Exploring the diffusion of Drake

Special to Western News

It is 6:45 a.m. and I am driving on Richmond Street to drop my son off at his high school for the early band rehearsal. Of course, the first thing he does after getting in the car is to turn on the radio, and we are listening to the latest pop music hits. Great. I take comfort in the fact that, like everyday for the last few months, one of the stations will play Drake’s Hotline Bling sooner or later. And I am not alone.

Drake’s song has had a huge impact since its release last October. Spotify data shows the song has been played 432,371,423 times. But it is the video that has caused an unprecedented level of attention, especially for a hip-hop single. As of May 1, the video had enjoyed 700,260,202 views of the 4 minute 55 second famous dance steps on YouTube. That equals to roughly 3.5 billion minutes of mental attention by human beings like you and me. I know that not all viewers are paying full attention to the whole video every single time, but even so, this is a lot of attention by any standards. And this is just one channel. Many executives would pay quite some money to get a small portion of that attention from their customers.

The video’s success has a lot to do with the design of the production, the style, Drake’s dance and the studied simplicity of the composition. Most important, Director X conceived it as meme from the get go, that is, as a piece of information that anyone can disassemble and reassemble again in any given form. In this case, the video is made up of GIFs, images that anyone can shuffle and play with. The result of this meme-like design is that many versions of the video have been produced and redistributed by professional musicians, celebrities and amateurs, exponentially multiplying the impact and the reach of the original.

The effectiveness of this strategy, now associated with Drake’s brand, can be checked in the set of images enclosed in Josh O’Kane’s article in The Globe about the release of Drake’s new album last Friday. The article collects a set of images by The Drake Hotel, the Art Gallery of Ontario (on top of the baroque stairs!), the Blue Jays, Porter Airlines, Heineken, TIFF, and Tim Hortons, in which they have cut Drake’s image from the cover of the new album, Views, and pasted on the own images and logos. On the cover of Views Drake is sitting on the top of the CN Tower over viewing the city and, by extension, the world from the top.

As important as the distribution of memes is, the key ability that Drake masters lies in how to provoke behaviors in the hosts of his memes, in us. What type of behaviors? Well, first is getting your attention, your brain time, co-opted by a cultural artifact. Yours and that of millions of people for millions of minutes. Then, think of yourself getting to the office and searching for the video in your computer, or walking around and playing it in your cell, iPad, music equipment. You want to watch it, listen to it, enjoy it and you anticipate that you will feel happy afterwards. A very big sub-group of people will also fall for the many links, ads and stories that Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat will surround the video with, triggering the monetization of web traffic that is very natural today. Another sub-group will love the song so much that will end up buying it in Apple Music, iTunes, Shopify and the multiple channels that help transport the product. In the case of Drake’s song, and the new album, a third group has been affected so much by the original that it will create new videos and contribute to its spread. Finally, most of us will pass the information by talking to our friends about the fabulous video that Drake released and made us all dance a bit: This is called the “cultural life of information.” Are you still counting how many people are involved in this? Does it look to you like an epidemic?

Actually, it is a cultural epidemic that has infected hundreds of millions of people in just a few weeks, thanks to the power of Internet and the fact billions of people around the world are connected through phones, computers and tablets, creating the largest and more connected cultural ecosystem in human history. And Drake knows the laws that govern it.

The rules of diffusion of cultural production come from three areas. The first has to do with what economists call nudging: the design of space, communication and groups to nudge people to behave in certain ways. Experts in nudging are called choice architects, although I like the term “choice designers” much better as it reflects the power of the design thinking to solve problems. The second is digital anthropology, the observation of the behavior of people in a digital world dominated by massive amounts of cultural production and a population that is superconnected. The third area belongs to analytics and big data: to optimize the effects of your efforts as ‘choice designer’ you need to know where feedback loops are produced or need reinforcement, and also the paths and nodes that you need to target in a network.

Nudging + Digital Anthropology + Big Data = HUMAN ANALYTICS.

I define Human Analytics as “the practice of data science to induce behavioral changes in groups and individuals. These changes are cultural, leverage social formations, and foster legitimacy.” Human Analytics matters because of its potential to solve complex human problems at a scale unavailable before.

In the offline world, there are not so many spaces in which millions of humans come together physically so it is more difficult, slower, to spread any meme or provoke new behaviors. This is the reason that made cultural change a very slow process until the invention of Internet and the massive success of the social structures like Facebook. However, the application of Human Analytics to the ‘real’ world is possible if the problem or space of intervention is well defined, the target community gets engaged and analytics uses multi-dimensional data. The reward of working with real people in the offline world comes from appreciating the change in their lives. Even when the numbers are not that big, many experiments have shown that people are much more prone to change their behavior if they observe their neighbors behaving in a certain way. Think about the impact that Human Analytics can have around the world on problems of health, democracy and peace if we design the right programs to help people in those areas.

Hotline Bling is song No. 20 in Views. It is a vey personal album in the sense that Drake himself becomes the subject of his own music in an artistic exercise very similar to the self-fiction that many writers practice these days. That adds layers of sensibility to every single track, nuanced views about Drake’s life targeting different groups even within the same song. It constitutes a jewel, a masterpiece, a casestudy in the art of creation in the digital age: maximum structural flexibility for maximum diffusion. Drake takes us from the most intimate and personal (his family, the solitude at the top, emotional vulnerabilities, the anxieties of masculinity) in a ride in which we will be sitting along millions of people from all backgrounds.

As of Monday, multiple sources were reporting more than 600,000 album sales in the first 24 hours, with the album on track to sell about a million copies in its first week, outpacing Beyonce’s latest album, Lemonade. More precisely, BuzzAngle Music is reporting 671,232 album sales in the United States so far, with and an additional 73,237 sales in Canada. This metric is not based on album sales alone, but on something Billboard calls ‘equivalent album units.’ Basically they have begun to include streaming and individual track sales in their measurement of albums’ chart position, with 10 individual track sales and/or 1,500 streams equating to a unit sale. In terms of streams, recent estimates suggest that the album accumulated about 4.3 million total streams on Apple Music during its first day, with BuzzAngle reporting a total of 99,979,870 song streams between the United States and Canada over the first two days of the album being available.

Additionally, the album’s lead single One Dance sold 50,000 units and was streamed 7.86 million times, which seems to have broken the record for opening week streams (previously set by Adele’s Hello, which accumulated about 7.32 million streams).

The album is still available only through Apple Music and the iTunes Store, so these figures don’t include streams or sales from any other source. The album is also sold as a bundle–apart from the singles “One Dance” and “Hotline Bling”–meaning that it can only be purchased as a complete unit, not as individual tracks. The album will be exclusive to Apple’s platforms for a week, after which point it will presumably arrive on Spotify and Tidal. And then, it will be the videos, shows, concerts, tweets, a cultural epidemics.

It is very likely that you have already come across Views on way or another. In the meantime, if you need a better marketing campaign, more students in your classes, or want to help a community solving its deep problems, you call Drake. He owns the hotline. He has the views.

Modern Languages and Literatures professor Juan Luis Suárez is Director of The CulturePlex Lab. Ben McArthur provided data for this article.