Nobody Knows Anything, or How To Make The Next Big Internet Hit

Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote that “in Hollywood, nobody knows anything”. What he meant was that nobody really understands how to make a successful film. Despite all the money and effort poured into every movie, it’s a total mystery why some films rake in mega bucks and others flop big time. If there was a secret formula to making a hit, Hollywood would crank out nothing but blockbusters. In reality most films actually lose money. Every year it’s a small handful of mega-blockbusters that keep the studios in the black.

It seems to me the same principle holds true on the internet. Every day legions of people upload YouTube videos, Flash animations, and funny pictures with the hopes of drawing the masses to their website. Advertisers are also getting into the act, spending thousands or even millions of dollars searching for the next big internet phenomenon. Everyone wants to be the next Numa Numa guy or Elf Yourself campaign. A few succeed. The majority disappear, washed under the waves in the vast internet ocean.

Nevertheless, it’s got me thinking. What types of things draw people to a website or YouTube video? What are the building blocks of internet popularity? Of course there’s no such thing as a sure-fire formula for internet success (if there was, everyone would be doing it). But it’s probably fair to say that there are at least a few common threads that run through most internet success stories.

Here’s a few off the top of my head:

1. Entertainment value. The content has to hold people’s attention and make them smile. Of course, how you define “entertainment value” is another topic altogether.

2. Interaction. People don’t want to just watch, they want to be drawn in and, if possible, play along. The latest gimmick is to paste your head onto an animated character, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated. The Numa Numa guy just had a catchy song that people could tap their feet to as they watched.

3. Surprise. Media consumers have seen it all. You have to give them something fresh and new to hold their attention.

4. Humor. Everybody loves to laugh.

5. Brevity. Our modern attention spans are getting shorter by the minute. Some of you may have already become bored with this post and moved on.

This is a short list and I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve missed. What do you think? What types of things make you want to share a website with your friends and family? Feel free to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Wayback Machine

Since this is a holiday weekend, here’s a fun time waster:

Somebody’s been keeping a record of the entire internet. Go to the Wayback Machine, type in the URL of any webpage, and see what it used to look like. Don’t ask me how it’s done, or why. I can’t imagine how much server space this takes up. But it’s fun to poke around. (2002 was an ugly year for my website).

Enjoy the Thanksgiving weekend!