I’ve always been amazed at how things get popular on the internet so quickly. I remember watching Evolution of Dance skyrocket into pop culture in 2006. This year, the internet transformed the letters FML from meaningless acronym to hilarious punchline.

How do things get popular on the internet?

I’ve created the graph below to help explain the phenomenon.

How The Internet Makes Things Popular

The answer, put simply, is nerds.

The word nerd gets a bad rap. Basically, anyone who frequents a social news site is a nerd. Nerd just means that you are tech-savvy and internet-literate. I’m proud to be a nerd. Nerds have first-dibs on information, and information is power.

In the graph, coolness is a reference to when you are laughing at the joke. Have you heard the joke before, did you get the joke right as the punchline was delivered, or did you laugh once the comedian left the stage?.

The graph shows that nerds are the ones telling the jokes.

David After Dentist: A Case Study

Let’s take a quick look at a real-life example of this model: David After Dentist.
You can watch the video here.

David’s father uploads the video on YouTube on January 30, 2009.

Video is picked up on Digg on February 4. It gets 10,000+ diggs.

Social news site users then pass it on to the general population through instant messages, Facebook walls, emails. It gets talked about at coffee breaks everywhere, Did you see that video of the kid after the dentist?

Wall Street Journal writes about the video on February 9. Time Magazine does an article on the video on February 11.

On March 26, The Today Show interviews the family who made the video.

Why Nerds are so important

For every David After Dentist, there are a million non-starters that never even come close to pop culture stardom; they get filtered out during the Social News stage. Nerds whittle away all the meh content and highlight the gems. When it comes to the internet and user-generated content, nerds are the gatekeepers.

In previous generations, the ones doing the content filtering were mostly corporations and Big Media. With Gen Y and its connectedness, that influence has trickled down and spread out. Social news and networking sites have democratized the process, making Generation Y the first generation where broadcasters can actually be the last to hear about newsworthy items.