Online virality for an entertainer is a double-edged sword. With exposure comes expectation, and expectation has revealed itself to be the sharper edge.
With digital consumers as ravenous as ever, a humble man in rural Vietnam named So Y Tiet—better known by his stage name Ytiet—buoyed a hopelessly quarantined world last summer with TikTok and Instagram posts of him counting numbers in passionate a capella song form.
Thousands of miles away, American producer Retro Messiah accompanied one of Ytiet’s standout count-ups from 41 to 49 with a peacefully pulsing instrumental. This transformed the charming video into the Ytiet single “41.” A month later, Wiz Khalifa sampled the Binh Dinh buffalo herder in “Numbers” which delivered his voice to millions of Western ears.
A couple of those ears were mine, followed by my eyes. And almost a year after going viral, Ytiet has continued to melodize numbers and frolic peacefully in Vietnam’s mountainous jungle. Frankly, it’s beautiful. Moving even. Aside from doing Cameo birthday wishes and dropping a couple more singles, Ytiet has simply been himself with more people watching.
Ytiet’s content remains simple and fulfilling. Encouragingly, his newfound followers express deep contentment with what he chooses to share with them.
The fan culture formed around Ytiet is so wholesome it’s nearly surreal. While his Cameo videos and a capellas are expected, occasional scenes from his personal life break up the flow. Horseplay with villagers, breakdancing by creeks, and posts about his health and wellness are all met with the same enthusiasm as his signature counting melodies. His YouTube channel is much of the same but with more comedy sketches and vlog posts, including one on his life story containing details about Tiet growing up with a single parent and living with chronic pneumonia.
Though it’s hard to imagine he’s been anything but a number-singing angel, Ytiet was initially reluctant to embrace his goofy yet charming musical expression. Between his health, familial, and financial struggles, Tiet did not believe he could be adored as a singer.
Near the genesis of his count-singing sensation last July, he recorded a video to demonstrate his melodic magic for his mostly Vietnamese fans at the time. Four of the five minutes were spent nervously pumping himself up—talking into a camera phone was a strange novelty to a man spending most of his day with cattle. More soberingly, he made several comments about gathering his strength which brought his chronic illness to the forefront.
A small yet throaty cough at 24 ended the demonstration. But after three false starts and a lot of rambling, Tiet finally did it. He pushed past his ailment and the weirdness of it all and sang his numbers for the people.
The Internet can make anything ubiquitous. In an economy of attention, being seen everywhere means you are everything. Many people who go viral do not consider it a gift because to the casual viewer, visibility implies authority. It doesn’t matter what role a person says they play once a piece of content leaves their realm. Oftentimes viral creators become focal points against their wishes, leaders of dialogues or creative niches they simply wished to be a small part of. Somehow, Ytiet has managed to largely avoid this pitfall and maintain the purity of his expression.
For as many innocent Fleetwood-Mac-skater moments the internet gives us, as well as career boosts like Druski’s, there are numerous stories of digital creators seeing their labor of love turn into servitude. Not to mention the countless instances of innocent fun becoming a magnet for harsh judgement, harassment, and death threats. Social media algorithms overexpose unassuming people, and we—both individuals and brands—are trained to overinvest in them.
If you go viral for being funny, you become a standard of humor.
If you go viral for a catchy song, you become a standard of musicianship.
If you go viral for your flan recipe, your comment section will turn into Master Chef.
But despite the inevitable cynic or two, Ytiet has avoided both extreme praise and extreme criticism. Impressively, he has received the benefits of algorithmic fame without suffering its nasty side effects. Even with the few commercial moves he has made, Ytiet still presents as a guy from a remote place that enjoys singing and making people laugh. Those who pay him attention, even after the viral fame, want him to be nothing more or less. That is where the beauty lies.
People abuse viral creators as proxies for those who enable virality in the first place. As much as people are to blame for making trivial things into headline news, our frustration really lies with the platforms that program our attention.
In today’s digital landscape, most people move between their Truman Show-like worlds and joining a platform’s collective mind to love, hate, laugh at and fawn over the person of the hour. So, whenever a viral sensation like Ytiet sustains engagement beyond the violent extremes of social media, it’s worth a few grateful words, a passionately sung “five,” and a yeaaah yeah yeaaah to wrap it up sweetly.