God, Man

The Art and Science of Virality

I recently watched one of those videos where the person strings hundreds of still shots of themselves together into a film that lasts only a minute or so. We watch them age, we watch their beard grow, we watch them sing a Queen song, all over a stretch of months or years. Which got me thinking: I need to do that, too!

I am now setting the alarm for 2:45am and, without getting out of bed, I take a picture of myself using flash while I lay there in the dark. (I would use the word “s*lfie” but I hate that word so I won’t.)

I’ve been doing this for 31 days (it was my New Years Resolution). I hope to do it for the next 2 – 5 years. When I feel like I’m ready, I will post it on YouTube and title it, “How I Look(ed): The Last Two to Five Years at 2:45am.”

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I’m not really doing that, but I think it’s a funny idea for some ambitious soul out there who craves the attention only a viral YouTube video can provide. Other good ideas might include time lapsed pictures that gauge:

  • the redness of my ear every time I’m on the phone for more than a few minutes, film at different time intervals
  • my natural expression when I arrive at work each morning
  • part II to the above 2:45am idea with a twist: “How I Look(ed): The Last Two to Five Years at 3:45am”
  • ultra ambitious: how I shrink over the next fifty years
  • advanced cinematography: shave some arm hair and watch it regrow
  • painful but worth it: stop brushing my teeth and watch the decay over the next decade
  • other ideas?

All of this got me thinking: is there a science to going viral? After a few seconds of thought, I decided it was more an art than a science. Then I marveled at something crazy — did I just have a few seconds to think? I was on the couch at the time when a small human intentionally jumped from the edge of the couch onto my abdomen. Within another millisecond I was getting pounced on by all of my kids.

Speaking of kids, have you heard of this phenomenon where American kids don’t want to be doctors and lawyers anymore — instead, they want to be famous? And seeing that the chances of fame are very, very slim, could that possibly be a problem to their emotional health and well-being? Could it create a problem to society?

Speaking of seeking fame, it reminds me a scripture I’ve never seen connected to fame, but I have a theory about it. In the New Testament, Matthew 24:12, Jesus is preaching about the end times. In this particular verse, he says:

…the love of many shall wax cold. (KJV)

The “love of many,” as used here, could suggest that many who love will not be able to feel love. It could also take on a different definition from the individual’s standpoint; the literal love one has for many people.

The “love of many,” I would think, is a defining pillar of Christianity. Caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, teaching hope over despair, faith instead of fear, life over death, and spreading that good news to all the world is the hallmark of Christian theology. The challenge for the Christian is to love everyone, even if they don’t seem to deserve it. But the statement in this scripture is that in the end times love shall “wax cold.”

I cite the King James Version above, while various modern translations of the same passage say the love of many shall grow cold. Young’s Literal Translation from the late 1800s uses language that more closely fits our vernacular today, and seems to fit the definition I suggest. It says, “the love of the many shall become cold.”

So what does that scripture really mean in this context? I’ll wager that it means the love of many will turn inward, self-focused. Possibly self-absorbed and selfish. The love of many is still there, yet it’s a false love, it’s gone cold.

What’s interesting is there has never before been a time when the possibilities of reaching fame were so accessible to the masses, so it makes sense that youth would seek fame in larger numbers. I’m reading and teaching a class on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America right now that discusses the near thousand year long march towards an “equality of conditions.” Technology has further enabled this equality. We all have more of an equal chance of achieving fame, power, money, whatever, than ever before. Just upload to YouTube.

One viral video, however, is not enough to feed an ego hungry for fame. In the end, this trend, if it is to be believed, could lead to severe disappointment in our youth. Especially if their sole purpose is to become famous. Hopefully we can do a good job teaching them the distinction between the love of many that is selfish, and the love of many which is selfless. In the meantime, we should expect more YouTube videos of kids aging.

Speaking of aging, federal stimulus funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) must have been used for Merrill Lynch’s Face Retirement, a free program that ages you decades into the future. It begins by taking your picture and then builds a montage of how you can expect yourself to look until you are about 110 years old. If it is to be believed, by age 70, the left half of my face will be resting on my shoulder. My wife, of mostly northern European ancestry, is a striking sage Cherokee Indian chief at 90.

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Your thoughts?