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Dancing Matt

 

YouTube sensation turns zany idea into career

 

By Douglas Burns

 

Matt Harding never went to college and says he “scraped through” high school in Connecticut.


But few double-degreed denizens of the Internet can claim this 33-year-old’s success in that medium. With a simple idea, a lark, really, in 2003, Harding, now living in Seattle, Wash., catapulted himself from casual world traveler to World Wide Web sensation.


The funny thing about it: “Dancing Matt,” as he’s known, can’t really dance.
If you spend any time on the Net, the odds are good you’ve seen Harding’s videos of himself doing a silly dance at locales across the globe, from Egypt to Norway to Spain to Iceland.


This is what Harding does for a living: shoots videos of himself dancing badly around the world. He’s been in 83 countries. So far. Harding has no plans to stop the adventure any time soon.


What’s more, Harding has appeared on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “Good Morning America,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” and other major programs. VHI termed him one of the Top 40 Internet celebrities, and a co-founder of YouTube, Jared Karim, has said a Harding video is his favorite ever posted to the wildly popular video-sharing service.


“It started very much by accident and certainly wasn’t a plan when it began,” Harding said in an interview with Cityview last week.


(Full disclosure: Harding and I are not friends but his mother and my mother were roommates and Delta Gamma Sorority sisters at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in the early 1960s.)


For his part, Matt Harding left a video-game-developing job in Australia in 2003 to travel the world on his savings to that point. A couple of months into the trip, Harding was in Hanoi, Vietnam, with a friend, Brad.


“We were taking pictures and he said, ‘Why don’t you go stand over there by the corner and do your stupid dance?’” Harding recalled in the interview. “So I did it, and he filmed it for me, and I liked the way it looked so I decided to start collecting clips everywhere I went on that trip of just doing that dance in interesting places.”
Harding traveled more in 2004 and put a video montage of his dancing up in January of 2005 on his own website.


“I was just very simple,” Harding said. “I slapped some pop music on it, and it was about 16 or 17 different counties.”


At that time, viral videos were beginning to take off on the Net, and Harding soon found his on the then relatively new YouTube with 600,000 views. A teenager, posing as Harding, had posted it to YouTube with a PayPal link to collect donations. The kid grossed $235.


“He said he was willing to give me 5 percent of his earnings, which I thought was funny,” Harding said.


YouTube apologized for the situation and rectified it.


“In the early days, when you wrote YouTube an e-mail, the head of the company actually wrote you back,” Harding said. “They liked the video themselves so they took it down, and I put it back up myself.”


Millions of people today employ elaborate strategies to try what Harding did by accident: get noticed on the Net.


The people at Stride gum saw the video in late 2005 and had a product coming out the next year. Stride sent Harding around world with a budget to go wherever he wanted.


“So I hit 39 countries on all seven continents and put that second video up in 2006,” Harding said.


The interesting thing, Harding said, is dancing with people in different counties and realizing “how they’re all in fact kind of the same.”


A third “Dancing Matt” video had a couple of thousand of people in it.


“I’d kind of gotten over trying to shoot post-card images in front of the Taj Mahal and was just more interested in finding a group of kids playing in the street just about anywhere,” Harding said. “After about five years of doing it, I finally felt like I got it right with that video, and that’s where I am now.”


It’s challenging to estimate the full reach of Harding’s work with an exacting degree of accuracy. But YouTube gives numbers for video views.


Harding pulled 30 million views for a 2008 video and 15 million for an earlier one.
“They get posted to just an incredible number of other sites that are impossible to track and calculate,” Harding said.


So how many people have seen Harding doing that dance?
“It would be certain to say tens of millions,” Harding said. “It would be possible that more than 100 million have, sure. You could say 100 million people, and it would be vaguely credible.”


Videos of the dance abound, and Harding has cataloged them on his own website — WhereTheHellIsMatt.com.


He can’t really explain the dance, or how it started.


“I don’t really recall the genesis of it,” Harding said. “It’s just something I’ve done. Whenever I’ve been called upon to dance it’s what happens. It’s not really practiced or choreographed. It just comes naturally.”


He added, “There’s not a lot to it. I swing my arms, snap my fingers and stomp up and down.”


Visa liked it, though (or at least the attention the dance attracted).


Harding was involved in a project with Visa for more than a year in which he shot currency exchange commercials for the credit-card Goliath in Asia and Australia.
“It’s pretty much the same thing as the videos,” Harding said. “It’s me dancing in exotic places.”


The dancing videos have been Harding’s sole source of income since 2005.
“I don’t know if I can call it a job, but it is my income,” Harding said. “I would call it more than a living. It’s comfortable.”


Harding now lives in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle with his partner, Melissa, and a dog, Sidney.


A native of Westport, Conn., Harding didn’t go to college.


“I kind of barely scraped through high school and then started working in video games,” Harding said, guessing that he was a “C” or “D” student in high school. (He says he never looked at his report card.)


In the video-game industry, Harding worked for Activision in California and Australia as well as for Pandemic Studios for which he helped develop the game “Destroy All Humans!”


He left late last week on a month trip to the Middle East with plans for more dancing videos.


“I’m doing it without a sponsor right now,” Harding said. “I plan to start looking for a sponsor when I’m back, so later in the year.”


Harding, who authored a 2009 book about his travels, “Where The Hell Is Matt?: Dancing Badly Around The World,” has been to the Middle East previously. On this stint he will hit Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.


Generally speaking, he said, the places he’s been are safer and friendlier than he would have imagined before his globetrotting started.


“When I go to a country like Syria, where there’s an image in people’s heads painted by the news, the people almost always will go out of their way as if to compensate for the way they know they’re viewed,” Harding said. “They will be extremely friendly and come out and greet you and ask you questions. That happened to me in Yemen.”


Harding says he receives many e-mails from people who say the videos mean a lot to them.


“I try to take it in the right way and understand the video for what it is,” Harding said. “I’m more like a steward where I get to do this thing where I put a camera up and kind of orchestrate by dancing, but whatever happens, what other people bring to it is what’s really special and what I think people really respond to. And what they’re responding to is that the video creates a feeling of connectedness that I think we all really, really hunger for. We want to feel like we’re plugged in to the global community, and I think the feeling that we’re not is constant and overwhelming and saddens people and we seek out things that remind us that we are all alike.”


Harding says one the key things at work for his videos is sincerity. They’re not wink-wink, nod-nod.


“The Internet is so full of deception, or at least people are so weary of being deceived, that I think that sincerity comes through,” Harding said.


He was also an early adopter of the self-made video technology, a man who was in the right place at the right time.


“I got to be the guy who did that first so now when other people do it, they say, ‘Hey, it’s like that guy!’” Harding said.


Would Harding be offended if somebody said, ‘God, this Matt Harding just came up with a crazy freaking idea, and he’s made a ton of money on it.’”
“I would not be offended by that,” Harding said. “People have said much worse.”
Is that accurate?


“Yeah, I think I was given the idea. It’s not even my idea,” Harding said. “My friend said, ‘Hey, why don’t you go stand over there and do that.’”


Did Harding cut Brad in on any of this?


“He demurs whenever I try to give him credit,” Harding said. “Actually, I think he’s kind of annoyed at this point of me bringing him up so many times. He just said this very simple thing, and I ran with it. But, yeah, if he hadn’t said that, I would have a regular job somewhere right now for sure.” CV


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