'Squid Game' has transformed what it means to go viral

"Squid Game" is now the most popular series in Netflix's history.

'Squid Game' has transformed what it means to go viral

"Squid Game's" mind-boggling popularity has reinforced Netflix's global content strategy.

Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

The most popular piece of entertainment in the world right now is a South Korean dystopian series about income inequality. That says as much about the state of global society as it does about Netflix, which bankrolled the program and then convinced more than half of its 209 million subscribers to check it out in its first month.

We're talking, of course, about "Squid Game," writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk's survival drama first conceived in 2008 but deemed too unsavory until it landed in front of Netflix a decade later. Released on Sept. 17, Squid Game is now the most popular series in the platform's history, No. 1 in 94 countries around the world and, as of this week, the most popular debut of any show on Netflix with more than 111 million viewers.

"Squid Game" is forcing us to rethink what it means to go viral. Plenty of Netflix shows have become viral sensations in record time; "Stranger Things," "Bridgerton" and "The Witcher" all broke through past viewership ceilings at the time of release. But "Squid Game" is an altogether different beast.

  • "Squid Game" is a foreign-language show, beating out French heist series "Lupin" as the most-watched on Netflix to date. It's also not based on an existing piece of source material. Those factors make its breakout success even more anomalous, and it's forcing the industry to rethink all its formulas.
  • Much of "Squid Game's" success is organic, spreading by word-of-mouth and high critic and audience praise. But behind the scenes, Netflix's closely watched Top 10 list and its curatorial ability to direct unprecedented numbers of eyeballs toward new content in real time is crucial to the show's meteoric rise.
  • "When all is said and done, Netflix's greatest impact on pop culture will not be allowing us to 'binge watch,' or stream TV on-demand. It will be globalizing the entertainment business, creating a platform for people from more than 190 countries to watch stories from all over the world," argued Bloomberg's Lucas Shaw last week.

Netflix has been playing the long game with K-dramas for years now, and "Squid Game's" mind-boggling popularity has reinforced the platform's global content strategy, which even Jeff Bezos felt compelled to praise in a tweet earlier this month, calling the show's success "impressive and inspiring."

  • Netflix is smartly riding an international cinema and TV series wave it helped create with hits like "Narcos," "Money Heist" and "Dark," as well as a staggering investment in anime.
  • Netflix has invested over $700 million in Korea, and it's seen a more than 200% jump in K-drama consumption in the U.S. over the past two years. It said earlier his year it planned to invest $500 million more in Korea.
  • "When we first started investing in Korean series and films in 2015, we knew we wanted to make world-class stories for the core K-content fans across Asia and the world," Minyoung Kim, Netflix's vice president of content for Asia Pacific told CNN yesterday. "Today, 'Squid Game' has broken through beyond our wildest dreams."

"Squid Game's" viral recipe is nothing short of perfect. The show blends a classic dystopian tale steeped in Asian "battle royale" genre media with modern aesthetics and social commentary. In retrospect, it's no wonder it's taken over the world.

  • The show's colorful palette and disturbing setting — with its now-iconic guard costumes, player jumpsuits and children's playground games — has created unrivaled meme fodder, Halloween costume ideas and even a fast-growing Roblox trend.
  • The show's cast features a mix of established Korean talent like Lee Jung-jae alongside fresh newcomers like Jung Ho-yeon, whose 'Squid Game' role is her first-ever acting credit. She's now the most-followed South Korean actor on social media and the internet's biggest new crush.
  • Building on a socially conscious trend helped along by 2019's Oscar-winning Korean film "Parasite," the show's blunt message is hitting on the right notes at the right time, as South Korea battles a personal debt crisis of epic proportions and much of both the East and West reckon with record economic inequality.

"Squid Game" won't be the last show to completely capture the global zeitgeist. But the sheer speed and scope of its virality is a reminder that entertainment today has no borders or language barriers. It just needs a platform and viewers ready and willing to go along for a ride, even one they don't recognize, so long as Netflix has given it its stamp of approval.

A version of this story will appear in Thursday's Source Code. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

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