This afternoon, I found myself watching a puddle. Perhaps even more strange, I wasn’t alone. I was with 3,000 others. Before long, that crowd had grown to 20,000.
I am, of course, referring to the first viral event of 2016, #DrummondPuddleWatch. In view of an office window in Newcastle, a giant puddle had developed, blocking the path. Under the watchful eye of the office workers, hapless pedestrians used a mixture of techniques to cross the chasmic watery void. Some used the lamppost on one side for leverage. Some pushed through the bush on the other. Some leapt it. And others just stormed through, and to hell with their shoes.
Someone decided to put it on Periscope, and the rest is already viral folklore. But the way the phenomenon built, peaked and petered out tells us much about the way that trends work.
In the early stages, the small community cheered, critiqued and commentated upon the efforts of the unwitting stars of the event. A communal sense of humour developed amongst the channel’s viewers, the bond strengthened, and the solid foundation for a viral sensation was established.
— Mary Georgantopoulos (@marygeorgant) January 6, 2016
It wasn’t long before the scale of the event became the event itself. When’s the next cyclist? How long before it hits 10k? What on earth are we all doing with our lives? The Early Majority arrive here. It’s now a ‘thing’, validated by its presence on sites like Buzzfeed and Mashable, and we’re all in on it.
Then came the race to be a part of history. Someone waved at the camera. It wasn’t long before the first paparazzi arrived. Then someone put a ‘Slippery When Wet’ sign in the puddle to the amusement of the, by now, 15,000 strong crowd. People arrived by taxi with a surfboard. A man in swimming trunks paddled on a lilo.
— Metro (@MetroUK) January 6, 2016
The phenomenon had already peaked. With the original source of the trend trampled underfoot by the meta high jinks, so the appeal dwindled. When it’s popular, when it’s on national news websites, when it’s swamped by the memes, it’s not cool anymore. The Late Majority and Laggards are arriving, and this is over.
The whole thing followed the classic trend bell curve. But what conditions emerged to set it underway? Influential Innovators and Early Adopters who share it with similarly influential people, of course. It’s no surprise that those with the camera are a marketing and social media agency.
In a world where social currency, measured in Likes, Shares and Retweets, is ever more tangible, the lure of being ‘in’ on an event before your peers is huge.
But also, crucially, this had just the right conditions. A grey Wednesday afternoon, two and a half days into the first week back after the Christmas break. Across the country, bored workers were looking for a distraction. The puddle provided it.
In the end, darkness fell on the scene of a puddle surrounded by people taking selfies in the pursuit of Like-bait, the comments drowned by bots pleading for followers. Late-coming viewers were understandably baffled by why anyone could be interested in this, and left faster than people joined. The numbers declined, and it died.
Eventually the trend ate itself. A very British viral.