Viral Video

The Economics of Pussy Riot on YouTube


Members of the all-girl punk band "Pussy Riot" Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (C), Maria Alyokhina (R) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (L), sit behind bars during a court hearing in Moscow on July 20, 2012.

Photograph by Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/GettyImages

Members of the all-girl punk band "Pussy Riot" Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (C), Maria Alyokhina (R) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (L), sit behind bars during a court hearing in Moscow on July 20, 2012.

News flash: The jailed Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot “did not gain international fame through their musicality per se.”

That insight—none too surprising if you’ve ever clicked on a Pussy Riot video on YouTube—appears in an academic paper (pdf) by three electronic-commerce researchers from the University of Texas, Austin. The 45-page paper, filled with equations and Greek letters, explains how being deliberately offensive can help a video break through the clutter on YouTube, where 72 hours’ worth of video are uploaded every minute. “Most viewers were drawn to [their] videos out of curiosity,” not a desire to watch a high-quality clip, write professor Andrew Whinston and PhD students Liangfei Qiu and Qian Tang.

Not everyone aspires to be Pussy Riot, which staged such provocations as trespassing in a Russian Orthodox Church—a performance that drew two-year prison sentences for three band members. But Whinston, an economist who is a professor of management science and information systems, says it’s important for marketers to understand the various qualities that make one video go viral and another go unnoticed.

Google’s (GOOG) YouTube is quickly becoming not only a major commercial site, but a place where people can launch careers, Whinston notes, pointing to the success of people like Michelle Phan, who posts makeup tips on her own channel on YouTube.

The University of Texas paper explains the two reasons people click on a video that lots of other people have clicked on. One is “social learning”; the fact that others have watched it tells you it must be good. A very different reason is “network effect”; whether the video is good or not, it becomes more valuable to watch it if others are watching it. It then becomes a topic of conversation—and the more people have seen it, the livelier the conversation.

Pussy Riot videos—and the recent anti-Islam movie that inflamed the Muslim world—have lots of views on YouTube but also very low ratings. For those videos, the “network effect” predominates over the “social learning” effect. Overall on YouTube, the paper says, social contagion consists of about 60 percent network effect and 40 percent social learning effect.

One implication of the Texas research on network effects, says Whinston, is that YouTube should probably put more effort into “seeding” videos—that is, trying to get a critical mass of people to watch them so that others will follow suit and the video will have a chance to go viral.

Pussy Riot doesn’t need any advice on going viral. The punk rockers seem to have embraced the in-your-face philosophy of artist Pablo Picasso and Andre Malraux, the novelist who became France’s minister of cultural affairs. In the introduction to their paper, the authors quote Malraux on Picasso: “You’ve got to create images they won’t accept. Make them foam at the mouth. Force them to understand that they’re living in a pretty queer world.”

Coy_190
Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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