The viral meme -- popularity by committee

The popular Internet meme, "Rick roll" is more than just an interesting moment in Internet history; it is potentially a sign of things to come, as it is capable of touching business in a whole new way.

It is a phenomenon that we never saw coming. The Internet has the power to reach out and touch us in unique and unexpected ways. And it has a business impact that we can't afford to ignore.

Back in January, a group calling themselves Anonymous began what has become an amazing fight against the "Church" of Scientology, picketing their "orgs" and disseminating information across the Internet at breakneck speed. Along the way, and probably quite accidentally, they gave birth to the "Rick roll" playing Rick Astley's 1987 song "Never Gonna Give You Up" at times and places where it was least expected. But this was just the real-life variation on an already established Internet theme. It had already become quite common to misdirect people on the Web. Clicking on links in celebrity gossip could easily get you Rick rolled. And on April 1, 2008, the meme went global. YouTube linked every one of its Featured Videos to the song and many others joined in.

But what is less evident is the actual fiscal impact that the rejuvenation of the 21-year-old song is having.

From Reuters:

The movement has spurred digital sales for the track, which has sold at least 1,000 downloads per week since late December and peaked with 2,500 sales the week of March 9.

On April Fools' Day, YouTube RickRolled users by linking to the video on all of its home-page features. Other online outlets like Sports Illustrated and Live Journal followed suit. Altogether, the video was viewed 6.6 million times in one day, generating 43,000 user comments and boosting the track to No. 77 at Amazon's download store.

Sony BMG has issued "Never Gonna Give You Up" as a ringtone, and is mulling another greatest-hits release for 2008 in the United Kingdom. Three of Astley's albums -- his debut, "Whenever You Need Somebody"; "Greatest Hits"; and "Platinum & Gold Collection" -- remain in print in the United States via Sony BMG's RCA/Legacy label.

But Astley himself is not planning to cash in on the rebirth of the song.

From the Los Angeles Times:

“I don’t really know whether I want to be doing that,” he said. “ I’m not being an ageist, but it’s almost a young person’s thing, that.”

“I think the artist themselves trying to remix it is almost a bit sad,” he said. “No, I’m too old for that.” Astley, who will be touring the U.K. in May with a group of other ’80’s acts, including Bananarama, and Nick Heyward, Heaven 17, Paul Young and ABC, sums up his thoughts on his unexpected virtual fame with characteristic good humor: “Listen, I just think it’s bizarre and funny. My main consideration is that my daughter doesn’t get embarrassed about it.”

The take-away from this whole thing is to recognize the power of the Internet. Once something has been recorded for posterity, it is available to play with in ways that many of us don't appreciate until something like this comes along. Even with the proof in front of us, it is easy to be somewhat incredulous.

So what are your thoughts? Is it possible to plan something like this? Or is it truly in the hands of the people who spread it? Is it possible for a business to tap into the power of the Internet intentionally? Or is it really just random chance? And is there, heaven forbid, something about yourself out in digital wonderland that you hope never finds the light of day?

Note to readers: I resisted the urge to Rick roll you. The links in this post are safe.