Accidentally Viral: A Website, A YouTube Channel, and a Clever Middle Schooler

Ever since I was young, I’ve always had a passion for computers. In fact, I created my first “website” in elementary school, stringing together Microsoft Word documents that I managed to open as web pages. Obviously, that website didn’t get much exposure my brother and I were its two most active (and only) users. Since then, my techniques have gotten a bit more sophisticated, but that drive I developed has remained the same.

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Fast forward to 2007, when I was in sixth grade. In my middle school, we were allowed to use the computers during “study hall” if we finished our homework. Of course, as with all responsible school districts, these computers had strict firewalls that limited what sites we could and could not visit. Playing web-based computer games seemed off the table that is, until I realized I could create my own website that would still work on the school’s network. And thus, Free Addicting Games Online by Matt G was born. (Original name, right?)

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One of the early homepage designs from a 2009 archived screenshot.

 

After just days of sharing the URL with my friends at school, the site spread rapidly. It was almost as close to an overnight hit as you could get as a sixth grader in middle school I’d get texts on my LG Chocolate asking for the link, friends would come up to me asking about the site, and I was able to track several dozen hits to the website daily. That felt like a big deal, and so I kept at it.

 

Within a year, my website welcomed tens of thousands of visitors sometimes over 200 a day. Hundreds of free web-based computer games were in the hands of middle school students and others around the world (yes  Italy, Turkey, Spain, and Germany, to name a few). It seemed that my site became the go-to destination for this niche population, and I didn’t spend a dime advertising it. It had developed legs of its own, and in the context of this market, you could even argue that it went viral.

Cubefield Free Addicting Games Online by Matt G

One of the most played games on my website, with over 58,000 hits. Most of the site’s functionality has since broken, but the game still works!

 

In February 2013, I published a message to the site’s homepage to commemorate its five-year anniversary. As I started winding down my involvement in the site, I celebrated the over 500,000 visitors I had reached organically. I found that limitations in the web host made it costly and difficult to maintain. And of course, my school’s administration caught wind of my site and enforced a specific firewall setting to block access to my domains (definitely a bitter sweet feeling). Since then, the web host I used took down parts of my site, though some pages are still accessible if you search Google for “matt g games” one of my webpages is still the top result, over eight years later!

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Take a step back and I’ll illustrate another case study in which my clever middle school antics helped me create something that also went “viral”. When the Black Eyed Peas released their hit single “I Gotta Feeling” in 2009, I played that song on repeat to learn every word (you know, for the bar and bat mitzvahs). I discovered lyric videos on YouTube, and noticed that one didn’t exist for “I Gotta Feeling”. Perhaps a little too coincidentally, I was learning a new video editing software at the time which offered “captions” on different “slides” that could transition on a set basis. Used more for slideshows, I repurposed this software to create my very own lyric video for the song, and used pictures from the internet as the background. After uploading to YouTube (in the good ol’ days, before their algorithms automatically took down your copyrighted content), I shared the link with friends and posted it to my Facebook account.

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Screenshot of the video page from a 2010 archive. At the time of the screenshot, the video had over 116,000 views!

 

Unfortunately, the video is no longer accessible, but within the first year of posting, it got over 116,000 views! This was also organic in the sense that the video was never promoted or advertised beyond my close social circle. The success of this initial lyric video inspired me to make several others, with a video of Taio Cruz’s “Break Your Heart” reaching over 54,000 plays.

 

Of course, these two examples don’t exactly fall under the standard convention of viral content as it relates to our previous class discussion on virality. However, in the context of an everyday person like myself creating something on the internet (like a website, or videos on YouTube), sharing this content with one group of people and then discovering hundreds of thousands of others accessing it is quite fascinating, to say the least. The most remarkable part is that I’m not convinced I could’ve reached a larger audience even if I tried; after all, my goal at large wasn’t to reach people half way around the world. But hey, that’s the power of the internet.

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Further reading: Links to my gaming website and YouTube videos are up above. If you’re curious for more academic material on what causes “traditional” content to go viral, here are some good resources:

8 comments

  1. This is amazing and is a nice example of what we learned about last week in class! I can’t believe you were able to get so many organic visits to both your site and video (I just visited free addicting games online by Matt G and was a little disappointed I couldn’t still play cube runner). It really goes to show how fast things can take off and go viral.

  2. That’s awesome! There are so many tools that normal people can use to create something great and go viral. Most of the time, as in your case, the products were made for fun and virality was an intended consequence.

  3. Nice post! My kids definitely end up using similar sites like “Cool Math Games” that actually have nothing to do with math, but make the teachers think they do. Others have picked up on your innovation!

  4. I love this! I remember going on sites like this in middle school. I also feel like as well as a perfect example of virality, this also perfectly illustrates the power of network effects! You only shared this with a few friends, who then shared it with their friends, and suddenly it was half-way around the world, helping all middle schoolers sneakily use their computer time. It’s also cool to think, as you said, about this “niche” market that you were so successful in. In class, we usually use large examples of virality/network effect, but I forget that, just like you can market niche products, you can create niche groupings in terms of platforms/social media groups. I loved this real-world post–your classmates must have really appreciated your “gaming” of the system.

  5. What a great story!! You touch on an interesting aspect-sometime content goes viral without the host or author even trying. It would be interesting to see what commonalities your website has with other videos and games that have gone viral without any intention of doing so. I’m guessing it’s some tendency that comes with human nature-users feel connected to your content in some sort of way. Your specific story suggests that content that is relatable and enjoyable can have broad reach, even without advertising.

  6. Wait I love this Matt! I think it is amazing to think about just how far we have come in terms of website functionality and sophistication – but back in the early days it was possible to make these simplistic sites. I think of the “one-click” and “easy create” websites like Squarespace and Wix demonstrate just how far we have come – allowing anyone to become a content creator.

  7. I remember that phase! I taught myself how to build frames in HTML (ah, the old days) to make my very own fanpage for… something. I can’t even remember! I forgot my Geocities password long ago, and that was that. It’s great to see the internet as a place where anyone can create content. My websites definitely didn’t have as far as a reach as yours did. Makes you wonder how they would’ve done now, as more and more content gets created. Also makes me think about things go viral in a big way (like the JK wedding video) and how intentionality plays in.

  8. Love this story, Matt! I too dabbled in creating my own sites using Freewebs and had an awesome time with it. Although the audience I was trying to reach was just myself, I did show my friends and they thought it was really cool. It’s amazing to see how websites like Wix, which were born from the Freewebs of yesteryear, allow such incredible content creation for free compared to what we used to get back in the day. I just Googled your site and was able to still get on, which is great. Thanks for sharing!

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