Gangnam Style at 1bn views: what does our obsession with chubby South Koreans say about society? Exactly nothing

Obviously you’re one of the people on the internet, so you’ve seen Gangnam Style, which today reached its one billionth view.

(Cue at least three people below saying that not only haven’t they seen it, they haven’t even heard of it, and what is Gangnam Style, and so on. Okay, well done, you’re far more high-minded than the rest of us, and you have no time for modern frippery, and we’re very impressed, and now click here.)

I think we can all agree, without too much argument, that Gangnam Style is not the best or the catchiest tune ever, nor the funniest video, nor really anything. It’s a slightly overweight South Korean man dancing like a horse to some mediocre Europop and periodically saying “hey sexy ladies” and “Wupwup Gangnam Style!” (I paraphrase.) It’s faintly amusing, but I have literally seen 10 funnier YouTube videos today, not least because someone tweeted “Greg Rutter’s Definitive List of The Things You Should Have Already Experienced On The Internet In 2012 Unless You’re a Loser or Old or Something” earlier on and I’m a bit demob-happy on the last Friday before Christmas.

Anyway. What is it about Gangnam Style that caught the public attention so much? What cultural lessons can we learn? Is the world ready for a South Korean horsedance-Europop revolution, as some seem to think?

No. We can learn precisely nothing about the world, about taste, about culture: we can learn, only, once again, that everything in life is contingent on randomness. In his book The Black Swan, Nicholas Nassim Taleb points out that we have an overriding need to “narrativise” (yes, it’s a hideous word) everything, to turn it into a story. It’s our way of compressing the information in the world to a manageable amount. But we overdo it: we make narratives when we have no data, we tell plausible but unfounded stories to fill gaps. So when something, for instance Harry Potter, becomes incredibly and unpredictably popular, we come up with reasons for it, even though we have no idea what the reasons are.

The real reason, incidentally, is usually that there is no reason, beyond randomness. It’s called positive feedback: a small disturbance from an equilibrium magnifies itself and causes a runaway process. The classic example is in crowds: everyone talks quietly, and everyone can hear each other, but one person speaks a little louder, so the people around have to speak a little louder to hear, until everyone is almost yelling. Then a small random dip in volume will cause people around to hush for a moment to see what’s happening, and a silence suddenly shoots around the hall.

Gangnam Style, or any internet meme, is at least partly the result of a randomly begun runaway positive feedback process. Hundreds of thousands of silly potential memes are floating around the internet at any one time. But every so often one gets a little, quasi-random kick – a tweet by a celebrity, a spot on a Buzzfeed article – and if enough quasi-random kicks happen quickly enough, it takes off.

Which is fine, and sort of obvious, now that I type it out. But it means that we can’t either a) make grand statements about what Cultural Phenomena Tell Us About Humanity In 2012 or b) judge humanity for their appalling taste in music videos (or books: cf Fifty Shades of Grey). We just have to accept that sometimes really unimpressive things become incredibly popular, it’s just the workings of randomness, and there’s nothing we can do about it, although it is a shame that the most-watched thing in human history is so utterly vapid.

A more interesting question, which if anyone has an answer to I’d love to read, is whether “one billion views” translates to “one billion people have seen it”. Presumably a lot of people have seen it several times, but also, presumably, lots of people have seen it with friends. Has one-seventh of humanity really seen a dude dance like a horse? I’d be interested to know.

Read all Tom Chivers’ Telegraph Blog posts here
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