Web puts fame within reach

PATRICK MAY
Last updated 05:00 29/01/2014

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Karen Chung wanted to do two things: learn to dance hip-hop in a year, and then share her joy with the rest of the planet.

She posted her two-minute dance video on YouTube one Tuesday morning in July. Facebook friends passed it around, and social media sites Reddit and Mashable grabbed it and flung it every which way.

By bedtime on Wednesday, Girl Learns to Dance in a Year had 280,000 YouTube views. By Thursday, nearly a million had watched Cheng finding her groove. It got another million hits by Friday, and it has been hurtling through internet space ever since.

"I'm overwhelmed," said the 26-year-old web designer, still reeling from her byte-born debut. "You can share a video all you want, but you can't make people reshare it. My message must have really resonated."

It is not only the Justin Biebers and Ashton Kutchers who have harnessed the power of social media to supercharge their careers. The internet and tools such as Twitter and Instagram have turned scores of nobodies into somebodies. Some had huge talents; others relied on equal amounts of pluck and luck. But they all found cyberfame in ways not possible 20 years ago.

Fame ain't what it used to be. Red-hot and out of the blue, the online notoriety Cheng and other individuals, companies and special-interest groups are achieving today are a product of our digital era.

As sharing technologies blur social boundaries, wiping away lines once separating private from public and local from global, the concept of branding has been turned inside out. It is as if the whole internet was now some jam-packed casting call in the cloud.

"The very fibre of fame has changed," says author and branding consultant Peter Shankman, who calls the viral video the "metaphor" for this new kind of celebrity.

"The generation growing up now knows that fame can be achieved not only on a movie screen but by making a video that blows up on YouTube. Yet while fame's much easier to grab, it's also harder than ever to hold on to because it unfolds in this sort of short-attention-span theatre."

While stages such as Pinterest and SoundCloud are there waiting for us all to shine, this re-engineered fame comes wrapped in as much illusion as the old-fashioned variety.

There is "this belief that the internet is this amazing place to be discovered", Jason Cieslak, the president of branding firm Siegel+Gale, says. "But while a lot of people will try, most of them will fail over time and eventually give up."

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Cheng was the exception, and she is convinced her success was no fluke. In a blog post, she offered tips on how she did it, including keeping the video short (she shaved it to under two minutes), packing it with emotion (the viewer vicariously shares the hard work and dedication she put into the project), and most of all: telling a story.

"It's not just a story about dancing," she wrote. "It's about having a dream and not knowing how to get there - but starting anyway.

"People want stories. That's what all TV, movies and books are. Tell a story."

In this redefined world of sudden mass exposure, YouTube serves as the centre spotlight. Much more than 140-character tweets or Pinterest boards, videos seem to carry that emotional heft that marketing executive Devra Prywes sees as crucial to making people want to share what they see.

"We study why viral videos work," Prywes says. "And we've found that they don't have to be sexy or flashy to be highly shared. A video goes viral because it makes people feel something. What matters most is making that emotional connection, which then makes people who feel it want to share it with others."

Despite the fleeting nature of digitalised notoriety, a simple truth endures: While the online stage is very public, it is often the very personal that attracts the most attention.

Cheng was passionate about this point: Seeing someone perform at the top of their game is seeing only a small part of the whole picture. What you do not see, she says, is the blood, sweat and tears that eventually gave birth to the performance.

"You don't see the self-doubt, the lost sleep, the lonely nights spent working," explains Cheng, who has turned her success into a startup to inspire and showcase others' 100-day projects.

"You don't see the moment they started. The moment they were just like you, wondering how they could ever be good."

But then you see the girl learn to dance. And you cannot help but pass it on.

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