Tuesday 24 October 2017

Over five million reasons why Uncle Gaybo is bemused

In one corner Gay Byrne - a media icon of another age - and in the other the YouTube juggernaut. Their coming together is a prime example of how our world has changed forever. Darragh McManus reports

Stephen Fry
Stephen Fry
Gay Byrne
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Videos going viral are nothing new, but the speed and scale of how Stephen Fry's "God" comments spread this week were still remarkable. The actor made his caustic - though far from unique - tirade against the Biblical deity on The Meaning of Life, Gay Byrne's Sunday night RTÉ show.

As Gay told Ray D'Arcy, it's a minority interest programme, tucked away in "the God slot" (viewing figures hover around quarter of a million). Within hours of broadcast, however, the closing section had gone nuclear.

There was the customary Liveline barney, without which no Irish controversy is complete. But worldwide stats are more interesting: it trended on Twitter under various hash-tags; YouTube views crashed past five million by Thursday; a Guardian article attracted 7,500 comments (the average is less than a thousand). RTÉ reported that Ireland was only fourth behind US, UK and Australia in watching it on their Player.

This local story had gone global. From our Hibernocentric perspective, of course, the Gaybo angle meant there was some sense of a baton having passed - almost a clash of two cultures. Not just the obvious one of "religion vs atheism", but between our early 21st century of social media, and Gay as the 20th century version of virality.

For decades, he'd say something on radio or TV and it'd immediately become a "hot-button topic", before that term even existed: debated, refuted, repeated. Classic Gaybo moments like "the bishop and the nightie", have entered Irish lore.

The chasm between then and now is perhaps epitomised by Gay's own comments, when asked if this rivalled his great Late Late moments: "Not by any means, because the internet doesn't really mean much to me. I'm told millions of views, but I've no sense of that. Of course I'm pleased, though, that this little programme has gained such fame around the world."

Indeed it has, though why exactly is difficult to explain. The involvement of Fry was obviously a key factor: famous around the world, 8.6 million followers on Twitter. . . he's always big news, whatever he says or does. As head of strategy for the Lovin Group of websites, Aidan Coughlan, says: "If this had been, say, Colm Tóibín, would it have had the same impact? Very unlikely."

But what explains the viral phenomenon in general? Kildare-based communications consultant Simon Fullam believes it could be down to a combination of herd mentality, "fear of missing out", and plain old hype.

"Twitter especially is now a place where people 'gather' to comment on events," he says. "With Fry's profile, it wasn't surprising his comments received as much attention as they did."

More specifically, why do some things catch fire and some don't, often for no apparent reason? Indeed it often feels as though these online phenomena take on a volition of their own, more-or-less randomly. So much of it seems to be down to pure chance, or at least, through an organic process, not easily understood or manipulated. Aidan reckons that you can't "make" something go viral. All you can do is create the right conditions for it; create the spark, in other words, and hope it catches fire.

"It's often said of rock bands that talent and hard work only gets you so far - the rest is luck, conditions, timing and influential people," he says. "The same can be said of viral content; even after you create all the conditions for it, you're still only halfway there."

As with so much of modern media, speed seems to be key. People nowadays demand speed, almost more than quality or reliability; they skim, react and - most importantly - share faster, whether on Twitter, Facebook or any of a myriad of social networking vehicles. Aidan reckons a story is far more likely to go viral if it picks up early traction.

It's probable the dissemination of information has got as fast as it can: we already have as-it-happens footage from inside siege situations or war zones, you can't get more instantaneous than that. But social media's gravitational pull will surely continue to increase (amusingly, and rather encouragingly, it has overtaken pornography as the web's top attraction).

Already, the statistics are mind-boggling, and a truism of modern technological advance is that it happens exponentially: things get ever-bigger, ever-faster. This is being mainly driven by two factors: more engagement by the 55-64-year-old demographic, and increased use of mobile devices.

YouTube - the main site for hosting media, as opposed to sharing or promoting it - has in 10 years grown into a media colossus which now reaches more American adults than any cable network. Over a trillion views a year by a billion users (and we thought Gaybo's million-plus Late Late audience was impressive); six billion hours of video watched per month; 100 hours uploaded every minute, advertisers spending upwards of $6bn (€5.25bn) a year…

It goes on and on, a bewildering sequence of zeroes, as though YouTube is writing the biggest cheque in history. Looking beyond the stats, it and similar sites have had a huge social effect. They're now a key tool for promoting products; they bridge the gap between producer and consumer, often bypassing the traditional middleman.

They've been credited with or accused of (take your pick) breaking down barriers, fostering division, consolidating autocracy or fomenting rebellion. A few cyber-proselytisers even claim that video-sharing will accelerate scientific advance and initiate "the biggest learning cycle in human history" (you mightn't be able to tell that from the average user comment).

Perhaps most significantly, they're effected seismic change on how news is reported, and to some extent, what news is reported. Citizen journalism, immediate action and reaction, the momentum of this frenzied online response sometimes outrunning the event itself. . . it's a brave (and to some, weird and disorientating) new world.

"Who would have thought 10 years ago that we'd be where we are today?" Simon says. "Even the follow-up analysis in print media is catching up. Online interaction will continue to grow, although some users may tire of the unregulated format of much of it."

Aidan a dds: "I don't look at the internet as making the world tiny, rather giving small things the scope to grow to previously impossible levels. There's still such a thing as local content, but there are also certain stories that touch upon something more universal - and now, unlike before, these can go as far as people will listen."

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