Harlem Shake It Out

One week ago, five Australian skateboarders who were obviously feeling like they had a little extra time on their hands decided to get a little creative with artist Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake” (see video below).  Only a few hours after posting the video on their YouTube channel TheSunnyCoastSkate, it was picked up by a second group of motivated young men who decided to make a video with the similar unique flare.

Since then, thousands of these videos have been popping up all over the Internet, and the featured participants have extended far beyond the likes of the initial filmmakers. People who have caught the Harlem Shake fever include everyone from firemen to Norwegian soldiers, office workers, a father and son combo, and even T-Pain.

These videos are amusing, but I think that they give us a great case study to continue to discussion of why videos go viral.

We discussed the different aspects of what could make or break a video from going viral or falling to the wayside, and it seemed to boil down to two primary factors: 1) the video getting picked up by key influencers and 2) luck.

I want to explore the other side of viral videos. What motivates people throughout the world to spend the time creating and sharing these videos? It’s one thing to sit around watching YouTube videos of other people oftentimes making fools of themselves, but what drives someone to be the fool?

I believe that this motivation lies behind our yearning to be a part of something that larger than each and every one of us alone. We live in a world that is more connected than ever. I can see what is happening in Japan, Australia, Chile and beyond with a few buttons. This sense of connectivity actually drives us to feel like a speck of sand on the beach. Having so much access to see what others are doing across the world gives us a constant awareness that so much else is happening outside of our own lives.

How do we overcome this sense of just being another speck of sand on the beach? By joining with all those grains to build a sandcastle. Be a part of something unique, and you will become unique yourself.

If you feel like you have some extra time over the next few days and want to join a movement that bigger than yourself, just take the following simple steps:

  1. Among a group of people, have one masked friend play “Harlem Shake” by Baauer on a computer, iPhone, or any other audio device. Dance to the beat of the song as it builds.
  2. When the song bass drops, cut to a shot of the entire room of people ridiculously dancing in any way possible.
  3. Share it on YouTube.
  4. Join the movement.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Is it time for MI621 to Harlem Shake it out?


  1. This was a great post! The “Harlem Shake” has definitely been really popular lately. Friends have sent me numerous videos from YouTube. I agree that while luck is involved in posting these videos, it also comes down to the idea that we all want to be part of a big social movement like you said. We want to be part of something large. This connects well to the idea of “Flash Mobs.” These dance videos were really popular and captures the fact that people enjoyed being part of something big. YouTube videos go through popular themes. While flash mobs were popular the past few years, it seems like Harlem Shake has taken over for the time being. They are amusing videos! As for mi621…we’ll have to see…

  2. Funny – I just read an article earlier on Boston.com on people in the area making some Harlem Shake videos in the snow: http://www.boston.com/yourtown/specials/gallery/boston_harlem_shake/?rss_id=Top+Stories

    I think that there are a few different “strands” of viral videos. You could probably divide them into categories, perhaps: celebrity driven (the most forced, often where corporate money hires a celebrity to ‘make a viral video’), accident/fail (news bloopers), participatory (harlem shake, fan videos of ‘the dougie,’ planned out (wedding dances, flash mobs), and truly unique, unexpected viral videos (the most authentic, in my opinion, like ‘charley bit my finger’). I think if you analyzed each of those types of videos (and perhaps other categories that I did not identify), you might find that each takes a different path to widespread sharing. I think sometimes advertisers can conflate different sorts of viral videos and as a result have misguided expectations. For example, I think it is nearly impossible to buy a truly viral video. Viewers can sense when something is not genuine, and they can smell an astroturf movement (as opposed to a grassroots movement) from a mile away.

    The Harlem Shake videos have caught on because they are simple to make, fun to make/watch, and they center around the content creator. Allowing the participants to share the work that they have done in a fun way plays into narcissistic tendencies. The song is also super catchy and is really memorable, even when listened to in short bits.

  3. Interesting post! I hadn’t seen some of those other versions – I’m pretty impressed with what people are coming up with.

    I personally don’t believe in luck, but I would actually like to replace it anyways for another element: shock factor. I don’t think content has to be necessarily “shocking” but something different that gets our attention. We are so saturated by our own media that it takes something different to make us notice. Whether it’s the “Jennifer Aniston sex tape” or the “Harlem Shake,” it has to be something we didn’t expect, never thought of, or didn’t see coming (or basically that makes us wish we had thought of it first).

    From there, I think it relies on top influencers in addition to rapid sharing through social networks. Even if I find something from a top influencer, I have to be compelled to show someone, share with someone, in order for it to continue spreading and gaining popularity.

  4. Interesting, although I think you missed the most interesting aspect of the phenomenon. It’s not really the video that has gone viral, but the idea (actually, likely properly called the “meme” but that term is developing a very specific meaning in social media). Like planking or Tebowing, its people sharing their own expression of the underlying idea. That’s a much deeper level of engagement than sharing a video, but recreating it. Thanks for sharing. I’d never learn about these things if it weren’t for you guys!

  5. Curses! I just fell into a Harlem Shake wormhole for the last 45 minutes.

  6. I think, to add on to Professor Kane, that it is the idea that by joining the phenomenon you can both be a part of a cool trend and therefore achieve some level of popularity/”cool”/status, while simultaneously gaining uniqueness when you think you have your own rendition that you’re able to top everyone else with. I think joining the phenomenon is both to gain a sense of individuality and sameness simultaneously if that makes sense.

    I haven’t looked at them yet and I am afraid to because I know my productivity for the night will be shot :) Definitely looking forward to the BC one getting posted though!

  7. I second Ro’s statement

    On that note, it seems like people cant get enough of these videos. I was just exposed to them this past weekend, but I can’t seem to get enough of them. It’s amazing what people can come up with.

    I have always wondered how people get these ideas and more importantly what drives them to actually do it. I think you’re right when you say people want to be unique. People want to be bigger then themselves and to do that they need to stand out and make it public. The Harlem Shake is a great way to get yourself out there and show the world what you are made of!

    I also agree with Professor Kane’s idea that it’s more of the idea that has gone viral rather than the video. I think the reason people copy this idea is because they, themselves think they can do it better and they want to be known as the person with the best, most unique, and most viewed Harlem Shake video. I know I would!

  8. Its crazy how a crazy video like this can be spread all over in just a matter days and in some cases hours. Yes i agree with exactly what you say about a video being picked up by a key influential person. All a video needs is a tweet or a like from an individual with a large number of followers and your well on your way to becoming viral. Additionally i agree with what you said about people wanting to be part of something bigger than themselves. I think people sometimes get bored and think “hmmm what if we made a crazy video how many views on youtube could we get”? And bam a million or so views later a simple time filling video turns into entertainment for millions.

  9. I had never heard of this dance/concept until reading your blog post, and like Ro, I just spent the past hour at work watching different versions of this. It is amazing to me that this idea is able to spread like wild fire to so many different groups of people, even around the world.

    I still question why videos go viral. I agree with you: luck & that key person is so important, but to me, there must be something else. I found a TED talk on why videos go viral (http://www.ted.com/talks/kevin_allocca_why_videos_go_viral.html) if you’re interested. In the TED talk, Kevin Allocca is YouTube’s trends manager, and he shares his thoughts about why videos go viral.

    Here are the main reasons he shares:
    1. tastemakers (Like Jimmy Kimmel, making things cool)
    2. unexpectedness
    3. communities of participation

    I like the unexpectedness piece he adds here. Thanks for sharing your blog- it was very interesting!

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