The Harlem Shake has erupted and shaken the world. Why?
Whether you're an entrepreneur, a writer, an artist -- or pretty much anyone else -- you must know what works, what doesn't, and why. What's going to get shared, and what's going to get canned like chopped liver -- in short, here's a how-to for going viral.
Let's take a look at the Shake's essential ingredients. Here are four lessons behind the sensation.
1. It's short and simple, but dense and structured
There are only two rules for the Harlem Shake: 1) one person dances around, ignored, usually with a funny mask on, for 15 seconds followed by 2) chaos. No rules. A dense comic book page teeming with vignettes, or people repetitively doing one very random, spasmodic motion.
For the watcher of the clip, it becomes a Where's Waldo game. I've found myself often pausing the video to make time for closer examination of all the different characters and have had the warm sweet rush of stumbling upon little Easter eggs, like the guy falling from the window in the original army edition.
We humans love structure. Lists! Aren't we all crazy about lists and rankings? Go to YouTube, or even just surf around Huff Post and you'll notice that many of the popular pieces involve that type of form because it's an instant turn on. It's like a Dan Brown, or Agatha Christie: you know the structure, but you're thirsty for the style.
More generally, we just find it nice to know what to expect and when, because we like getting in the mindset of actively craving something. Many successful TV shows build off of this theory by having a structural blueprint, often divided into sub-sections or skits. Fonz had his AYYY, and the bastards always kill Kenny.
2. It builds anticipation, then hits you like a bullet
I find the first 15 seconds to be the most striking part of this movement, because they're really boring, but for some reason we can't turn away. Think about it: we naturally make sense of our environment pretty swiftly, which is why Charles Darwin hasn't killed us off quite yet. That means we get it: how long does it really take to piece out what's happening in the first half of each Shake video? It's just one fellow dancing alone, surrounded by the world's most uninterested crowd. That takes maybe 2-3 seconds to grasp, so the remaining 12-13 seconds are spent getting fired up about the promise to come. The setting is congruent with the music, that builds up until the beat drops.
We're really looking at a Jaws phenomenon. The theme music that marks the deathly arrival of the hungry shark will stick with most of us for the rest of our days. The tempo starts slow, and the strings are low-pitched, like an ominous, sinister drumroll. The we pick up some pace and make a sharp turn for the strident. The music is now mimicking your heart way or is it the other way around (?) you don't know anymore because now the shark is in view or rather just its ghastly fin and the stupid swimmers are so childishly gleeful and oblivious! Get out! Get out!
And then the flash. Bam! The shot's fired and you're struck with a spray of absurd concurrent impressions. It's an automatic adrenaline release, positive juices flushing around your brain like water down a waterslide. The sights are just the right balance of funny and awkward. Your expectations are met. How nice.
Again, please! Again. And so you crave and watch 10 more.
3. It's a template that allows for limitless customization
The premise of the Harlem Shake phenomenon is that's it's wildfire, an incandescent grass-roots movement different from Gangnam Style because it's not centered around one billion+ view video. We're going to see thousands and thousands of remixes in the weeks to come because let's face it, every self-respecting university, company, sports team, clique or group of some sorts will want their version to laugh about and savor a year from now.
The Shake is joining the Hall of Fame inhabited by other Internet memes like planking, flash mobs and Call Me Maybe lip-synching, which share many of the viral features mentioned here. But let's take an example that's not a viral video: Apple and the App Store. Universally, there is something incredibly potent about making a framework or skeleton and releasing it to the world. There are millions of developers waiting to build off of what you've done and make apps for you. A movement just keeps becoming more powerful as this cloud of creativity and energy expands.
4. Everyone's dying to go crazy: this is their chance to get loose
The most memorable celebrations are those where everyone is uninhibited,
feeling comfortable enough to do their thing, even if their thing is bad dance moves. That's why people like crowded night scenes with loud music, minimal lighting, and a steady stream of alcohol. Even with all that magic combined, dancing can still feel uncomfortable.
The Harlem Shake is that excuse we need. It shifts the spotlight away from you and allows you to do even in midday what under strobe lights would be osé because you now belong to a movement. It's generally understood that you leave your shyness and dignity at the door because the goal IS to be the biggest laughingstock. Neither Gangnam Style nor Harlem Shake expect you to be a graceful dancer. You either do the trademark dance move, or jiggle around.
Yes, I think that perhaps the nicest part of all this Shaking is that positive backbone. Everyone's welcome to sample, remix and share a laugh. Everyone's invited to be hilariously crystallized in the painting.