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At the time, Rohrback was closely monitoring its rapid progression from her one-story hovel in the "Coral Springs area." "At first, I thought it was some kind of mistake," she says. "But then I saw the Huffington Post had written something, and I knew it had gone viral." Rohrback contends her video took off "because of the uniqueness of the program; no one had ever seen such movement." And while there's no denying that, the additional reasons for its popularity are much more complicated.
To understand what made Prancercise® go bang on the internet, one must first understand that today, sharing is everything. Videos, stories, songs — anything that makes us feel something — serve as carrier packages of raw emotion that we parcel to our virtual community. We delight in spreading the content as though it's hot gossip.
"We're in the business of getting people to feel primal emotions that don't require a lot of thought," says Gawker's viral wizard, senior editor Neetzan Zimmerman. "That's where the money is. With a video or an image, you're going above words into the very essence of the reader and hitting them directly in those areas where they can't control. And people share [content] when those emotions are triggered."
Especially if certain "arousal emotions" — anger, awe, anxiety, or humor — are stimulated, a University of Pennsylvania professor named Jonah Berger wrote in 2011 after scrutinizing the emotive impact of the most emailed articles from the New York Times. The internet, his research suggests, has become a modern means to satisfy ancient social instincts. Words and long stories (like this one) are lousy vehicles of feeling, but short videos and pictures that can isolate one pure emotion? Boom.
In the past two years, viral videos have amassed such global import that they've shaped nations, anointed stars, and initiated worldwide manhunts. Two springs ago, Invisible Children disgorged a video explaining how Uganda's former tyrannical president, Joseph Kony, conscripted 66,000 children into military service. The short documentary triggered sweeping outrage, netted more than 100 million views, and marshaled a worldwide movement calling for Kony's arrest. (He remains at large.) Or Rebecca Black became famous overnight when her YouTube video for the song "Friday" garnered millions of views in 2011. Her song — derided as the "worst song ever" by E! — led to real-world record sales but also death threats and mockery. (Just last week, Black released a Miley Cyrus cover and grabbed fawning reviews from the Huffington Post and MTV.)
In Joanna Rohrback's case, the driving emotion was pure humor — but were people laughing with her or at her? "OMG this is just so wrong it's right!" bleated one commenter on Buzzfeed. "The wig, the camel toe, the awful music, let alone the prancing! Thank you so much; I needed this laugh!!!" Another wrote: "the Prancercise gallop hahahahahah." Within a day or two, the YouTube parodies started rolling in. The spoof "Prancercise From Head to Camel Toe!" featured a blond comedian named Beth Hoyt living in Brooklyn. "This is about finding your inner camel toe," Hoyt admonishes, gyrating in blue spandex. "It cannot be too big. Improvise if you have to. I used socks. It helps work your inner thighs."
Haters gonna hate, parries Rohrback, who at the time was unfamiliar with the vernacular of camel toes. Days after the viral explosion, she scuttled into the VIP section at the Isle of Capri, eyes wide and azure. "I don't pay attention to the neighsayers," she announced. "Get it? N-E-I-G-H. It doesn't bother me at all. I've always been special, and now all these people are finally noticing it. And I just wanna tell 'em, 'What took you so long?' " Then her voice lowered. She looked around. There are concerns, she whispered.
"Someone's been leaving these nasty comments under my video and on my [Amazon] page," she says. "Someone else hacked into my email. It must be my competitors — Jazzercise and Zumba. Who else could it be? They're jealous."
Later, while setting up her Skype account amid the frenzy of the Isle of Capri poker room, she worried that another fitness group bent on trickery would somehow obtain her password. Her friend Sharon Schwartz agreed: "Jazzercise is the arch nemesis of Prancercise®. Jazzercise cannot hold a candle to Prancercise®."
(Reached for comment at Jazzercise HQ in Carlsbad, California, a spokesperson denied allegations that Jazzercise was plotting against Prancercise®. "We think Prancercise® can stand on its own merit," said Michelle Escala, adding she didn't know whether any inter-fitness-program sabotage had ever occurred. "Internally at Jazzercise, we've had a laugh at Prancercise®, but it hasn't gone any further than that.")
This paranoia isn't unusual. Gawker's Zimmerman says immediate fame can be terrifying and addicting. He "very consciously" passed on writing about Prancercise®. There was a rare sincerity in Rohrback, he says, that didn't deserve the dark repercussions of internet notoriety.
Rohrback "could be any person with any name from anywhere in the world," he says. "It's that action that propels [someone like her] into fame, but as soon as we find the next thing, we just move on. They try to recover, but they'll never again re-create it no matter how hard they try. It's just serendipity. And it hits them hard... I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."