If you have Facebook, then chances are yesterday your feed was bombarded with people sharing a curious video wherein a bunch of “strangers” kiss one another. By now, I’m wagering you fall into one of two camps: you’re sick of seeing the bastard thing, or you found it life-affirming and wonderful and are wondering why there’s a backlash against it. Either way, I suspect the last thing you want to do is read more about it, but bear with me here, because beyond the superficial, the way the whole thing unfolded is a rather fascinating study in what we tend to call viral culture.
So, first, the video itself. If you’ve avoided it, it’s entitled “First Kiss,” and it’s a soft-focus black-and-white affair that involves 20 people pairing off and making out. The idea is that they’re strangers, meeting for the first time, and that once they get over their initial awkwardness, the sparks fly and the whole thing is unexpectedly moving. It’s soundtracked by some suitably Dido-esque music with lyrics that sound like they walked straight off one of those motivational posters you see in depressing office kitchens: “If you’re not ready for love, how can you be ready for life?”
If I sound cynical, apologies. But hey, as it turns out, most of the “strangers” are actors, models, and/or in OK Go (it seems to be an unbreakable law of YouTube that all viral videos have to include OK Go somehow). And the video is an advertisement for clothes — an advertisement that has been watched 24 MILLION TIMES in two days.
Once this became clear, the anti-kissing video cynics went into overdrive: Slate’s Amanda Hess wrote, “I doubt that millions of viewers would be so quick to celebrate a video of randos kissing if they were all less thin, hip, stylish, charming, and well-manicured,” while Pedestrian asked, “If ‘First Kiss’ never pretended to be anything other [than an advertisement], does its nature make it (retroactively) any less moving for it being just another ad for clothes — albeit a brilliant one presented in a highly-shareable format? Are whatever feelings it evoked in you rendered void now you’re a little wiser to its motives; or is this no different to being moved by the performances of actors in a film?”
That’s a question that you can mull over yourself, as the answer, I suspect, will be different for everyone. But as far as a study in “sharing” culture goes, the way the video played out was pretty much perfect, going from Stage 1 (oh, look, a few people are sharing this video) through Stage 2 (for Christ’s sake, my entire feed is this video), Stage 3 (and now my feed is half this video and half people saying “fuck the kissing video”) to Stage 4 (guess what: it was all a setup!) in the space of 24 hours. As much as anything, it’s a study in just how quickly things move these days — by the end of the week, it’ll probably all be forgotten, and we’ll be arguing about something equally meaningless.
But still, here’s a thought experiment. Removed from the “ZOMG this is so life-affirming” context, what we have is a three-and-a-half minute video of heterosexual people making out, with a gay couple and a lesbian couple thrown in for good measure, set to a somewhat drippy soundtrack. They’re all young, they’re all attractive, they’re pretty much all white, they all look like they’re not short of a dime. And, of course, they’re all clad in fashionable outfits. It’s been shared by 24 million people, at least some of whom are presumably the types who get weirded out when people make out next to them on the subway.
So let’s imagine the video had been shared in a less positive manner. The share-athon seemed to begin with this BuzzFeed post, wherein the site’s video curator, Alison Bagg, proclaimed, “This video of people kissing for the first time goes from awkward to beautiful in mere moments.” Great, she liked it. But let’s imagine that, say, Jezebel got hold of it first, and posted it along with some outraged commentary about lack of diversity or heteronormativity or the beauty myth.
Working out what makes a video go viral is a notoriously inexact science, but this Mashable article gives as good a theory as any: “Most… viral videos share at least two things in common: ‘discussability’ and ‘relatability.'” Our hypothetical Jezebel post ticks both boxes pretty nicely. Maybe it wouldn’t have done 24 million views in two days, but I’m willing to bet it’s a bandwagon a whole lot of people would have jumped on. (And I’m sure it’s no accident that BuzzFeed appears to have seen the video before anyone else.)
Of course, the fact that people engage with “shareable” “content” on only the most superficial level is hardly news. The internet is the world’s foremost hub of confirmation bias, after all — people tend to share the content that reinforces their views, so much so that the actual content itself barely matters. (It’d also be fascinating to see how many people watched the kissing video from beginning to end before sharing it — I suspect that these things are like the “Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: FUNNY!” emails that used to do the rounds in the days before Facebook.)
In other words, this sort of stuff has no meaning beyond what people project onto it, and what they project onto it is very much contingent on how it’s presented. Which brings us to the last point, the fact that the video was an advertisement. A very clever one. One of the most talked-about internet phenomena of the last year or so has been that of Upworthy, the relentlessly positive social media phenomenon that involves sharing “uplifiting” content.
This video is perhaps the first massively successful example of a brand taking that model and running with it — this video couldn’t have been better designed to slide into an Upworthy world, providing striking imagery and an easily embeddable YouTube clip that blogs the world over could milk for sweet, sweet pageviews. After all, who’d even heard of the company that sponsored “First Kiss” before yesterday?
There’s been plenty of discussion about just how Upworthy itself makes money, but it seems that perhaps the people who will really monetize the Upworthy model won’t necessarily be Upworthy themselves. No, it’s whichever brands manage to come up with things like “First Kiss” — content that situates their commercial message in a glow of faux positivity and life-affirming beauty. Content that people like because it’s designed that way. It’s a whole lot more effective than interrupting people’s Spotify stream or sticking your stupid ad at the start of an unrelated YouTube video, that’s for sure.