A Mysterious Viral Hit: How Did 35 Million People Find This Song?

A song with an anti-suicide message from an obscure musician has gone viral — and even the singer doesn't know how or why

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More than 35,000,000 people have watched the video for John Michael Williams’ song “I Believe In You” since it was uploaded to YouTube on Apr. 16.* That’s about three times more people than have watched the clip for a Justin Bieber song uploaded that same week. Unlike some of the most popular YouTube videos out there, “I Believe In You” has no stars and no humor. And at least one of its millions of viewers—Williams himself—doesn’t know how that many other people found the clip.

“Honestly, I was stunned,” he says. “When I did it I sent it out to my contacts, 1,600 people. I’m from a big family and I sent it out to them, and they sent it out. I couldn’t believe it.”

Williams, who lives near Boston, says he did no marketing or promotion beyond his usual network. Though he has data from YouTube that show he’s reached a large audience in Asia and Europe—and knows that the video was featured on the Times of India website—he has no idea how his viral fame began.

His only guess is that the clip’s suicide-prevention message—and the story behind the song, even though he doesn’t share that story on YouTube—speaks to viewers. “I’m on a mission. It’s coming from that place,” he says. “That’s the only thing I can really figure out. I can’t keep up with my phone and my email and the people who comment; I think they could feel that I could feel it. I’ve been changed by this, in that I never felt like I had a mission before.”

(MOREU.S. Panel Finds Little Evidence to Support Universal Screening For Suicide)

Here’s the story: A few years ago, Williams made a movie about the infamous “pregnancy pact” in which 18 high-school girls in Gloucester, Mass., decided to get pregnant at the same time. (It ended up being shown at a local film festival.) Williams mentioned the project to a Welsh couple who attended one of his music events, and they told him about a still-unfolding tragedy that struck a community near where they lived. The town of Bridgend, Wales had seen an alarming number of young people killing themselves — according to a Vanity Fair article about the incidents, the suicide rate for young men in Bridgend multiplied by five between 2006 and 2009.

The story resonated with Williams — a good friend of his in high school took his own life—and he went to Wales. In his first month there, he says he found out about dozens of cases, even though the local press had been asked to not report on these incidents to discourage copycats. Williams visited Wales over a three-year period, filming, and had documented nearly 100 cases. (Williams hasn’t yet finished his Bridgend documentary  — and its distribution plans are unclear: he met with MTV but was offended when the network wanted footage of dead bodies; MTV didn’t pick up the movie, but a trailer is now available.)

Some in the town thought the suicides could be traced to a cult; some thought it was the work of a serial killer. Williams thinks it’s neither.

“I have my own theories,” he says. “Ultimately, what they all have in common is that they  despaired.”

That belief led him to make the song and video that have now gone viral. “I remember thinking, oh my God, a half million people have seen it,” he says. “At this point, if one person doesn’t do it…I’m hoping the song does find its mark.”

EDITED TO ADD: Well, maybe. Views aren’t necessarily unique viewers.