Update, 12/21: And it's official: "Gangnam Style" has now amassed over one billion views. Get on your imaginary pony and celebrate.
Original post follows.
Psy's Gangnam Style is now the most-viewed YouTube video ever, and as we go to press Monday morning that means it's been watched coming up on 830 million times. That means that the single biggest pop culture event of 2012--the video you're most likely to talk about with your grandma at Christmas--was, as I predicted back in 2011, an LMFAO-soundalike dance-pop track performed entirely in Korean and wrapped around a novelty horse-dance.
The particulars of every cultural phenomenon are different; Psy's as good an example of that as we're likely to get. But behind his success there has to be something that can be dissected, generalized, and exploited, or at least that's what I'm going to tell you if you send a message to my "Web 2.0 New Media Social Trend Analysis Analyst" LinkedIn profile.
So what makes a billion-view video? What's the formula? So far as I can tell, there are two options: The Gangnam and the Bieber.
If Psy avoids the full measure of fame-backlash from the 13-year-olds who downvote YouTube videos because they enjoyed them two years ago and they are stupid! and for little kids!, it'll be because the video his putsch deposed was Justin Bieber's "Baby," which had 800 million views and almost no casual fans.
That's the Bieber method, and if you watched the American Music Awards last week (or talked to someone who did [or watched the M.C. Hammer thing on YouTube last week, or talked to someone who did]), you saw it in action. Winning a pop culture popularity contest isn't about being the most popular, or having the most fans--it's about having fans who are devoted enough to mobilize themselves into ballot-stuffing, YouTube-watching brigades. Contrary to the usual knock on them, awards like these measure neither talent nor popularity--they measure fandom.
If your hyperdevoted fanbase is large enough (and hyperdevoted enough), it doesn't matter how much of an anathema you are to everybody else. The last four AMA winners (Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, twice each) and the overall success of niche-targeted country singers and American Idol contestants illustrates just how successful the Bieber method can be when an award requires some marginal effort on the part of a singer's fanbase.
They're the musical equivalent of midterm elections; the absence of the people who can't be bothered to send 50 text messages to a special phone number or drive out to the elementary school at lunch increases the value of the determined few who would swear a blood oath to get Justin Bieber's name over One Direction's on a commemorative package of deli meat.
Those hyperdevoted fans can also be mobilized to watch videos 100 times, or at least until their dad (who just doesn't understand) kicks them off the computer in the living room. They can push somebody to the top of the charts because they're the only people who care about the charts.
The constant churn of social media means this strategy will remain viable indefinitely. But as YouTube expands it's going to be more difficult to get your contingent of Beliebers or Directioners or Taylor Swift veterans for truth large enough, relative to YouTube's broader population, to exercise this kind of control.
Which leaves the Gangnam method.
1. Make something novel enough that people want to talk about it. This is true of almost any internet meme: "Gangnam Style" was successful online because it felt so weird. When I first watched it, the language barrier and the dancing combined with the high production values to make me feel like there was some bizarre alternate universe of goofy music videos that I'd been missing my entire life.
2. But not too new--make it inoffensive enough that people want to talk about it to everybody. "Gangnam Style" broke out of internet-meme-prison, though, because unlike other memes I didn't just want to talk about it with other people like me.
Most memes I really enjoy strike me as something my friends who have a passing awareness of internet culture would like. "Gangnam Style" seemed like something my boss would like, and my mom, and just about anybody with a smartphone who I had to kill a few minutes with.
3. Make people feel good about themselves and the universe after they're finished watching it with somebody else. This is the big one.
The Bieber method feeds on intense feelings of love and hate. Beliebers, Directioners et al--again, like political bases--are at their strongest when they believe themselves to be besieged on all sides by haters and downvoters, or even other, ideologically impure Beliebers or Directioners.
Really effective fandoms are embroiled in a state of permanent revolt that Fidel Castro would probably appreciate, if he only understood what it really means to be a Belieber. But as a veteran of the Great Harry Potter Shipping Wars of the 20-aughts I feel qualified to say that it becomes exhausting, after a while, to vote in every poll, comment on every Livejournal debate, and sabotage every competing hashtag.
Psy does not ask you to smelt iron in your backyard and turn scrap metal into enormous statues of lieutenants on fake-horseback. He has not inspired a single teenaged girl to orient her social life around promoting his career. He's just less relentlessly knowing than LMFAO, less calculated than One Direction, less divisive than dubstep, and exactly compelling enough to entertain everybody. For "Gangnam Style" to reach 800 million views, it only needed to make you kind of happy for a minute.