There are many unwritten rules of the internet but the greatest of them is this: art never goes viral. It just doesn’t. If you want something to travel round the world like a particularly virulent strain of glandular fever, it must showcase something “cute” (has ever a word been as freighted as “cute”?), or contain gratuitous violence. Them’s the rules and no mistake.
What happened today, therefore, falls into that other category beloved of the internet: “the impossible”. A video of a man performing a poem (yes, a poem!) sailed to the top of reddit, beyond one million views on YouTube – and set the twitterverse aflame.
Of course, this was no ordinary poem. It was a poem about love... and obsessive compulsive disorder. The video starts with a hirsute twentysomething in a plaid shirt and grandad braces, Neil Hilborn, standing, head bowed, in front of a microphone. He could be about to start singing a Fleet Foxes song. But then it happens. He leaps forward, phrases flying like scattered pigeons, lip-biting look on his face, into a pathos-filled belter about falling in love with OCD – and then losing that love.
“Usually when I obsess over things, I see germs sneaking into my skin,” he says, face growing ever redder.
“I see myself crushed by an endless succession of cars. She was the first beautiful thing I ever got stuck on.”
As you watch him trill through it at the Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam, Wisconsin, you wouldn’t guess that the poem was three years old and the tics displayed were part of it, rather than an unwanted interruption to it. And even watching it again, after Hilborn revealed as much to Reddit users in an impromptu Q&A last night, it still packs a Tyson-sized punch.
Many things, though, come with a trunkful of emotional baggage and yet aren’t biff-batted round the planet in hours. What makes this different? Alan Bradshaw, marketing lecturer at Royal Holloway University, says: “For something to go viral, it needs to be in some way affirmative; seem genuine in its emotiveness; and also challenge cultural norms, in this case by bringing a side-lined voice – the OCD sufferer – to the fore. The video has all these things.” Reddit users certainly seemed to concur. For at least a few hours, a Coca-Cola world family mentality took hold on the usually snipey site. One user, Crunknizzle, neatly summed up the general mood: “Duude your video gave me chills.”
For a rare, brief moment, the endless cacophony of the internet fell silent, the cute cat pictures remained un-clicked and a man reading a poem was one of the most watched things in the world.