Gangnam Style Bests Justin Bieber for Most-Watched YouTube Video Ever. What's the Formula?
1. Make something novel enough that people want to talk about it.
This is true of almost any Internet meme: "Gangnam Style" was successful online because it felt so weird. When I first watched it, the language barrier and the dancing combined with the high production values to make me feel like there was some bizarre alternate universe of goofy music videos that I'd been missing my entire life.
2. But not too new--make it inoffensive enough that people want to talk about it to everybody.
"Gangnam Style" broke out of Internet-meme-prison, though, because unlike other memes I didn't just want to talk about it with other people like me.
Most memes I really enjoy strike me as something my friends who have a passing awareness of Internet culture would like. "Gangnam Style" seemed like something my boss would like, and my mom, and just about anybody with a smartphone who I had to kill a few minutes with.
3. Make people feel good about themselves and the universe after they're finished watching it with somebody else.
This is the big one. The Bieber method feeds on intense feelings of love and hate. Beliebers, Directioners et al--again, like political bases--are at their strongest when they believe themselves to be besieged on all sides by haters and downvoters, or even other, ideologically impure Beliebers or Directioners.
Really effective fandoms are embroiled in a state of permanent revolt that Fidel Castro would probably appreciate, if he only understood what it really means to be a Belieber. But as a veteran of the Great Harry Potter Shipping Wars of the 20-aughts I feel qualified to say that it becomes exhausting, after a while, to vote in every poll, comment on every Livejournal debate, and sabotage every competing hashtag.
Psy does not ask you to smelt iron in your backyard and turn scrap metal into enormous statues of lieutenants on fake-horseback. He has not inspired a single teenaged girl to orient her social life around promoting his career. He's just less relentlessly knowing than LMFAO, less calculated than One Direction, less divisive than dubstep, and exactly compelling enough to entertain everybody. For "Gangnam Style" to reach 800 million views, it only needed to make you kind of happy for a minute.