Creating Online Audiences That Break the Language Barrier

Most viewers of #GangnamStyle don't understand a single word of it.

How are messages going viral in today’s social media economy? Who picks up content and is willing to spread a video or a statement through their own social network?

This week, the Ellen Degeneres Show picked up a music video by the South Korean artist Psy and it is now quickly spreading in the United States. The number of viewers increased overnight by 10 million on YouTube (jumping from 144 million views to 153 million views). The celebrity boost started weeks ago when Britney Spears tweeted that she wants to learn the outrageous dance style, Justin Bieber’s manager hired Psy for his own portege, and many other celebrities chimed in.

This example shows that viral campaigns need the support of so-called network stars -- nodes in a network with a very prominent position who are connected to many other nodes. The messages are snowballing through the network and repeated (or retweetd and shared) over and over again.

The video was posted on July 15 and within a short two months it went viral. It features South Korean musician and comedian Psy and picked up more than 153 million views. Gangnam is the Korean word for the southern part of Seoul.

The video -- sung in Korean -- itself shows many symbols that can only be interpreted and identified by South Korean audiences who followed the artist Psy during the last 10 years, as Jason Lim, columnist for the Korean Times and a former student in my Social Network Analysis at the Kennedy School explained to me on Facebook:

  • Two very popular Korean comedians participate in the video (the yellow suit guy in the parking garage and the dancer in the elevator) are both rarely known outside of Korea.
  • The other symbols include references to Gangnam, a part of the nation’s capitol, Seoul, that is known for its upcoming new wealth. Previously one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city, it is now an area where you can get everything. As one of my former EMPA students tells me, there are more Mercedes Benz cars driving around than anywhere else in Korea. The video highlights expensive horse stables, high-rises, exclusive Yoga lessons, pools, and bold-colored sports cars as symbols for things you can only get access to in Gangnam.
  • “Gangnam style” therefore provokes two very different reactions among South Koreans: Either envy or pride.

For Koreans the symbols are easy to identify. Everyone knows about Gangnam and Psy was already known for his witty and outrageous gigs, according to Jason Lim, a columnist at the Korea Times, who responded to my Facebook post of the video.

One of my former EMPA students, Sungyeol Shin, reflects on Psy’s background and fame in South Korea:

Psy himself is a Gangnam guy, a very typical Gangnam school dropout case whose family was super rich. At his high days, the only way to go to a decent college in Korea was got a high score in SAT and he could not make it because he was good at the other thing, hanging around with his friends on the dance floor. So his parents sent him to the US and he found his talent in music there.


When he made his debut around 2000, he was a very ‘abnormal’ figure because he talked about his story (which was a very shameful one most modest Koreans wanted to hide) without any hesitation. Later, he went to the military in his 30s because the prosecutor found a forgery on the his military examination paper which changed his military service into an alternative civil service. (That was also a very typical “Gangnam style military manipulation by bribing the doctor”) The reason his abnormal attitude and acts were accepted in the society was he looked so funny and talked [about] it with a sense of humor. His face and posture completely betrays his background – a typical Gangnam guy. This song uses this contrasts very well. (Typical Gangnam things like Ferrari and skyscrapers are mixed with kitsches and cheap symbols like subway station and duck boats.)

The following video shows reactions of American teens who had never seen the video before and are filmed while they are trying to make sense of the dance style, the language and even the chorus “Gangnam style”. They do quickly identify it as K-pop (Korean pop), but can’t make sense of the title, the symbols in the video, and except for one will never want to hear and watch the video again:

With all successful online memes, the Gangnam style dance video was also used to mock presidential candidate Mitt Romney – giving him a more human character than most of his own speeches so far:

An addition to the Romney video added Obama’s dance move to the mix:

Mashable has put together a nice infographic about the anatomy of a viral video: