What makes something go viral?

Many have tried to solve the million-view question, others have tried to game the system with virtual stock markets and reality TV shows on the premise.

For Rebecca Ohlhausen, 31, the masseuse behind the “Core Relaxation Technique,” which has racked up more than 3.4 million views to date on YouTube, the answer isn’t obvious.

Uploaded by serendipityflowing” on March 23, 2008, the nine-and-a-half minute video shows a young, brunette masseuse giving an unconventional but still recognizable massage to a bald gentleman who, at one point, talks about back pain related to riding his bike. What is notable about the video is what it doesn't have: a budget, a soundtrack, ads, or much talking, let alone useful “how to” advice.

So how did this video push into the millions of views, let alone the upper hundred thousands?

“You know that's the funny thing—we didn't plan that at all,” recalled Ohlhausen on the phone from Austin, adding that she originally planned on having a series of photos—not video—taken by a friend for use on a different website she was going to call Serendipity Flowing.

During the photoshoot, “I noticed some things going on with my friend's back,” she continued. “So I was like 'I'm going to do this,' and I just started working on him, authentically going after it, and that's when [the videographer] started filming.”

And that’s all it took.

“It's remarkable what happened, really,” Ohlhausen reflected. “I had no intention of people watching it. I linked it to YouTube simply as a way to embed it. … People just loved it. I started having a huge response, of people just thanking me and all this. It was really sweet. That's the way it should be—so easy, you know?”

Ohlhausen learned from the 3,500 or so comments and personal messages she has received that her fans tend to watch and rewatch the video, often to produce a mood or feeling.

“It's repetitive use, is what it is. People watch it over and over. They like it; they say it relaxes them. A lot of people have told me it helps them with their insomnia and stuff like that. It puts them to sleep.”

Of course, even the most benign video on YouTube is typically subject to some kind of controversy, and Olhausen's technique has been the focus of pointed criticism. To wit, the top comment, by user “piolteer,” begins, “I don't care about what anyone says about her technique. It's the most relaxing-looking massage I've ever seen.”

I had to dip into more than 40 pages of inane “happy ending” jokes and infighting, but this comment by HazelEyes Prieta may be most representative of a very specific critique of Olhausen's work: “[I]it is illegal to be on top of the client like that..you must have one foot on the floor if you intend to use any part of your lower body... otherwise this is considered prostitution...this is not taught in the schools.. believe me I attend Massage school..!”

Surely not keeping one foot on the floor does not turn massage into prostitution, but Olhausen readily accepts that part of the appeal of her video is in her closer approach. “The techniques that I use are things that work that aren't necessarily taught in school, so I think people watch it for that reason,” she said.

Even with occasional on-screen notes, this video is definitely not a how-to tutorial, which Olhausen attributes to some of its popularity.

“A lot of people say it's the lack of talking; I'm not really trying to do a demonstration...it's just me working on my friend. It's humanity, right here. It's this spontaneous, intuitive flow, like a guitar riff.”

While Olhausen's other videos are not unpopular, it stands to be mentioned that none have hit nearly the numbers her first one has. A video called “Core RelaxationTechnique: medium-deep” was uploaded this July and has just 64,000 views, while a video from 2010 recorded as more of a purposeful, user's guide regarding “deep work” has about 115,000 views. Those are respectable figures, but nowhere near the millions her first generated.   

So what about that elephant in the masseuse parlor—the bottom line? Have the videos acted as a significant moneymaker in any way? The studio where she does her work has seen a bump in customers familiar with her video, but geography acts as a general barrier. Olhausen has noted that her website has seen “some uptick,” but she wonders if it’s the “right kind” of traffic.

“Everybody wants to know about the money,” she laughed in response. “It hasn't made me any money. I'm not even doing the ads. I have a lot of loyalty because I never cashed in.”

And maybe loyalty is what will help attract viewers to Olhausen's next project—a self-massage video “showing people how to work on their own body.” She also plans on taking her show on the road.

For now, however, Olhausen said the video's impact itself has been enough for her.

“If I'm ever feeling like I'm not doing anything, or I'm feeling lazy, at least my video's out there making people happy.”

Screengrab via YouTube