I was planning on writing about one viral phenomenon this morning when another one caught my eye. I’ll start with the second one (Marilyn Hagerty) and then loop back to the first (a time-lapse YouTube video of pregnancy).
Maybe you’ve heard, Marilyn Hagerty is an 85-year-old restaurant reviewer and columnist for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. Last week, she reviewed a local Olive Garden that had just opened and the piece went–there’s no other way to put it–viral: it was shared nearly 15,000 times on Twitter and 26,000 times on Facebook. It became the most popular story the newspaper had published–ever. According to an abc.com story from Friday, the piece received over 200,000 views online. That was two days after it was published on March 7. Now, we’re nearly a week after it’s publication, and the buzz surrounding her review continues.
So what happened? Basically, Hagerty wrote a simple and sincere review of a new chain restaurant in her community, and the internet jabberers from Gawker, the Village Voice, et al., practically convulsed in delighted mockery, shocked that anyone could write an earnest, unironic review of a place like the Olive Garden. (I can’t help but think here of Charles Murray and the quiz from his new book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which is meant to determine if you’re living in a class bubble. One of the questions on the online version of the quiz is “Have you eaten at an Applebee’s, TGI Friday’s, or Outback Steakhouse in the past year?”–the point being, if you haven’t dined at one of those joints, you are very probably a member of the sheltered upper-class, as many of our sires in the blogosphere are. He might as well have added Olive Garden to his list of mainstream, American restaurants.)
Let’s start with a brief excerpt of Hagerty’s review, just so we know what we’re talking about here–which would be, a real person in a real community writing for her local audience:
The chicken Alfredo ($10.95) was warm and comforting on a cold day. The portion was generous. My server was ready with Parmesan cheese.
As I ate, I noticed the vases and planters with permanent flower displays on the ledges. There are several dining areas with arched doorways. And there is a fireplace that adds warmth to the decor.
Olive Garden has an attractive bar area to the right of the entryway. The restaurant has a full liquor license and a wine list offering a wide selection to complement Italian meals. Nonalcoholic beverages include coolers, specialty coffees and hot teas.
On a hot summer day, I will try the raspberry lemonade that was recommended.
And here’s a summary of how the internet reacted:
The secret to becoming a famous and successful food journalist is now clear, and it’s so simple: All you have to do is write about the Olive Garden. The most recent breakout foodie star is Marilyn Hagerty (at left), the critic for the Grand Forks Herald, of North Dakota, who just became Internet famous for her glowing treatment of that city’s Olive Garden. The Herald explains why: “Internet sharing is the reason. Popular websites such as Fark, Gawker and Boingboing posted the story, setting off a barrage of comments via Twitter and Facebook.”
It’s becoming a narrative: Gawker or some similar site (but usually Gawker) finds it hilarious that you earnestly wrote about the Olive Garden and gently mocks you. “Hagerty found the $10.95 chicken Alfredo dish to be ‘warm and comforting on a cold day,’ and reports that the servings at Olive Garden are ‘generous.’ She did not, however, opt for the raspberry lemonade,” wrote Emma Carmichael. Soon, everyone forwards your piece along in a fit of amusement of indignation. Then another publication comes along (in this case it’s The Village Voice) and interviews you about how it feels to be famous, establishing the fact that you are, in fact, famous.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Hagerty’s son–James R. Hagerty–has a piece called “When Mom Goes Viral” that takes a step back:
On Thursday, bloggers happened on her review of the Olive Garden, where she found the portions generous and the décor “impressive.” Some wrote clever notes suggesting there might be some sort of irony in writing an unironic review about a chain restaurant like Olive Garden. Others, including media and news websites Gawker and Huffington Post, chimed in. Soon news hounds from Minneapolis, New York and even Fargo were calling Mom and demanding interviews. Basically, they wanted to know whether she was for real and how she felt about being mocked all over the Internet.
She felt fine about it. But she didn’t care to scroll through the thousands of Twitter and Facebook comments on her writing style. “I’m working on my Sunday column and I’m going to play bridge this afternoon,” she explained, “so I don’t have time to read all this crap.” She didn’t apologize for writing about a restaurant where many people like to eat. Her poise under fire endeared her to people who do read all that. Strangers started sending me emails about how much they loved my mom.
Her phone line was tied up, so I emailed her: “You’ve gone viral!”
She replied: “Could you tell me what viral means?”
I’ve always found the whole concept of something going “viral” fascinating. Why do some random items, like Hagerty’s review or this time-lapse video of a pregnant woman, go viral–really pop–with a mass audience, while other items that are posted online or meant to be real hits just . . . flop? This is an important question because “going viral” defines and sets the agenda for the culture at large. What is pop culture if not a series of things that “go viral”? Given the power of the Internet to affect what’s popular and what’s not, as Hagerty’s story perfectly illustrates, the question of why some things go viral ultimately boils down to what people like. What resonates with them? What inspires them enough to make them hit the “like” button on the article, or the YouTube video, or the film trailer?
Here, below, is the viral item I had initially intended to write about, before I got distracted by Hagerty’s story. It is a YouTube clip that captures, in under two minutes, nine months of pregnancy.
Over two million people have watched “Introducing . . . ” and 15,000 have “liked” it. It’s easy to see why. The short video is simple, beautiful, and evocative, and it’s about a baby, as many of YouTube’s most popular videos are. In a way, it shares a lot in common with the Hagerty phenomenon. Both the video and Hagerty are nothing if not authentic. Just look at the tattoos, the messy apartment, the raw displays of emotion in the pregnancy clip–which couldn’t be more different than another more frivolous depiction of pregnancy in the pop culture, the cover of the most recent issue of US Weekly.
So maybe what people are seeking is something other than the artifice and glitz of the glossy-magazine world of pop culture. Maybe they want something more real, and, with the hit of a “like” button, are creating a new world of pop culture that satisfies that desire.