Scottish Singer Susan Boyle's Web Popularity Is at Numbers Never Seen Before

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 20, 2009

The Internet has not seen anything quite like Susan Boyle, whose online popularity is headed straight to the history books.

The video of Boyle's performance in the reality show "Britain's Got Talent" has set the record for the number of views in a week -- and shows no sign of slowing down.

According to Visible Measures, which tracks videos from YouTube, MySpace and other video-sharing sites, all Boyle-oriented videos -- including clips of her television interviews and her recently released rendition of "Cry Me a River," recorded 10 years ago for a charity CD -- have generated a total of 85.2 million views. Nearly 20 million of those views came overnight.

The seven-minute video that was first posted on YouTube and then widely circulated online easily eclipsed more high-profile videos that have been around for months. Tina Fey's impersonation of Sarah Palin has clocked in 34.2 million views, said the folks at Visible Measures, while President Obama's victory speech on election night has generated 18.5 million views.

But it's not just in online video where Boyle, the unassuming woman from a tiny Scottish town, has dominated. Her Wikipedia entry has attracted nearly 500,000 page views since it was created last Sunday. Over the weekend, her Facebook fan page was flooded with comments, at some points adding hundreds of new members every few minutes. The page listed 150,000 members at 1 p.m. Friday. By last night there were more than a million.

Indeed, the sleepless Internet is her round-the-clock stage, and the 47-year-old who has said she's never heard of YouTube is the Web's hottest entertainer. "She's really the world's singer right now," said YouTube spokeswoman Julie Supan. In her four years at the company, Supan said she cannot remember a video raking in this many views in such a short period of time.

To media observers, the speed and scope of Boyle's online ubiquity is a testament that the marriage between old media (her performance first aired on British television) and new media (it then made its way to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook) is broadening the reach of all media, from one channel to another, from person to person.

"There's a lot of talk about things going 'viral' online. But 'viral' suggests that someone has created a virus and that people are unknowingly transmitting it, as if they had no choice but to carry the virus. But that's not really what's going on with Susan Boyle," said Henry Jenkins, co-director of MIT's Comparative Media Studies program and author of "Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide." After watching Boyle's audition video on Wednesday, he sent an e-mail to a group of friends -- "Take a moment to feel warm and fuzzy," he wrote in the e-mail's subject line -- and logged on to Twitter to alert his 1,798 followers about Boyle.

"What we're really seeing with Susan Boyle in a very powerful way is the power of 'spreadability,' " Jenkins continued. "Consumers in their own online communities are making conscious choices to spread Susan Boyle around online."

At any given moment, on any particular site, someone is passing along Boyle online. Online users interviewed said the emotions summoned by the audition video run the gamut: from laughter to cynicism to surprise. "This might sound kind of crazy, I know, but she's the perfect inspiration for the kind of moment we're living in -- she could have chickened out, backed away when she heard the laughing, but she kept going," said Jose Salazar, 31, a father of two who manages a restaurant in Las Vegas.

Some viewers said they were drawn by the one-act-play quality of the video, with a beginning, a middle and an end complete with a heroine (Boyle, obviously) and a familiar villain (Simon Cowell, naturally). Others said they were sure it was a hoax, only to find themselves watching the video again and again, and going online to investigate unfamiliar terms. Elaine, who? What is "Les Misérables"? Why did she sing "I Dreamed a Dream"?

Mark Thompson was at home, watching "Britain's Got Talent" in his living room in Yorkshire, England, when Boyle stunned the crowd at Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow. Ten minutes after hearing Boyle sing, the 42-year-old engineer created a YouTube channel dedicated to Boyle. He called it SusanHasGotTalent and posted Boyle's seven-minute audition.

"The channel wasn't about me," Thompson said in a phone interview. "It's about Susan."

A few hours later, Will Slack, a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., was intrigued by one of the most-read articles on Reddit, a news aggregator. Something about a jaw-dropping performance, he remembered its headline reading. So he watched Boyle's audition and, after reading news articles on and Sunday Express about Boyle, decided she was notable enough for a Wikipedia article. Anyone can create a Wikipedia article so long as that article is based on reliable news sources independent of the subject, Slack said. The 20-year-old has been creating and editing Wikipedia articles since he was 17.

"Susan Boyle," Slack said in a phone interview, "is definitely worth the Wikipedia article -- look at what she's done!"

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