A Year of @Pharrellhat

A year ago, I created a viral Twitter account.
Here‘s what I learned.

William Gruger
Feb 13, 2015 · 12 min read

The first episode of the dystopian U.K. television series Black Mirror is the least notable because the events in its plotline look the most familiar to us now: when a member of the British royal family is kidnapped in what’s later revealed to be (spoiler alert) an elaborate artistic hoax, the ransom video leaks online and causes a virtual firestorm, forcing news outlets around the world to report on the social media buzz created by the kidnappers’ set of unusual demands.

When this episode originally aired in 2011, news outlets reported on viral videos, but the idea of including interactive graphics indicating the volume of Twitter conversation probably seemed like a reach. But today this isn’t just the norm—it’s almost the rule. In the face of ever-decreasing attention spans and thinning audiences, cable news outlets routinely demonstrate a near inability to report on any story unless it’s boiled down to its most bite-sized contextually devoid heuristic. Because of this insatiable thirst for snappy clicky news bites, events that exist purely within the sphere of social media become perfect establishment media fodder. This tendency has become so predictable that even ISIS makes a habit of exploiting cheap social media tricks for free publicity.

Chris Hayes is a real life news anchor on MSNBC

@Pharrellhat Is Born

The Vivienne Westwood hat worn by Pharrell Williams during the 2014 GRAMMYs

A year ago, I created a parody Twitter account for the hat Pharrell Williams wore to the 2014 GRAMMYs. I guess in the end many Pharrell hat accounts were made, but out of all of them mine gained the most notoriety and recognition. That night a group of friends and coworkers (I work for Billboard) gathered at the apartment of the one friend who still has an actual cable television subscription to drink beers and make snarky comments about pop music and celebrities, both to each other and on Twitter, the world’s favorite platform for “second screen” television viewing.

The moment Pharrell Williams and his now-iconic outfit made their first appearance on screen during the E! Red Carpet show, I quickly logged out of my personal Twitter account, decided on @Pharrellhat for the username (after realizing the inability to include an apostrophe in a Twitter handle made @Pharrellshat look like Pharrell shat), hit ‘Sign up for Twitter’ using one of the dozens of spare Gmail accounts I had available, and Tweeted one of the most popular things I’ve ever said online.

Diddy, wearing the hat

Buzzfeed got it right with their comparison to @AngiesRightLeg, the now-extinct parody account that made headlines after the 2012 Academy Awards. It was exactly what I had in mind. For @Pharrellhat’s voice, I tried to land somewhere between @PrinceTweets2U’s simple tween-ish language and @Seinfeld2000’s use of photoshopped graphics (that people really enjoyed sharing). I decided to keep the hat’s tone amicable and light-hearted. After all, this hat is an extension of Pharrell, is it not?

Wiz Khalifa, wearing the hat

We were astonished when the account quickly soared past 1,000 followers. Pharrell appeared on stage quite a bit throughout that broadcast (he introduced nominees, performed “Get Lucky” with Stevie Wonder and Daft Punk, and accepted Punk’s Album of the Year award for Random Access Memories) and every single time he was wearing that hat. The joke only seemed to grow as the night progressed, and suddenly a LOT of people out there were paying attention to a half-dozen of us sitting around laughing in a living room. Having that mini audience of friends as a test chamber helped in crafting Tweets that would ensure maximum likes and retweets from our now 10,000 followers.

We were shocked when we earned our first bit of news coverage, a quick clicky article by XXL, then roaring with laughter as Billboard, where most of us were employed, posted its own article about the account — without even knowing its own employees were the ones behind it. Then we sat in awe as the very first bit of post-broadcast coverage (again I believe on E!) was about OUR account, posting one of our tweets on the television. By the next morning, @Pharrellhat had around 16,000 followers. Over the next few months, it reached a high point of 28,000.

Grumpy Cat and Marnie the Dog, internet famous animals who wore the hat

So why exactly did @Pharrellhat go viral?

I mean, all I typed was “hey” and sat back and watched the follower count skyrocket… right?

Not exactly. The reasons the @Pharrellhat account went viral are pretty much the most by-the-books reasons why anything on the internet goes viral. Two of my favorite authorities on the subject are from the “help” page on Buzzfeed (yes, Buzzfeed has a help page) and a TED talk by YouTube Trends Expert Kevin Allocca. Their main points can be boiled down into three key factors :

  1. Timeliness
  2. Simple, easily accessible subject matter
  3. Influential users/tastemakers

@Pharrellhat was timely, as the GRAMMYs were literally happening as the account was made. Awards shows pull some of the biggest audiences—tweeting along is now half the fun of an awards show in the first place. The hat is simple and easy subject matter—we weren’t tweeting about financial markets or ISIS… it’s just a hat!

Created by an unknown Coachella festival goer
The hat made quite a comeback during Halloween. This costume was created by @stevenstorms

Last, and most crucially, we had the resources available necessary to target influential users. For the most part, this is where most viral content simply dies and is never seen. By last count, 81 percent of Twitter’s 255 million monthly active users have fewer than 50 followers, and it’s extremely hard to get the attention of a known personality (often made famous by mass media broadcast sources like radio or television) who would be capable of broadcasting your content to the masses and giving it traction. It’s the hardest threshold for the average person to cross. It’s why hitting the front page of Reddit can be so valuable. It’s why the Ellen spotlight can lead to the fame and success of somebody like Sophia Grace.

As soon as I typed “hey,” I switched to my personal Twitter account (which had around 1,700 followers at the time) and retweeted it along with everybody else in the room. But the real kicker was a retweet from @Billboard which instantly broadcasted that hat to over a million users on Twitter.

That RT was like pouring jet fuel on a campfire—suddenly thousands of people were replying to and retweeting our messages every second. Our most popular Tweet, the one that STILL gets traction a whole year later, was one retweeted by Katy Perry herself, Twitter’s most-followed account.

a tweet that was retweeted by Katy Perry, Twitter’s most-followed user

When all was said and done, a tweet by Arby’s won the night. It was the only hat-related tweet Pharrell himself responded to (despite our best efforts at engaging him ourselves) and the most-retweeted hat tweet of the night. But FOR THE RECORD, we made the comparison to Arbys first. A full 41 minutes before the now-famous Arbys tweet.

Later, Arby’s capitalized off the moment perfectly, first purchasing the hat for $44,100 after Pharrell listed it on eBay to raise money for From One Hand to Another—an organization Pharrell founded in 2008 to help children “by giving them the tools and resources to meet their unique potential”—and then putting it on display at the Newseum in Washington D.C., an announcement Arby’s made over Vine.

In the months that followed, even though Pharrell himself denies that it was on purpose, the hat became his personal brand. He wore it in the music videos for “Move That Dope” (rapping, “the Gandalf hat and the weird ass clothes / That’s Comme des Garçons and the Buffalo”) and “Marilyn Monroe.” He wore it when he performed “Happy” on the Oscars and again on Saturday Night Live. He wore it on Ellen. He wore it on Oprah.

Before we continue, let’s be very clear about something—the invention of the hat account is not extraordinary. The level of technical difficulty involved in creating a Twitter account and crafting sarcastic 140 character-long quips on the Internet is fairly lowbrow. Pharrell Williams, on the other hand, is an incredibly sophisticated tastemaker who wore a memorable outfit that night. He deserves 100% of the credit for making a notable fashion statement.

Fashion editors Eva Chen and Stella Bugbee wore the Vivienne Westwood hat during New York Fashion week

That said, the @Pharrellhat account deserves some credit for making his Vivienne Westwood hat a news-worthy talking point, and the evidence is in *how* the hat was covered by the press in the days that followed the GRAMMYs.

After the GRAMMYs were over, the headlines started rolling in. More than three dozen different media sources, including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, penned articles featuring the account. Anchors on both The Today Show and CNN read my tweets out loud on live television. Each of the hosts of CBS’s The Talk wore a Pharrell hat the next day as they quoted @Pharrellhat.

Hat fan art, created by @Inkquisitive

Many were quick to point the historical lineage of the hat (it’s an ‘80s throw back—Vivienne Westwood introduced the Mountain Hat in 1982; it’ll cost you $180, if you can find it in stock), and some post-GRAMMYs coverage was about the hat itself, rather than the account. Piers Morgan interviewed Pharrell about his hat (as did Ellen and Oprah months later). U.K. fashion publication Grazia Daily has put together probably the most comprensive timeline of the hat, noting its fashion lineage and artist/Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren wearing it alongside the World Famous Supreme Team in the 1982 music video for “Buffalo Gals.”

English pop impresario Malcolm McLaren (center), rappers The World’s Famous Supreme Team, and models wearing items from designer Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Buffalo’ collection, London, February 1983
From McLaren’s 1983 album Duck Rock. The dancers in the video are the Rock Steady Crew.

What was so strange to me about all of this coverage was just how much the Twitter account, rather than just the hat itself, was the hook for all of these articles. What was even more surprising though was the sheer volume of blog-type websites that I’d never heard of posting their own bite-sized articles featuring tweets. Places like FabSugar, Magnetic Magazine, Animal New York, Lucky Shops, AOL’s real estate blog, Racked.com, MarketingLand.com, NewsMax, The Urban Daily, jossip.com, Hollywood Life, Softpedia, and dozens of local news outlets all posted “Pharrell Hat wins GRAMMYs” articles. Hundreds (quite literally, hundreds) of sites were vying for a piece of the action.

The Publisher’s Dilemma

What are all of these websites, and why are they all competing for even the smallest piece of online hat action?

The answer comes from the way in which content and online news media is aggregated and shared online. It was hard for me to really nail down and articulate what I was seeing until I read an essay by Ben Thompson called Publishers and the Smiling Curve. Drawing comparisons between an IT-related manufacturing industry and today’s modern online-driven publishing industry, the smiling curve is “an illustration of value-adding potential of different components of the value chain.”

The Publishers Smiling Curve shows how individual content creators and social networks are the most valuable.

What he’s basically saying is that nobody really remembers who wrote the news they’re reading anymore, just that they saw it on Facebook, Twitter or Google… aka the aggregators, who run a much more profitable business than traditional publishers (Facebook is worth $369 billion while the NYTimes is worth $2.03 billion).

“When people follow a link on Facebook (or Google or Twitter or even in an email), the page view that results is not generated because the viewer has any particular affinity for the publication that is hosting the link, and it is uncertain at best whether or not their affinity will increase once they’ve read the article. Over time, as this cycle repeats itself and as people grow increasingly accustomed to getting most of their ‘news’ from Facebook (or Google or Twitter), value moves to the ends.”

The Vivienne Westwood hat in NBA 2K15

We all know how the click-driven model of web revenue creates a race to the bottom in terms of the depth and significance of news coverage—how months-long investigations into campaign finance abuses will generate a minute fraction of the revenue of ‘Justin Bieber Shirtless Photo Gallery.’ What’s notable is that this downward trend has gotten so intense that news outlets will treat social media as news simply because it plays well on social media.

It’s MUCH cheaper and cost effective to post your own version of what everybody else is doing and bet on the fact that it’ll be aggregated and show up in the search results (or newsfeeds) of a larger trend. The larger the trend, the more outlets feed into it (compounding the situation), because just a small glimmer of traffic from a worldwide viral trend, no matter how insignificant or lowbrow it may be, brings the clicks (and $$$).

Hat fan art, created by @ShawnyDepp

So what’s effectively happening is that publishers (the middle part of the curve) are slowly beginning to not even bother creating content for their own audiences anymore (because they don’t have audiences). Instead they replicate what known/influential people do on the left side of the curve (individual content creators, like @Pharrellhat) and create a slow-churning cesspool of formulaic tripe for the sole purpose of maximizing their return on the right side of the curve (the aggregators). Nothing quite satisfies the feeds more than content from the feeds themselves. That’s what those hundreds of “@Pharrellhat won the GRAMMYs” articles I discovered are.

What’s dangerous about engaging in this race to the bottom is these publishers may sign their own death warrants if they are only reporting on what other people are doing on social media (with a predictable, formulaic style of writing) because eventually most of that will probably be done by bots. Already the AP runs articles written by ‘robot journalists’ created by a company called Automated Insights. This same company creates automatically generated recap reports for Yahoo’s fantasy football platform for every single match up, every single week, for every single league.

This paragraph is one of nearly four pages of post-game analysis written entirely by a bot. It uses the correct team names, appropriate adjectives, and even generates sets of graphs and charts.

No traditional publishing techniques can scale like this, and few publishers own the requisite technology to be nimble enough to compete in this environment. My bet is that eventually that middle part of that curve will be squeezed out by the other two, and its task of churning out clicky articles will instead be absorbed into the aggregators (the right side of the curve) who will surface what ‘Selena Gomez and Zedd did in the Studio’ to the top of your news feeds automatically. Its valuable writers will eventually migrate to go work for RapGenius, UpWorthy, or Buzzfeed. When companies like Twitter say “we are not a media company,” that is a long con. Right now, it’s better business for the cost of creating bot articles to be borne by the thousands of humans taking time to manually write them for legacy media outlets. Eventually, these platforms will surface the news themselves. They’re already starting to do it today.

Most of the photos included in this article were created and shared by people who were inspired by the hat and decided to create something of their own. These people, the content creators, the left side of the curve, will always matter the most, even though they may not always be compensated as such.

In the end, though, @PharrellHat wasn’t the viral meme. The meme was the hat itself. The Twitter account, like the content farms, cable shows and all of you that paid it any attention, were just a pawn in the hat’s larger game.

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Follow William Gruger on Twitter @wGruger.
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Thanks to Owen Davis

William Gruger

Written by

Chart Manager @Billboard. Music trends and internet culture aficionado. Real-time charts guy ¯\_(ツ)_/¯



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