The Secret Life of a Viral Video
Monday, February 7th, 2011 at 6:33:04
The Music Always Turns Off Just When You Say Something Loudly
Shhh. Are they gone yet? Look around and tell me if anyone is still lurking about. The horde is still outside the door you say? Quick, jump into this storage closet with me and we’ll wait them out. In the meantime I’ll tell you the story of how this whole mess got started.
The other night I was heading out to a late movie, something I commonly do in an effort to ward off the cabin fever that’s associated with working from home. After work and family duties are done, I typically like to get out of the house for a bit. Alas, on your average weeknight the opportunities for merrymaking, as well as friends with which to make it, are limited. And yet the silver screen always welcomes, so more often than not I choose to relieve boredom with a bag of over-priced popcorn in hand. When checking the listings I realized that I’d already seen almost everything worth watching, so I settled on the evening’s one remaining screening of the last film I was at least mildly curious about. I hopped into the car, and off I went.
There was just enough time to grab a coffee at the drive thru before jumping on the highway, and while waiting in line for my cup of joe I had an idea. I remembered the curiosity I had felt, now widely reported, when watching the lunar eclipse a few weeks back. I remembered thinking about what the earth might look like, or at least another earth-like body anyway, if it hung in the same location in the heavens as the moon. As I got my coffee I thought about how much I would have appreciated a warm drink on that cold night under the stars, while also recalling how inspired I had been in staring at the sky and letting my imagination run wild.
Just then, like a freight train, it hit me. Why on earth would I drive halfway across town to see a movie I’m only only slightly interested in when I could just go home and start making that vision into reality? I have a self imposed policy I like to stick to: if you’re bored, go create something. It’s my humble opinion that people waste entirely too much time in the desperate search for entertainment, so why would I make the same mistake now? I turned the car around, and soon I was back in my chair, grafficking.
‘Scale’ went on the internet the very next day, and with with little fanfare. I shared it of course with my friends on Twitter and Facebook, but it was met with tepid response at best. Not that I can blame them for ignoring it mind you; I throw so much content at my Facebook friends that I’m quite sure 75% of them have ‘hidden’ me from their news feeds by now. It wasn’t until I sent a link to some of the hosts of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, and when one of those hosts, Jay Novella, shared it on his wall, that things started happening. I went to bed that night with some hope that it might start to spread around. However when I woke the next day and looked at the exponentially growing numbers, I realized that something extraordinary was happening.
Now, let me stop here and point out that I don’t think the video was extraordinary, only that the phenomenon of anything spreading so quickly across the internet is something to behold. I know, it sounds like false modesty, and don’t think for a second that I’m saying I wasn’t tickled as heck (at least at first) by the attention. But I’m honestly not quite sure why so many people seemed to connect with the piece, no matter how happy I am that they did.
The animation itself was nothing particularly special from an aesthetic point of view, as you can see far more realistic renderings of the heavens on any throw-away Discovery Channel special. The only thing I can imagine that captivated people was the idea of the thing, and it certainly wasn’t an original one. The most repeated comment on the various websites that carried the video (other than “Where’s Saturn?”) was people saying that they had often tried to picture the very same thing themselves. Almost every nerd-fi painting that exists depicts some nearby giant planet sitting just over the horizon, just like this composite I made last year. (below)
But no matter how pleased I was initially with the attention ‘Scale’ was receiving, soon I wanted to run and hide. When I started to see my name on sites like Gizmodo, The Daily What, and MSNBC.com, I suddenly wondered why I had never thought to operate under a pseudonym. Out of nowhere I was being mentioned all over the web, and it was a little bit scary to say the least. I contemplated pulling the video from Vimeo’s servers in an effort to make it stop, but then considered the fury that such an act would engender from an internet now suddenly filled with dead links.
When I revised the piece I did so for a number of reasons. As outlined in I’m Bad at Math, I wanted the video to be as accurate as possible, and I wanted to use the platform I had been thrust upon to speak about skepticism. A lot of websites that have since reported ‘technical discrepancies’ with the animation fail to dig deeply enough to realize that it was me who brought them to the forefront. Indeed I had mentioned at the time of upload that the original version had a flawed foreground perspective, and when Szuu’s comment pointed it out again it could have very easily have been ignored by the internet at large. It was my public declaration of exactly what the flaws were that brought the idea into public view, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. On a website dedicated to a skeptical view of life, how could I pass up an opportunity to very publicly honour one of skepticism’s most valuable lessons?
But there was another, more personal reason behind my decision to loudly tell the world about the error. I knew most people wouldn’t bother to read the whole explanation laid out in I’m Bad at Math, and would be left simply with the incomplete impression that the video was ‘wrong’ somehow. It was my hope that this semi-informed seed of doubt would spread across the internet just as quickly as the video did, and as a result, slow the viral spread of ‘Scale’ before it reached millions of people. (Although I’m quite sure the eventual down-slope came at the natural time it would have anyway – it’s not like this thing was the next Star Wars Kid, after all)
Why? Well, again, I really never wanted my name flung so far across the world. This website was devised as a grassroots effort to bring a little bit of skepticism to the the small group of people I’m surrounded by. I wanted to talk about these ideas with my friends, family, and colleagues in the creative fields, but never to trade in the comfort of anonymity from the world at large. While almost everybody was supportive of what I had done, the internet is a big place, and I got a few very strange comments from some obviously confused people. Nothing gave me more relief than the day after ‘Scale’ had 200,000 views, on which the numbers for the first time began to trend downwards.
Yet a huge dose of awesomeness can be extracted from the events of last week, and for that I’m more than grateful. Because of what happened, I can only hope that I’ve gathered a few more readers to the page; many of whom won’t stick around once they get a flavour of the general discourse on the site, but some of whom may become valued regular readers. To those people, the same ones I invited to hide with me in the storage closet at the beginning of this post, I’m very happy to have met you. I hope the blog from here on in doesn’t disappoint.
And there was a whole lot more to smile about. Scale has been seen over five hundred thousand times now. MSNBC’s article actually mentioned skepticism in their coverage, something I can only hope will drive at least one person to becoming curious about just what skepticism is. On Vimeo some dude started a channel called ‘Science’ and added my animation as the first post. A second grade teacher showed it to her students who apparently “loved it”. A debate sparked up on Reddit in which people with very little prior knowledge of astronomy attempted to calculate for themselves their own models of Jupiter’s apparent size, which is as skeptical a way of operating as you can get. Roger friggin Ebert posted it on Twitter. A professor from Montgomery College in Maryland used it in her Astronomy 101 class. Many kind people said many kind things about the video and the blog itself, and once again, I’m thankful for it.
So why is it then that Scale went viral? Was it the quality of the animation or the idea behind it? I can only guess, but I’d argue for neither. Rather I wonder if ‘Scale’ might have inadvertently tapped into a common curiosity in people that perhaps hadn’t been tickled in a while. I had no prior conception that this animation might do so, but the measure of success it enjoyed rekindles the hope in me that people still want to know about the natural world — that human curiosity about the sciences still thrives. While my piece does very little to satisfy that curiosity, I can at least hope that it inspired some people to pick up a book, subscribe to an astronomy podcast, or seek out a documentary on the stars. In an age where support for science is dwindling and the success of pseudoscience is skyrocketing, it’s encouraging to see people expressing curiosity about the real forces of nature that surround us.
I suppose that’s more hopeful optimism than a developed theory. A boy can dream, right? In any case, for now all is quiet, and I’m back to the business of haphazardly chucking my observations of the world up on to the internet. They’re available here for anyone who’s interested, but I happily expect that segment of people to remain small. Whoever or wherever you are, please consider yourself part of an exclusive, but not necessarily exceptional, club.
Just how I like it. It reminds me of the tight-knit group of friends that I maintained as a young man, and what I would say to people about my relationship with them. I’ll paraphrase that sentiment here: It’s better to speak intimately with a few precious people than to speak superficially with them all.
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