UPDATE: For more information, check out my story on Tubefilter, which includes an interview with Xtranormal’s CTO.
How do you make a viral video? Asking that question is kind of like asking how you make a half-court shot: unless you’re a pro, you can’t plan for it (and there are viral video pros).
Still if you’ve seen a viral video lately, you’ve probably seen this one: a pair of CGI characters speaking in a robotic monotone and having some kind of disagreement. Most of these videos come from a two-year-old text-to-video site, Xtranormal. And it appears Xtranormal is among the first factories for viral videos.
Users without video production skills can quickly type out humorous scenes, mostly, it seems to me, around the issue of dating — though I remember an earlier one, perhaps not from Xtranormal, parodying MoveOn. It makes for the rapid dissemination of memes and a quick circulation of cultural debates around various issues.
Xtranormal’s site traffic shot up over the summer, doubling or maybe even tripling depending on how you count it:
It’s a great idea, and it’s clear why it’s worked. The robotic monotone provides the perfect tone for sarcasm and dry wit, while the stock camera positions give writer/directors a neutral canvas on which to paint bitter and heavily biased narratives. Incongruity + simplicity = key ingredients for dark humor.
I realized Xtranormal had gone mainstream when the lead story on The Washington Post Co.’s The Root a few days ago was a story on a video indicting black women for being too pushy, picky, etc. (We’ve heard that before). The video shows a a couple meeting over their divorce. The woman lists all the things she wants in a spouse and the many ways her man doesn’t measure up, while he — far too innocently — lists his strengths. Obviously, the women is portrayed as irrational. Distributed on Facebook and Twitter by understandably mad black women and approvingly by black men, it quickly racked up half a million views on YouTube:
What’s really interesting though is how Xtranormal’s rapid production techniques allowed for immediate and creative responses from black women, through a retelling of the same event and a few other similar scenarios — one with a white woman and another with a mixed woman:
What Xtranormal does, then, is allow the possibility of having cultural debates through video, authored by people not familiar with production. Consider the dozens of tussles between female pop and R&B stars created through Xtranormal last year, as Karsh (in comments, below) led me onto: Brandy vs. Beyoncé, Brandy vs. Monica, Beyoncé vs. Rihanna, Kelly Rowland vs. Beyoncé, Madonna vs. Janet, Janet vs. Beyoncé, Janet and Mariah, Mariah vs. Leona Lewis, Toni vs. Whitney, Celine vs. Whitney, Whitney vs. Keri Hilson, Keri Hilson vs. Ciara, Ciara vs. Beyoncé, Beyoncé vs. Amerie, Britney vs. Beyoncé, Lil’ Kim vs. Faith Evans, Solange vs. Kelly Rowland, Madonna vs. Lady Gaga, Lady Gaga vs. Christina Aguilera, Lily Allen vs. Katy Perry, India Arie vs. Erykah Badu, Mariah vs. Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Hudson vs. Beyoncé, Jazmine Sullivan vs. Keyshia Cole, Keyshia Cole vs. Mary J. Blige …there are so many!
Like most companies, Xtranormal is going to have to innovate to stay relevant. To its credit, the company releases new characters and situations, like its office-themed selection, which seems pitched at the daytime video viewer and so makes perfect sense in the web comedy market. According to its website, 9.4 million projects have been created with dozens of characters, including politicians like Obama and Palin, athletes, animals and historical figures:
The regular offering of new characters and situations recalls, for me, The Sims, and suggests Xtranormal doesn’t see itself as a video production house so much as a social gaming tool: people create stories, situations and characters, then use them to start conversations — debates, fights — about cultural phenomena, norms, problems, etc. Of course, this is not about forging connections à la Second Life, World of Warcraft or The Sims, but it is about creating worlds, interacting with people and, if we take the example of black women/men above, going through “challenges” (think of fights and levels in games). People are talking to and fighting with each other…but through video!
Like most things on the Internet, I’m not sure Xtranormal has long-term staying power. Most things get old. If everybody can do something, it looses its cultural cache. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating little side story in the history of online video. We should remember it!
Here’s another one of my favorites, distributed via Gawker, “Hipster Dating” (although, as Khadijah White told me, it’s really just “Dating”), and another one of the more popular Xtranormal videos, an anti-iPhone/Machead vid from Tiny Watch Productions: