18 Feb 2013

Harlem Shake: The Life & Death of Super Memes

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At some point between January 30th and February 17th, 2013, you’ve been asked to either watch or participate in a “Harlem Shake” video. Regardless of how you feel about it, you’ve probably hummed it while brushing your teeth, or already imagined your pre- and post-beat drop dance.

You’re in the midst of another Super Meme wave.

What is a Super Meme?

It’s not just some image or video that is innocently passed between friends. A Super Meme shuts everything down and takes over any entertainment-related Internet time the world has. There is no escape, and you can either participate or be a grumpy cat about it.

The Internet of 2012 and beyond is particularly good at breeding memes like the Harlem Shake, the KONY documentary, and Gangnam style simply because they have the juice to rise stronger and faster on a global level.

There is a price to this rapid fame, however. Seeing as the Harlem Shake appears to have already reached its peak in only two weeks, way faster than any other video-specific hit, it’s more likely to see a steeper and more dramatic fall-off.

How do Super Memes become Super?

According to KnowYourMeme, the Harlem Shake video craze started when video blogger Filthy_Frank (who already had a pretty decent following) uploaded his version to YouTube in late January. All it took was a few more people to make parody videos to induce the wave. A Harlem Shake subreddit and Harlem Shake Tumblr page swiftly came into existence at the start of the spread. And next thing you know, 4,000 Harlem Shakes were being upload daily. I’m talking about one video on January 30th and 12,000 less than two weeks later. This is some serious shit.

How does this compare to Psy’s success?

We can look at the last over-saturated hits to attempt to derive trends. The following Google Insights chart compares Gangnam Style searches vs. Harlem Shake searches. Gangnam Style enjoyed a strong 5-6 month run but only really peaked for three of those months (felt like five seconds, didn’t it?). In February, Harlem Shake officially became more relevant that Gangnam Style once Psy decided he’s made more than enough money.

This shows us that Gangnam Style had a slower rise to viral success, while Harlem Shake is peaking much, much quicker. Does this mean it’ll have a lower shelf life? Can we assume that the harder they rise, the more tragically they’ll fall?

The Beginning of the End

The day uploads hit several thousands a day, you could already start hearing the social death knell. People were growing weary, particularly those who had become aware of the videos earlier on.



As a particular Internet sensation moves from its point of origin up toward the surface, public interest begins to wane. The more underground the source was when an individual is first exposed to it, the quicker they’re over it.


If you’re exposed to a meme on Reddit, by the time it gets two levels above (Twitter), it’s social value has dwindled significantly. By the time your parents are posting it on Facebook, you might feel like quitting the Internet. However, if your first exposure is in the upper rungs of the social circle, you might happily ride the wave to its death.

Now what?

Harlem Shake is by far the fastest rising of all these video memes. Even though this is a more unique phenomenon (more than one video vs. one video with many views), it’s following a similar rise and peak as others, but can we expect it to fall even more precipitously?

According to 10yetis, during the last two weeks of Gangnam Style’s peak, the media coverage continued, while public interest declined. So for as much as we’d like to be at the forefront of making things “viral”, marketing budgets and news media have had a strong hand in keeping these things popular for an extended amount of time.

In fact, Pepsi and GoDaddy are one of the first major brands who have uploaded their own versions of the Harlem Shake and are doing so in the tail-end of its popularity. Marketing departments are mobilizing right now to upload their own version of the Harlem Shake. It’s getting awkward, guys.

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