Going Viral

Warning! This is old. It was last updated in 2008 and may be obsolete, outdated, unsafe or just embarrassing. Treat with caution.
Tom Scott

Hello, I’m Tom Scott. This is a cut-down version of a talk I’ve given at BarCamp London 4 and BarCamp Leeds: the full version’s got three stories in and a lot more detailed advice, but this version has the key points. This is all about getting ideas out of your head and onto the web.

90% of everything is crap

Here’s the first, most important principle: Sturgeon’s Law. I realise this isn’t what Theodore Sturgeon actually said – it’s been cut down a bit over the years. It was in reply to a comment that “90% of science fiction is crap”, and he replied yes, it is – but only because 90% of everything is crap.

The odds are against you

Whatever you’re making, the odds are that it’s crap. It’s harsh, but it’s true. I don’t exclude myself from that. 90% of what I make is crap. And there are millions of videos on YouTube, with more being uploaded every second! Every second! Thousands and thousands of them, any one of which might somehow strike a chord with the internet at large. There’s a lot of luck involved in this.

But over time, I’ve found a few rules that have improved my odds a little.

Let ideas come naturally

Here’s the first: let your ideas flow naturally. If you sit round, with a committee, and ask “what’s funny? What can we make? What will people be interested in”, then you’re already on the wrong track. But you know that idea you had when you were in the shower, or in bed, or just letting your mind wander on the journey here today? That might be good. Your brain isn’t indexed so you can say “think of something funny”, just like if I point at you and say “think of a noun, any noun you like, but not something you can see” – it doesn’t work properly. Your brain thrives on connections. Don’t try and force connections that aren’t there.

Don’t try and overthink

Once that idea’s in your head, maybe you can run it by a few friends, see if it’s funny, or interesting, or whatever. But don’t sit down and plan it out. Don’t draft and redraft a script, patiently working out timings and blocking and all sorts of things. It’s not worth it. In the time it takes you to do that, you could have had half a dozen more ideas done and online.

Make it now

I procrastinate. Always have done. Probably always will. If left to my own devices, I’ll happily amass pages and pages of ideas and never make them. They’re not doing any good there. Make them, get them online.

Make it quickly

You don’t know whether your idea will work or not. And remember, the odds aren’t in your favour; chances are the internet as large will mostly ignore it. So don’t spend weeks of your life putting together some magnum opus for YouTube – save it for a better audience.

Make it cheap

Make it cheap. Same reason. Save the big-budget action-movie remake for when you get to sell the film rights. Spend the money on other ideas.

The next slide is the most important thing in this presentation.

The Effort : Awesome Ratio

A graph. The X axis runs from A Little Effort to Lots of Effort, and the Y axis from Not That Awesome to Really Awesome. Anything that has more effort than awesome is coloured red for 'do it', and anything else, blue for 'don't do it'.

This is the effort-to-awesome ratio. Along the X axis, you have the amount of effort – and along the Y axis, the amount of awesome. Yes, it’s very subjective, but then I’d like to see anyone come up with a quantitative unit for awesome.

Here’s the guiding principle for all the things I make: if it’s in the red, do it. If it’s in the blue, don’t do it. It’s that simple.

Don’t shoot for the moon

It might seem difficult to throw out some great ideas, but if you don’t have Industrial Light and Magic at your disposal, don’t try to be them. Yes, you might be able to create a giant CGI spaceship that flies above the people in your film, but I guarantee that it’ll look, well, a bit crap. Instead, point the camera down from the sky and just make a big shadow over the people below.

Remember Jaws

The shark’s so much scarier when you can’t see it, because you realise that, hey, it’s just a big fake rubber shark. If you can’t make a shark look real, or make it seem like your actors can actually act, don’t try your best and end up with something that’s only halfway good. Work around it. Think laterally.

This isn’t just for video

By analogy, you can apply this to a lot of stuff. If you’re one person, don’t try and run a sweeping, massive Alternate Reality Game; and don’t try to create some world-beating web site that’ll require 24/7 moderation and a team of customer support people. Think around it. Come up with something quickly and cheaply, make it work, and then take it from there.

Final thoughts

It’s worth it when an idea takes off. It really is. I’ve had some fantastic times – got in trouble with the government, got interviewed by Newsround, became Student Union President at York. So – here’s the most important part of this talk, the thing I want you to take away:

If you spent ten pounds,
it’s likely to fail

If you spent ten pounds on it, it’s likely to fail. It is. You might think it’s the greatest idea in the world, you might be sure that everyone else is stupid for ignoring it... but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s likely to fail.

But here’s the other part.

If you spent a million pounds,
it’s likely to fail

If you spent a million pounds, it’s likely to fail.

This is why big companies don’t “get” the web, and viral marketing, and all that. They rely on committees and advertising gurus. They overthink, they take too long, and they spend millions to get more or less the same odds of success as some bloke, with his webcam, in his bedroom.

90% of everything is crap

Remember that first principle. Don’t worry when things don’t work out. I used to think that everyone had a magical corporate influence detector, and that anything launched onto the web by big companies was doomed to fail. There isn’t any detector like that. It’s just statistics. YouTube alone has half a million users. Even if they only chuck out one video a year on average, that’s half a million videos. Half a million ideas. And they’ve got about the same chance as everyone else.

Whatever happens, don’t give up

The only way to increase your odds is to keep trying. Film stuff. Put it out there. The worst that can happen is that it’s ignored.

Well, actually that’s not quite the worst that can happen, but that’s a story for another time.

Make it

So what’s your big idea? What did you come up with in the pub last week? What did you and your friends sit around laughing it? ‘Cos if you can make it, you should. You never know what’ll happen next.

A production of Pad 26 LimitedPrivacy