Google’s trend charts of the phrase “Harlem Shake” are seismic. No one looked for the words until Feb. 7, then searches surged faster than any term Google ever had, except for “Whitney Houston” after her death. A few weeks later, they fell close to zero.
Experts said the “Harlem Shake” phenomenon was emergent behavior from the hive mind of the internet—accidental, ad hoc, uncoordinated: a “meme” that “went viral.” But this is untrue. The real story of the “Harlem Shake” shows how much popular culture has changed and how much it has stayed the same.
The word “meme” comes from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Bits of information, memes, propagate from brain to brain through imitation, are subject to selection and can be regarded as living structures, he says, “not just metaphorically but technically,” because new information changes our brains. They are often made deliberately—think catchphrases, slogans, melodies—and makers may try to propagate them as fast and far as possible, or make them go viral. The myth of the “Harlem Shake” is that its viral spread was spontaneous, not directed by financial interests—a pop culture, popular uprising. Here’s how the meme and the myth began.
On Jan. 30, a Japanese-American college student named George Miller, posted a three-and-a-half minute compilation of comedy on YouTube. Miller has been posting videos since 2008 and had developed an absurd comic style and an audience of tens of thousands. Miller’s movie began with 19 seconds of “Pink Guy,” (a character where he is mime in a pink body suit who dances and pratfalls) and three friends dancing in Miller’s bedroom to an obscure piece of electronic dance music: “Harlem Shake” by a little-known DJ called Harry Rodrigues, or “Baauer.” Miller’s audience loved the dance. Within hours, one fan had posted a video that looped the 19-second sequence for three and a half minutes.
Musical imitations are part of YouTube culture. The dance for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” was an imitation of a video the singer saw on YouTube. It then became a subject of imitation itself. On Saturday, Feb. 2, five teenage longboarders from Caloundr a, Australia, imitated Miller’s dance to “Harlem Shake.” In response to requests from fans, Miller also posted all 36 seconds of the dance footage he had shot originally. In Orlando, Florida, longboarders Anan Lagana and Jackson Foltz saw the Australian video and, with the help of three friends, imitated it with no knowledge of Miller’s original. Miller’s meme was replicating, but not fast or far. At this point, the Harlem Shake videos only had few thousands views.
The next day, Sunday, Feb. 3, America came to its annual standstill for the Super Bowl. Shortly after Beyoncé sang “Single Ladies” as part of her half-time show, there was a 22-minute power outage in the Mercedes Benz Superdome in Louisiana. A few advertising agencies reacted quickly via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube: Walgreens pointed out it sells candles; Oreos reminded people they could still dunk their cookies in the dark; and Tide said it could not get your blackout but it could get your stains out. The next day, Forbes declared it the “Super Bowl of real-time marketing.” The talk of the nation was not expensive Super Bowl ads but the brands that took advantage of the power outage. The vice president of global media and consumer engagement at Mondelēz International (parent company of Oreos), B. Bonin Bough, boasted that his tweet “not only shows the power of real-time engagement, but also the sheer importance of understanding the overall media ecosystem.” Advertisers and their agencies started the week determined not to miss the next big social media opportunity.
Through Wednesday Feb. 6, the five “Harlem Shake” videos (three featuring Miller, two featuring the Australian and American longboarders imitating him) received several hundred thousand views. It was what happened next that made it viral. It had nothing to do with community and everything to do with commerce.
A new imitation of “Harlem Shake” appeared. It came not from YouTube users, but from Maker Studios, a Los Angeles company that specializes in making money from YouTube and is partly owned by Time Warner. Maker Studios employee Vernon Shaw noticed the longboarders’ “Harlem Shake” videos on Reddit, a major tributary of information on the internet. Shaw thought the videos looked “pre-viral” and saw an opportunity to exploit them to promote Maker. On Thursday, Feb. 7, Maker employee Rawn Erickson uploaded an imitation of the Florida video with Maker Studios staff dancing in the Maker Studios office. Maker promoted the video across its many YouTube channels as well as on Twitter.
At the same time, an influential electronic dance music blogger called “EDM Snob” made one of the first Twitter references to the “Harlem Shake” along with a link to the Australian video:
Rodrigues and his record label Mad Decent immediately started promoting the video. Rodrigues, using his stage name “Baauer,” record label owner Thomas Wesley Pentz, and Chicago deejays Josh Young and Curt Cameruci, signed to Mad Decent all posted tweets and messages to send traffic to the Australian video on YouTube. Six Twitter accounts—EDM Snob, Baauer, Diplo, Mad Decent, Major Lazer and Flosstradamus—were the cause of views of “Harlem Shake” on Thursday, Feb. 7 and Friday, Feb. 8. EDM Snob was selling himself. The other five were selling the record.
YouTube rewards this kind of behavior. People who post videos make up to $6 per thousand views in return for letting YouTube show ads on their videos. When a new video is uploaded, YouTube automatically checks for matches to copyrighted material. Copyright holders can block videos or share advertising revenue. Maker got paid every time someone watched its video. Mad Decent got paid every time someone viewed any video featuring Baauer’s song.
The advertisers and agencies who spent the week after the Super Bowl looking for the next big thing in social media spent the weekend after the Super Bowl believing they had found it: because of the tweets by Maker and Mad Decent, they started copying the Florida longboarders, doing a two steps removed imitation of George Miller dancing to “Harlem Shake,” believing it to be a pure product of the YouTube community. On Sunday, Feb. 10, while Wouter “Gotye” De Backer was accepting the “Record of the Year” Grammy for “Somebody That I Used to Know” (a record that was popularized by YouTube imitation videos), these companies started posting and promoting their own “Harlem Shake” videos. They included College Humor, a website owned by IAC, a publicly traded company that also owns Newsweek; Vimeo, a YouTube rival also owned by IAC; and BuzzFeed, a viral content website that promoted its video with a story subtitled “If you haven’t done one yet, you better get on it right away!” (The Huffington Post also ran a story, “The Harlem Shake: A ‘00s Classic, Having Another Moment”). Thousands of “Harlem Shake” videos were uploaded during the week of Feb. 11, many of them from businesses with something to sell.
This is abnormal. “Single Ladies,” “Somebody That I Used To Know,” Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe,” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style” were made by professionals and first imitated by professionals—Saturday Night Live in the case of “Single Ladies,” indie Canadian band Walk Off The Earth in the case of “Somebody That I Used To Know,” and Justin Bieber in the case of “Call Me Maybe”—then later by fans and amateurs. “Harlem Shake,” was a meme made by an amateur, George Miller, but its rapid replication was driven by media and marketing professionals, led and orchestrated by three companies: Maker Studios, Mad Decent, and IAC.
On Feb. 13—after Today Show host Al Roker danced to “Harlem Shake” in a cupid costume and 82-year old economist Alice Rivlin, former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, danced to “Harlem Shake” in a stars and stripes top hat to promote deficit reduction—David Wagner, writing in The Atlantic, declared the “Harlem Shake” dead.
On March 19, a new video was posted. A bespectacled boy danced alone in a crowded high-school cafeteria for 15 seconds, then yelled “Everyone! Do the Harlem Shake!” The cafeteria fell silent. A few people cursed. The boy crept away.
What has changed?
Google’s YouTube, not Apple’s iTunes, is now the dominant force in music. Nearly 2 billion music videos are viewed on YouTube every day. When Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1 on Feb. 20, only the 21st song in Billboard’s 58-year history to do so, and the first by a previously unknown artist, it was because of YouTube. This highlights a broader point: Google has amassed unprecedented power as a medium. It is massive, global and central. In addition, its claims about viewership are not audited. Television, radio and newspaper audiences are measured by independent entities like Nielsen and the Alliance for Audited Media. Advertisers can be reasonably certain how many people are seeing their messages. Google’s and YouTube’s audience claims are not measured independently. Everyone initially involved in driving traffic to the “Harlem Shake” had the same incentive: to increase the number of views. Unlike other media, there were no checks and balances except YouTube’s own secret view verification system. Google regards clicks and views as a “currency,” and take pains to get the numbers right, but unlike most other mass media, its figures are not verified by anyone who does not profit from higher numbers.
The brain-to-brain propagation of Dawkins’ memes can now happen worldwide within seconds. We have a new real-time, global culture that is not only technological but also social. Experiences like imitating the YouTube videos for “Single Ladies,” “Somebody That I Used To Know” and “Call Me Maybe” create instant traditions, or “meta-memes,” that prime us to become ultra-efficient human information routers. Memes become themes become meta-memes become norms. A few years ago, few people would have posted a video of themselves singing or dancing on YouTube. Today, for many, doing so is not only second nature—it’s urgent. In our real-time culture, meme speed matters. Primacy is more important than privacy.
What has stayed the same?
Who wins? The “Harlem Shake” originated with a drunken man named Albert Boyce dancing at Harlem’s Rucker Park basketball court in 1981. It was sobered up by children in the bleachers and became a popular dance in the hip-hop community. When Boyce died in 2006, the dance had found its way into some rap songs and videos. In 2012, Harry “Baauer” Rodrigues sampled one of these songs, Plastic Little’s “Miller Time,” and dropped it onto a piece of electronic dance music made in a style called “trap” that is only somewhat related to hip hop. The song was a commercial failure until student George Miller included it in his YouTube video. As the “Harlem Shake” moved from the Rucker to Al Roker, Alice Rivlin and beyond, money moved too: to Google, where more searches and more views mean more dollars, and its large investors like Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, Blackrock, and J.P. Morgan Chase; to Warner Bros, which owns global distribution rights for the recording; and to Time Warner, with its part ownership of Maker Studios.
Relatively little went to Philadelphia, where Thomas Wesley Pentz, the minor Svengali who signed Harry Rodrigues, collects royalties from Warner Bros., every time a recording is purchased, and from Google, every time the song sells an ad. Harry Rodrigues will benefit, although not as much as many may assume, and he will have to share what he gets with the people whose work he sampled. Boyce, the no-collar black man on the corner who gave world culture a twist, gets a little credit and no reward. George Miller, the originator of the whole thing, gets nothing. On Feb. 20, he tweeted at Rodrigues:
He didn’t even get a reply. The technology may have changed, but the money still flows the same way: to creators of contracts not creators of content.
More from Quartz