Opening Shot

Viral videos across borders

Taste test “What Does The Fox Say?” swept through Europe, Canada, South Africa, and the Pacific Rim, but South America wasn’t interested.

When YouTube began releasing the top trending videos in 61 countries and many US cities, Ethan Zuckerman decided to probe the data with a simple question: What videos do two countries have in common? The result is “What We Watch,” a project by the MIT Media Lab and Center for Civic Media, which Zuckerman runs, that shows how videos spread online by monitoring their popularity, country by country. The trajectory also illuminates relationships between nations. For example: A Punjabi pop song becomes simultaneously popular in India, the United States, and Germany, in accordance with labor migration. Or last summer’s smash hit “What Does the Fox Say?” by the Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis, which trended first in their homeland but only spread once the video hit Canada. One promise of the digital sphere is access to increasingly diverse media. But cyberspace doesn’t often live up to its vow of borderlessness. “We’ve gotten an internet that seems to be very good at reinforcing local dialogues and local presences,” says Zuckerman. Perhaps sitting with another nation’s time-wasters might help bridge the gap. 

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.