One of the newest and biggest buzzwords of the new digital economy is “viral.” It’s the word used by marketers hoping to leverage the massive force that is the web, and it’s what makes Lost so popular, Cloverfield so buzzed about, and YouTube the youngest $2 billion company ever. It’s the peer-to-peer, grassroots, collective-curator usurping of the top-down “gatekeeper” model of culture. And, unsurprisingly, it’s where the big money is these days.
But “viral” is an odd word for the phenomenon. Viral sounds like it’s a disease being spread and infecting the masses who can only submit to and be overtaken by the powerful and infectious force of the airborne piece of pop culture. It leaves out the audience’s power to choose what to forward, what to click on, or what to tell others to come watch on the computer during lunch. "Viral" assumes passivity. But what is going on here is nothing if not active.
The term I’ve come to like as an alternative is sideloading. I first used the term in a paper I wrote last year on the economics of user-generated-content, and I’m presenting the idea at a conference in Philadelphia in a few weeks. Essentially sideloading is the third (and, arguably, defining) mode of web activity by users. Users can upload (create content, videos, songs, blog entries), download (consume content, collect, gather, etc), or sideload (send something out across vast networked distances… to friends, colleagues, entire email address books…). To sideload is to make the uploaded “exist” beyond some limited circle… but it is more participatory than mere downloading. To download something is to take personal ownership over it. To sideload is to share in a broader community of cultural engagement. If culture is defined as “shared meaning,” then the sideloaded is the bread and butter of any culture. It’s the culture that breaks out of esoteric strata and reaches a tipping point of common, mass interest.
And this is where the clearest convergence of user-generated content’s value for the user and for the economy occurs. Sideloading: forwarding, linking, buzz-building, etc. People want to share things laterally that they create or view to be subversive, unique, or outside the mainstream. It’s a means of creating common culture, and yet sideloading—linking, broadening the system—also benefits the structure itself. As John Perry Barlow prophetically argued in Wired magazine seven years ago, the noncommercial distribution of information actually increases the sale of commercial information:
Abundance breeds abundance… This is precisely contrary to what happens in a physical economy. When you're selling nouns, there is an undeniable relationship between scarcity and value. But in an economy of verbs, the inverse applies. There is a relationship between familiarity and value. For ideas, fame IS fortune.
In an environment as flooded, gluttonous, and unmanageable as the Internet, it is very true that fame (read: massively sideloaded) equals fortune. Not only in terms of exposure (i.e. getting some artist’s name and work out to the masses) but also in terms of advertising profits. The more click-throughs on any given site, video, blog, etc, the more money that can be made. Links are the currency of the Internet economy. Just ask any upstart e-company, MySpace indie band, or wannabe YouTube star.
The question remains, however: what makes something a sideloading success? Take a minute to revisit the hits as chronicled in this entertaining video:
So, are there any common threads? I’m not sure I can really spot anything. But we are painfully early in this age of sideloading culture, so what is “must see” Internet content today might be laughed off in years to come. In any case, you can bet that the media companies are desperately seeking to analyze this phenomenon and come to some conclusion about “sideloading” formulas. And in the meantime we’ll keep going about our linkage business in our own unpredictable ways.