name?””

  1. Well done, Ben. And thanks for the shout-out! Wish I had more online procrastinating time to dedicate to reading your blog more frequently. One day… I like what I’ve seen, though, most def. What season of LOST are you on nowadays?

  2. I couldn’t agree more. As much as I enjoy statistics on YouTube data, his assumptions and conclusions have nothing to do with the data he analyzed.

    The very same mistake was made in a research paper called “Persistence and Success in the Attention Economy”. As the title suggests, they tracked the performance of subsequent uploads of half a million randomly selected channels. They came to the same conclusions by falsely assuming that everyone tries to get noticed with their uploads.

    I really don’t know if these people are indeed oblivious to the social elements of YouTube (subscribers, video responses, community interaction), or if they deliberately draw the wrong conclusions just to attract attention to their articles.

    Btw: nice blog theme 😉

    • Thanks dude. To subject you to my typical critical theorist rant: It’s the typical positivist error. They long for this non-existent detached floating contemplative perspective and try really hard to synthesize the world in such a way as to make it plausible. In so doing they strip any human dimension out of their object, which they won’t acknowledge that they are themselves necessarily implicated in—which they of course are since their object is society. This amounts to self-castration. Blah blah blah… it’s stupid, reifying, and disempowering.

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