The Harlem Shake – Not Just Another Viral Video

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, deprived of any contact from the outside world for the last few weeks, there’s no way you haven’t come across or at least heard of The Harlem Shake, an online video meme that is the latest thing to take YouTube and Twitter, Facebook et al. by storm.


Whether you like this latest of YouTube fads or not, there’s a lot of value in taking a look at what it represents in terms of wider trends in how we interact with media. With inspiration from a great article by Mark Suster, a venture capitalist at GRP Partners, here’s our rundown of what this means…

Gangnam Style, a taste of things to come

2012 was the year of Psy and Gangnam Style. The official music video now has almost 1.4bn views on YouTube and the song has reached #1 in more than 30 countries worldwide. It’s the most-viewed video on YouTube and the numbers continue to grow.

As well as being phenomenally successful in its own right, that success, as it always does, spawned imitation. Videos popped up all over the place with people doing the Gangnam Style dance routine in their bedrooms, in parks, on celebrity chat shows. Viewers wanted to be part of the action, celebrities wanted to raise their profile, everyone was in on it. Success (particularly commercial success) however, was reserved for one video alone. In truth, there’s only one version of Psy’s Gangnam Style, and that’s the official one with the 1.4bn views.

Not just another viral video

The Harlem Shake is different. It’s not a single of piece of content that has gone viral, racked up the views and then generated imitations. The imitations, the crowdsourced content, are the viral aspect of the video.

Sure, Harlem Shake is a song created by Brooklyn producer Baauer, but it’s a song that was first released back in May 2012, two months before Gangnam Style. The official video didn’t get much traction, and it was only when a YouTuber called Filthy Frank featured the song in a skit (the original video above) in January 2013 that the lunatic dancing was introduced. A few guys in Australia copied it, which brought it to the attention of Maker Studios (online video / YouTube content specialists with a massive following), who created their own version in their office.

As Mark Suster says in his article:

Boom. It made national news. Maker was contacted by every major news outlet. And suddenly every office in the country was doing their own version of the Harlem Shake.

Current estimates put the number of versions of the Harlem Shake on YouTube at around 50,000, with a total number of views of approximately 200 million. So, not quite at Gangnam-levels of views yet, but just looking at that stat misses the point. We shouldn’t be looking at the views; it’s the sheer number of spin-off videos that have been created that’s remarkable.

Participating and creating, not just consuming

In Mark’s article, he talks about media not just wanting to flow one way, about an alignment of technology that has enabled people to create. He references access to video recording (phone cameras), bandwidth for uploading it, free cloud storage (e.g. YouTube) and ease of sharing through social media. This is the technology that has allowed people to see something online, get their friends round and publish their version of it on YouTube or their blog within an hour.

Creating video content is no longer the preserve of those with big budgets, post-production suites and deep pockets for a seeding campaign. It’s available to everyone and there’s clearly an appetite for people to do it, we don’t want to passively receive media, we want to participate and create.

Gangnam Style is a viral video. The Harlem Shake is more than that, it’s a viral movement. Whether you like the core content or not (I’m ambivalent to be honest), it’s representative of the shift towards widespread content creation that has been happening for a year or two now, but never in such a joined up way. Consumption and creation aren’t mutually exclusive, people want to do both, and that makes the internet a far more interesting place for everyone.

So, if there's tens of thousands of people willing to dance like fools in front of the camera, what’s stopping you from adding a little interest to your blog with some video content? You don’t even need to look daft… you could provide something useful and relevant… or not, it’s up to you.