If you still have not heard of the Harlem Shake you must be living in a cave. Much has been written about the rapid and global spread of this catchy internet meme, yet little is understood about how it spread. A series of remixed videos along with a number of key communities around the world triggered a rapid escalation, giving the meme widespread global visibility. Who were the initial communities behind this mega-trend? SocialFlow took a look at 1.9 million tweets during a two-week period that included the words 'harlem shake', or some versions of it.
The Harlem Shake itself is a dance style born in New York City more than 30 years ago. During halftime at street ball games held in Rucker Park, a skinny man known in the neighborhood as Al. B. would entertain the crowd with his own brand of moves, a dance that around Harlem became known as 'The Al. B. Though it started in 1981, the Harlem Shake became mainstream in 2001 when G. Depfeatured the dance in his music video "Let's Get It." While mining Twitter data, references to Harlem Shake (the original dance) were seen quite often prior to it becoming a popular meme. When someone tweets, "I just passed my final exams! *harlem shakes*," it's the equivalent of saying "I just passed my final exams! Look at me dancing!" While Bauuer's now infamous track was released on Diplo's Mad Decent label back in August 2012 (posted to YouTube on August 23 2012), it only accrued minor visibility for the first few months. Then February hit, and something changed.
The timeline below highlights the very first days as the meme was taking off. In blue, we see references to the 1980's dance *harlem shakes*, while the green curve represents Tweets that use the phrase 'The Harlem Shake', many of them linking to one of the first three versions of the meme on YouTube.
On February 2, The Sunny Coast Skate (TSCS) group establish the form of the meme in a YouTube video they upload. On the 5, PHL_On_NAN posts a remix (v2), gaining 300,000 views within 24 hours, and prompting further parodies shortly after. On Feb. 7, YouTuber hiimrawn uploaded a version titled "Harlem Shake v3 (office edition)" featuring the staff of online video production company Maker Studios. The video becomes a hit, amassing more than 7.4 million views over the following week, and inspiring a number of contributions from well-known Internet companies, including BuzzFeed,CollegeHumor, Vimeo and Facebook.
Social Flow looked at the social connections amongst users who were posting to the meme. This gave them the ability to identify the underlying communities engaging with the meme at a very early stage. In the graph above each node represents a user that was actively posting and referencing the Harlem Shake meme on Feb 7 or 8 to Twitter. Connections between users reflect follow/friendship relationships. The graph is organized using a force directed algorithm, and colored based on modularity, highlighting dominant clusters - regions in the graph which are much more interconnected. These clusters represent groups of users who tend to have some attribute in common. The purple region in the graph (left side) represents African American Twitter users who are referencing Harlem Shake in its original context. There's very little density there as it is not really a tight-knit community, but rather a segment of users who are culturally aligned, and are clearly much more interconnected amongst themselves than with other groups.
After a similar analysis on the following two days (Feb 9 and 10) different communities can be seen emerging, resulting in a much more tightly knit graph structure. While the same dense cluster of musicians and DJs (in turquoise) still exists, there are substantially more self-identified YouTubers both across the US and the UK. At the same time there's a significant gamer / machinima cluster that's also participating, as well as a growing Jamaican contingent, and quite a few dutch profiles (purple -- left). Additionally, we see various celebrity and media accounts who caught on to the meme -- @jimmyfallon, @mashableand @huffingtonpost. By capturing the two snapshots, we can also make sense of the evolution of the meme as it becomes more and more visible. At first, loosely connected communities separately humored by the videos. Within days, we see major media outlets jump on board, and a much more intertwined landscape. We see different regions in the world light up, and identify communities of important YouTube enthusiasts who effectively get this content to spread.
Memes have become a sort of distributed mass spectacle, a mechanism that both capture people's attention, and define what is "cool" or "trendy." We see more and more companies and brands try to associate themselves with certain memes, as a way to maintain a connection with their audience, gain the cool factor. Pepsi did this with the Harlem Shake and saw an incredibly positive response.
As we get better at identifying these trends and trend-setting communities early on, the pressure to participate will rise. As social networks become globally-intertwined, we're witnessing a growing number of memes conquer the world at large. These moments are critical points in time, where there are significant levels of attention given towards a specific entity - be it a joke, funny video or a political topic. Piecing together data from social networks can help us identify critical points in time, as well as the underlying communities and trendsetters for the humor-based memes, or the agenda setters for politically-slanted ones. The only question is: what will be the next one, cashing in on it 15 minutes?