Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Backing Up Song: The birth of an Internet meme

We had some friends around for lunch on the weekend, and as it was raining, we spent part of the afternoon watching YouTube. "Have you seen 'The Backing Up Song'?" asked my friend's teenage daughter. So we looked it up.

The Backing Up Song started with an interview on Kansas TV station KMBC in which a woman describes witnessing an attempted robbery at a Shell gas station. It is nothing remarkable in itself, but watch it anyway, just to understand how this meme develops.

This interview was subsequently mixed into a rather catchy little tune.

However, where it really gets interesting is when Walk Off The Earth then do a cover of the song.

At the time of writing this, the original interview had been watched 392 thousand times on YouTube, whilst the original remix song had been watched 435 thousand times. The Walk Off The Earth cover, on the other hand had been watched 3.4 million times. It is not hard to see (for what my musical opinion is worth) why the cover version is so much more popular. But what is interesting is that, if you watched it first, you would have no idea what it was about.

The Backing Up Song has grown from its humble beginnings as a KMBC local interest interview, into a fully fledged Internet meme.

"an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures."
And an Internet meme more specifically as:
"a concept that spreads via the Internet. The term is a reference to the concept of memes, although the latter concept refers to a much broader category of cultural information."
For those of you not familiar with Walk Off The Earth, they are a Canadian indie band known for their innovative YouTube covers of contemporary songs. They rose to fame after their cover of the Gotye song Somebody That I Used to Know, in which all five members of the band simultaneously play the same guitar, became a YouTube hit (87 million views at the time of writing). I've included it below for good measure.

Internet memes have clear implications for marketing and advertising in the same way that viral marketing and business models do. However, Internet memes have the capability to break out of the confines of the original and take on an independent life of their own, just as The Backing Up Song has broken out of its origins in the KMBC interview, thereby reaching a wider audience. The challenge is to try and tie memes, and the attention they draw, back to the original message. Aleksandr Orlov, the debonair Russian meerkat oligarch, and his loyal and long-suffering IT director/sidekick, Sergei,  from the CompareTheMarket.com advertisements are good examples of where this has succeeded.

If you have any other examples you'd like to share, why not leave a note in the comments below?