Oppa Data Style: Using Data to Track the Popularity of PSY

Every once in a while I get the opportunity to write about something for class credit that I passionately love in my non-academic life.  Previously this has meant getting to write about the works of Alexandre Dumas for my senior seminar on Robin Hood literature or talking about how video games incorporate medievalisms in new and interesting ways, but sometimes this means getting to write about things that are really esoteric like the viral video sensation “Gangnam Style” by the South Korean pop artist PSY.  I got this weird and wonderful chance today when The Economist published an article examining the data behind “Gangnam Style”s viewer data on YouTube, which makes it prime material for a blog post for the Digital Curation class I mentioned in my last post.  And because I think this is one of the most fun things I’ve ever written (and I’m still stunned and delighted that I got to talk about “Gangnam Style” for class), I’m going to archive it here for posterity.

Soon there will be a blog post about the amazing experience I had at the International Seminar on the Care and Conservation of Manuscripts in Copenhagen last week, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around all the amazing things I saw and heard there, so in the mean time please enjoy:

On July 15, 2012, the South Korean pop singer PSY released his sixth studio album with the song “Gangnam Style” as its first single. By September, the official video released on Youtube was averaging almost 10 million views per day and the related Gangnam Style mania was being covered and analyzed by a variety of mainstream news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal (as previous linked) and The Guardian (“What’s so funny about Gangnam Style?”). The South Korean pop song spawned a huge number of parodies (as of writing, YouTube returned over 16,500 hits for the search phrase “gangnam style parody”) with parody topics ranging from “UMD Library Style” to “Klingon Style” to “Deadpool Style” (for even more Gangnam-related videos, check out The Week‘s “Gangnam Style: the 11 best parodies of the viral video” and The Wall Street Journal‘s “5 Must-See Gangnam Style Response Videos”).

Needless to say, the overwhelming response of the American public to a South Korean pop song about a district of Seoul very few Americans could probably find on a map has been unprecedented even in the era of YouTube-to-famous viral music videos (by contrast, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video had earned 144 million videos during its first initial storm of popularity while the official PSY music video on YouTube has over 531 million views at the time of writing). The sensational storm caused by the video has necessarily meant that a great deal of attention and thought has been directed to understanding the phenomenal popularity of the song and its singer, and that’s where the data comes in.

In “The data behind Gangnam Style: the rise and rise of PSY,” writers at The Economist take a look at the data surrounding the video’s popularity and discover that Gangnam Style isn’t “a flash in the pan.” The writers break down the video’s 531+ million views as “At roughly four minutes of video, that amounts to 36m hours of phantom horseback-riding dance moves, which equates to 4,100 continuous years.” This may make Gangnam Style the most popular and influential viral video yet.

But who’s watching it? The Economist‘s writers identify the “top demographic category of fans” as “girls aged 13 to 17, followed by boys of the same ages and then young men 18 to 24.” However, this raw data only tells part of the story since some of the most popular spin-off videos are produced by people outside these key demographics and since it would seem to indicate that enjoyment of Gangnam Style is restricted to the young and predominantly male—as the article points out, however, figures from outside these key demographics such as Ban Ki Moon are showing off their style moves.

Another article by SPIN (“How Did PSY’s Gangnam Style Become the No. 1 Rap Song in the Country?”) blame Billboard’s antiquated and “useless” chart methodology for not accounting for digital downloads and other metrics in the way they (previously, it has recently been changed) determine what songs are the most popular, which were previously only determined by radio airplay data.

In the end, however, I think that while the data collected by The Economist and others will be important to researchers hundreds of years from now who will chart the inexorable spread of Gangnam Style’s influence in world culture, I don’t think raw (or even analyzed) data is ever going to be able to tell the whole story of exactly why this weird and wonderful video has so effectively captured the hearts and imaginations of so many people around the world.

For more in-depth analysis of Gangnam Style and the culture and artist that created it, The Atlantic‘s “Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation” is an exceptionally interesting read.

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