News & Views

Social Media Dances to the Tune of Evolution: Engineering a Hit with #SELFIE

by Contagious Contributor

by Oliver Luckett

You might have heard The Chainsmokers’ song '#SELFIE.'  If you haven’t, you will – it's become one of the most viral songs around the world and is destined for summertime dancefloors. 

At the beginning of March, '#SELFIE' hit No. 1 on iTunes’ Top 10 dance chart in the US, within days The Chainsmokers had a major label deal. The video (which my company, theAudience, produced) has been viewed more than 41 million times.

But just a few months ago, Drew and Alex, the two DJs who make up The Chainsmokers, didn’t expect this success. They were talented artists looking for a break, and they had something people wanted: infectious personalities and great music. Their song couldn’t have been more timely, playing off 2013’s 'Word of the Year', a massive social phenomenon.

The huge success of ‘#SELFIE’ says a lot about the state of social media – and its opportunities. And I’ll tell you that story in a few minutes. But first a little bit of theory. People have talked about the social 'ecosystem', as if it comprises distinct, intelligent consumers for a long time. But they’ve always overlooked one key fact: social-media networks are the heart of the ecosystem. They are holonic structures – individual, but acting as a whole. 

Growing up I was a biology buff, which is an admittedly strange thing for a kid to be. When I was six, over three decades ago, my grandfather gave us the choice of a getting three-wheeler or a computer. Naturally, I chose the computer, and I became fascinated by what happened when you plugged it into a phone line: it became something else, a portal to a vast world of information that didn’t exist in the Mississippi Delta.

Fast-forward a few decades: the creation of social media networks turned computers and smartphones into something even more amazing: doorways into a landscape, nourished by content and thriving on emotion expressed through the act of sharing.

Sharing is the single most important activity that happens on social networks. Our physical computer networks are merely the substrate for a new meta-creature, the social organism (which ties back in to my love of biology). Sharing feeds the living organism, and a new form of social media creates itself in the process.

Now, back to The Chainsmokers. When you examine this social-media organism through the lens of biomimicry, you can see the seven basic rules that facilitate life itself are remarkably similar to seven basic principles that drive social media success. Let's see how the popularity of '#SELFIE' illustrates them.

First, content must be nourished. The Chainsmokers had already planted seeds online through music and videos – but those seeds needed to be fed. We needed to find a way to nourish what they had planted. The video we produced with their direction was the key, and it tied in perfectly to the popular social meme of a 'selfie'. The song reflected what everyone was already doing within pop culture itself, tapping into strong, vanity-based emotions.

That’s important, because emotions are the currency of social networks. Drew and Alex were certainly living in a world of emotions – their amazing perspective on the world is what intrigued me so much. I thought people would be instantly drawn to them and want to share their enthusiasm, because social-media 'vanity' encapsulates emotion.

Emotions are the reason we want to share things. Create a fantastic piece of content that isn't emotionally authentic and you’ve got content no one wants to share. You can't force people to share things, so 'frictionless sharing' – sharing that comes about so genuinely that it propagates itself – is incredibly important. We all know someone like the people in the '#SELFIE' video, which is one of the big reasons we love sharing it.

That's because the flow of ideas can't be obstructed. Visualize the concept of water traveling from the ground into the roots of a tall tree and ultimately into its tiniest leaves. A similar process happens with online sharing. The moment you halt that flow – through restrictions, pre-roll ads or irrelevant content – you have failed to nourish what you've created, and it dies. Of course, you can monetize your content – in marketing, you have to monetize content. But monetization can’t restrict the flow. We did everything possible to encourage sharing of the '#SELFIE' video on all platforms, including our own multichannel network, so sharing was global and unobstructed.

You have to be careful, though, because the 'social organism' has an immune system. You’ve seen it in action: think about Paula Deen and the 'n-word' or the 'Turn Away the Gays' bill in Tennessee that got shot down due to social media. The social immune system rejects negativity: like most life forms, social thrives on positivity, and if you watch the video you’ll see that "#SELFIE" is energetic, fun and upbeat.

Of course, as the system grows, it becomes infinitely more complex. In the last decade, social media has grown from simple instant messages to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Google+, Tumblr, Pinterest and more. That’s why ubiquity is the new exclusivity. You have to be everywhere at once and reach audiences in ways that are authentic to each platform. There is no 'best' social platform – they all have followers, adherents and detractors. Not that long ago, being exclusive to one platform was exciting and innovative; now, the only real option is to be everywhere.

As it grows, social’s evolution is founded on memes. We had taken photos of ourselves for decades. But only recently, once the concept became identified as a meme, did we really notice.  Memetic expression is the evolution of social networks (and of our entire culture), and memes are the social equivalent of DNA.

Now, '#SELFIE' the song is becoming its own meme. And its popularity shows that being authentic and genuine not only makes my work with The Chainsmokers easier, it makes everyone’s social-media experience that much better.


Oliver Luckett (@Revilopark) is CEO and Founder of theAudience, one of the leading social-media content publishers in the world, which works with celebrities and companies to develop and execute innovative social-media programs. He was recently featured in the PBS Frontline documentary "Generation Like."