Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Welcome to the age of the manufactured meme

In the most wholesome meme on the Internet, a professor attempts to talk about South Korean politics while his kids dance around and his wife races to get them offscreen.

Last week, Pusan National University political science professor Robert Kelly was giving yet another live news interview via Skype about the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye. An international expert in Korean politics, he was discussing the situation on BBC TV in a jacket and tie, broadcasting from what looked like an office. But then his daughter and son burst into the room behind him, followed by their frantic mother trying to shoo them out. The rest is (very recent) history. What Kelly has since called "a family blooper" became one of the most talked-about clips on the Internet over the weekend, covered in every major news outlet globally. Kelly's family even had to hold a press conference about it in Pusan. Though the incident was an unplanned accident, all the insane publicity is because the BBC deliberately packaged it as a meme.

What's gotten lost in all the crosstalk about what this clip represents in terms of Kelly's work-life balance, or his wife's parenting skills, or just the general adorableness of their daughter's dance moves, is the fact that this was a perfectly architected social media blockbuster. BBC host James Menendez, who was interviewing Kelly when the kids waltzed in, admitted later that he could have cut away from the interview but decided to keep going to see what would happen next. He must have realized it would make a terrific viral video.

Minutes after the interview was broadcast, BBC News producer David Waddell tweeted at Kelly, "Nicely handled interruption, Professor! Do you have any objection to me sharing the clip of that moment on BBC News?" Kelly, who later described himself as mortified and worried the BBC would never contact him again, replied with confusion: "What would that mean, please? Re-broadcasting it on BBC TV, or just here on Twitter? Is this kinda thing that goes 'viral' and gets weird?" The answer, as it turned out, was yes and yes. The video blew up, especially in Korea, where a public reeling from political scandal was eager for comic relief of any kind.

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