Going Viral: A How-To Guide from Time Magazine's Joel Stein

Wednesday night I rocked the political world. I went on YouTube and uploaded a remarkable video: a clip of an American soldier testifying before Congress about how he was tortured by Army officials.

The details were gruesome, the footage was jaw-dropping, and with Veterans Day just hours away, there was no doubt: I had a sure-fire hit. I sent the link to all my colleagues and friends, made myself a peanut butter banana sandwich, and hit the hay, certain that when I awoke in the morning, the U.S. Army's torturing its own would be the front page of every paper, my video a viral sensation.

The next morning I scrambled out of bed and snagged the Times from my doormat. Featured that morning in the newspaper of record: Obama Gives Speech on North Korea, Wal-Mart Now Offers Free Shipping, and The Onion Strikes Comic Gold With Biden Parodies. Nothing on my video, Sergeant Luther's testimony or the Army's use of torture. I turned on CBS News, NBC, CNN, MSNBC: nothing. My heart sunk, my fingers trembling, I booted up YouTube and typed in my video's URL: 9,000 views. Ugh.

Of course, 9,000 people isn't disastrous — it's 8,995 more than attended my last birthday party. But in a world where a reggae-dancing baby gets 8.6 million hits and a skateboarding bulldog gets 13.8 million, there was no denying it: something had definitely gone awry.

I needed help, assistance from a savvy advisor with high-tech know-how, a knowledgeable mentor with a nose for news, an eye for quality and a finger on the pulse of what's hot.

Instead I called Joel Stein. You may know Stein from his incoherent ramblings on the back page of Time magazine. The columnist is eternally on a clueless quest to achieve the ridiculous with the assistance of unwitting experts. After Sarah Palin tapped ghostwriter Lynn Vincent to write her best-selling memoir, Stein convinced a former New York Times reporter to write a memoir for him, centered on his decision to chop off his mullet. For Time's special edition about the future, Stein set out on in-depth investigation of what's next for the Amish. Stein also served as a featured expert in several highly acclaimed documentaries, including "E!'s 101 Most Starlicious Makeovers" and "The Most Shocking Celebrity Moments of 2006."

He was happy to assist.

Stein: First of all, your video is way too long. It's over nine minutes. Nine minutes! I don't even think people live that long anymore.

Kors: I should cut it?

Stein: And it's way too boring. If you had some great Jackie Chan-style action, maybe you could justify three minutes. Maybe four. But this?

Kors: I should add action?

Stein: Second, this video needs to be auto-tuned. Everything good is auto-tuned. That's what people want to hear. This soldier, this "Congressional testimony" ... zzzzzz. Please. No one's going to listen to anything that's not auto-tuned.

Kors: You mean like T-Pain? Like a rap album? See, this video is sort of a serious—

Stein: I'm telling you, auto-tune everything. You should check out Auto-Tune the News, see how they do it. You got torture, you got denial of benefits: turn this thing into a song, you got a hit.

Kors: Hmm.

Stein: Any of these soldiers have pets or babies? That would really spice things up. You could have Sergeant Luther way out in the background, and then you could have a dog or a baby dancing in the foreground. Or what about a dog dancing with a baby? Now that would be excellent.

Kors: Wouldn't that be ... sort of ridiculous?

Stein: See, that's your problem: this video isn't ridiculous. It's not sensationalistic either. I mean, this soldier, he describes how he was tortured. But we never see the torture. Can't we watch? I'm not saying we have to torture him again. But what about a reenactment? Oh, a reenactment but with actors that are sexier than the actual people.

Kors: Like that terrible series of Windows commercials.

Stein: Right. Sexy torture. Now we're on to something.

Kors: I probably should have asked this before, but have you ever actually had a video go viral?

Stein: Oh yeah. I had a video up there right after my wife gave birth of cooking the placenta. And one of George Clooney, drunk, at my house, looking for the smoke alarm that went off. Both were really popular.

Kors: Yeah, celebrities. That's a great draw. Maybe we could connect this somehow with Sarah Palin. Oh, or Angelina Jolie. Search engines love Angelina Jolie. ... Of course, Dave Matthews had been really involved for a while. He went on the "Nightline" episode I did with Bob Woodruff to talk about the mistreatment of wounded soldiers, how they were being pressed into signing these documents saying they had pre-existing conditions. He even talked about it during his concerts.

Stein: Wait, wait, you're telling me Dave Matthews took up this cause?

Kors: Yeah.

Stein: Well, Jesus, that's it: get him to write a song. A couple of bars to introduce the action. Yes, yes, that's what this needs: a theme song.

Kors: A theme song?

Stein: Yeah, like an '80s sit-com. The way it is now, you got to wait eight minutes for this thing to tell you what it's about. With a theme song, you get it right away. That's the point of a theme song. [Stein breaks into song.] "He's married with three kids ... and now he has a housekeeper": I'm in, I got it. ... Let me ask you, you new to this country? You live in a log cabin?

Kors: No, I live in the East Village.

Stein: Don't you know that's how information gets passed from person to person in this country: by theme song. If you don't have a song, uh ... forget about it.

Kors: Being gross helps too, right, like eating the placenta?

Stein: It doesn't have to be gross, just sensationalistic. Something no one's seen before. Normally no one sees a placenta being cooked or George Clooney doing work on someone's house. A subcommittee debating legislative issues ... well, no one's seen that because no one cares. But it's pretty damn common.

Kors: Actually it was the full committee.

Stein: Oh please. And who were the people in the video, that congressman that storms out of the room in the middle of the soldier's testimony?

Kors: Yeah, Rep. Steve Buyer from Indiana. He's the VA committee's ranking Republican.

Stein: Pssh. Who cares? You got to get Pelosi, Boehner, Ron Paul. If he hasn't run for president, I don't know who he is. And I'm not supposed to know.

Kors: Got it.

Stein: You do have one good thing going for you, though: before Buyer storms out he says, "I'm too much of a gentleman to be here!" That'll sound great auto-tuned.

Kors: I appreciate your help on this. You got any other ideas?

Stein: You should write a book. That would get the story to another 10, 15 people. ... Bottom line is: this isn't a subject that has a huge audience waiting to hear about it.

Kors: But there are a lot of soldiers, a lot of vets, millions of military families. Everybody says they care about our soldiers.

Stein: Listen, people say they care about soldiers, but everybody really just cares about themselves. What we say we care about and what we actually care about are two very different things. Hey, if someone came to me with a clipboard and a survey and said, "Do you care about the cholera epidemic?" I'd say yeah. But if I saw an article on it, I'd only read the headline. ... Well, okay, I'd skim it.

Kors: Makes sense.

Stein: Your video has no villain either. We need to get Halliburton involved.

Kors: Interesting.

Stein: [Stein pauses, sighs.] Can I be serious with you for a minute? ... Your video, it's so out there. We're talking about the torture of an American soldier by the U.S. Army. Even watching the video, I'm making excuses, I'm thinking this can't be, this can't be right. There's a part of our brain that says: by accepting this, you're accepting something really bad about human nature. Something in all of us. Essentially you're asking us to believe something terrible about ourselves: that Americans could do this to a soldier, that we could allow this to happen. The brain just doesn't want to go there. ... It reminds me of the Iran Contra scandal. Americans didn't care about Iran Contra either. Because we couldn't digest the whole thing, couldn't get all the details. A dancing cat we get. There's not much math to do there.

Kors: And I understand that.

Stein: I sympathize with your frustration. I do. If you want to do fluffy journalism, like me, I could give you more tips. Truth is, I'm constantly surprised at what gets a reaction and what doesn't. For you, it's going to be difficult because the reporting you do is important and horrifying. There are a lot of people out there doing incredible reporting that never gets the attention it deserves. I think that's actually a part of war: everybody's morals decay a little bit. Not just the people on the battlefield. All of us. We get used to horrible things. Look at Abu Ghraib.

Kors: Well, okay, look at Abu Ghraib. That's an example of how people didn't believe something awful was happening, but through persistent, in-depth reporting the reality of what was—

Stein: No, no, it was just the photos. It wasn't the reporting; it wasn't because all of us particularly cared. It was just the photos. And I should say, those were some excellent photos. If the photographer hadn't been so talented — if, say, I had been commissioned to take those shots — that scandal wouldn't have turned into anything.

Kors: Not too good with the camera, huh?

Stein: No, I'm terrible. I get the exposure wrong. I'll get a great photo of my son covering his face with his hand. Everyone's always backlit and in shadow. Nothing I do ever turns out right.

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