Projet de recherche, financement RCDAV 2017–2019
Haute école d’art et de design – Genève

In Search of Buzz

Humor, surprise, the spectacular: one’s recourse to virality takes many forms and no one formula seems to guarantee its occurrence. The first months of research are reserved for an empirical approach – buzz for the sake of buzz, or how to circulate one’s message as widely as possible.

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Chocolate croissant or pain au chocolat? In 2017, a cybernaut unintentionally launched what became a passionate debate with the publication of a photograph taken in a Japanese bakery. Chocolate croissant or pain au chocolat, the Japanese chose sides in the polemic. This innocent image elicited thousands of likes and over 8,000 shares and the debate even made it to mainstream French media (20 MinutesLe Figaro). It doesn’t take much to create buzz; it depends as much on the message as on its form, its means of connection to social networks, time zones, platform algorithms, as well as the people whose job it is, such as influencers with vested interests. And then, sometimes… a simple play on words, a kid, a short pun and eight million views later (the second most viewed in 2017), a young boy can become an Internet celebrity whose fame even spreads to television.

Buzz can be based upon the offbeat or surprise by playing upon an event out of the ordinary, for example the remarkable aspect of an action like a stunt or excessive risk taking. It can also take the form of scandal or humor, or the desire to spread a rumor. Consequently, there are several levels of language and a wide array of possibilities that can engender virality.

In 2016, we decided to simply cast our lines and go fishing. Buzz for the sake of buzz, a full spectrum exploration whose intent was to plumb the depths of the plasticity of social networks, i.e. how content is shared, what flops, and what is simply blocked by the platforms themselves. Created in tandem with students, the experiments described here are short, very empiricial, with results that were often very surprising. Buzz is something to be handled with care.

 

TRial and error, seeking and finding, winning and losing

One can never foresee in advance what will flop, or what will pique the interest of the press in a matter of hours. The first experiments were based upon trial and error and enabled us to gain a better understanding of the selective and elective nature of virality and buzz. One must tread carefully.

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In 2016, photography students catfished the identity of their campus administration and posted a flyer in the corridors of the university: “NOTICE – Due to harassment issues, it is now prohibited to take photos or videos within this establishment on pain of immediate expulsion.” They published the notice on social networks and it immediately went viral. A photography school that prohibited photos – it was an absurdity that generated a lot of buzz and, the next day, the news outlet 24 Heures contacted the students. Since they had stolen the identity of their school, they chose not to take it any further. Images that generate buzz often seem to be epiphenomena that lack much informational value. Witness the innumerable baby and animal prattle varieties, or “Jackass”-type stunts or falls of strangers that circulate on the net. Here, students created an astonishing situation; the open question addressed to cybernauts is “don’t you see how absurd this is? A photography school that bans photography?” At this point, everyone now has a say in the matter and can voice their sigh of exasperation along with their stupefaction. This is the social link, this expressed collective astonishment is far from being an invention of social networks, it’s an elemental social mechanism.
What then are the dynamics that presage this virality? The individualization of the message and, simultaneously, its capacity for being shared, but also its extreme simplification, the effect of its synthesis, its reduction to a sound byte or a cliché. The message bounces around and sometimes returns like a boomerang.

A young woman with an IV wanders through a street in a medical gown, apparently lost. Someone films her and posts it on social networks. Its spectacular nature resides in the tragedy and unusual nature of the scene. The situation blows up on Facebook, comments multiply. The students had thought of everything except the resulting multiple calls to 911, fire and police departments. The consequent disturbance of the peace was not prosecuted by the authorities.

In 2015, the photograph of the child Aylan, drowned on the beach, went around the world. The image brought the unbearable realities of migrants to the fore, but, at the same time, the indirect way in which it was circulated millions of times made it into an allegory. Migrants and disturbing the peace: in the performance of the young wandering patient, as in the photo captured of Aylan, it is their emotional impact that prevails, our capacity to connect with the live drama of the situation and share it and to accept the task of being the means of relaying the message.

 

 

Provoking and committing

A bloody video challenges the taboo of menstruation and the mixed messages of visual codes in cinema and advertising. It is sampled design, images that are recovered, reworked and then republished.

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In 2017, when the #MeToo movement was in full swing, two students, Fahny Baudin and Aline Bovard, took aim at the taboo surrounding menstruation with a provocative film. They appropriated bloody scenes full of gore from films, comparing them with shots of bloodstained underwear, used tampons, etc. Their question was simple: why do media, popular culture and film bombard us with bloody images while it remains incredibly complicated to speak of menstruation in a straightforward manner with realistic imagery instead of being reduced to depicting blood as a bizarre blue liquid. By juxtaposing the two seemingly unrelated gory worlds of horror films and menses, the video reinvents a logical link, that lends perspective upon a topic that seems lost from the outset.

Menstruation is a dirty business which is only referred to obliquely with coyly prim imagery. Here the design consists of taking existing footage and mixing it with relatively raw shots related to periods. It is sampling, design created through reappropriation and redefinition, a digital hack job. The montage is an elaborate bricolage, the text is clear and in-your-face, but it remains a bricolage in the sense that the video totally falls short of the definitions of “academic design.” It is precisely because of this that the message retains its honest feel; the less institutional it seems, the more something gets distributed. The video, which was notably shared by feminist groups, was viewed around 4,000 times, and was the object of twenty-five shares in a matter of days.

 

 

FUMBLING THE BUZZ

Sometimes, missing the buzz can mean success. The last word is always reserved for platforms, even if the message engenders debate. Platforms (such as Facebook, Instagram, etc.) can brutally censure messages without warning.

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In 2017, students of the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie in Arles decided to denounce the violence of the bullfighting that is part of the culture of the region. To begin with, they signed themselves up on pages that were both for and against bullfights. Then they made a video. A woman covered with fake blood roams the arenas of Nîmes. Does the published video open a debate for or against bullfighting? It quickly got shared around fifty times, but was dubbed as spam by Facebook (either because it was reported or by algorithm), and could not get much further. The students again uploaded the video, this time taking a more radical anti-bullfighting stance. Their page was immediately barred from public circulation and their accounts were blocked, rendering all exchanges impossible. It touched local cultural sensibilities, but, as we saw several times over our two years of research, the platforms of social networks rule the game. One can quickly find oneself in a situation where the debate is over before it begins due to the impossibility of being able to access these tools. The militant feminist Dora Moutot explains that hacktivists cannot extend their audiences beyond platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and consequently remain totally dependent upon their good graces.