Viral Video refers to the term and phenomenon of when a video becomes popularized through online sharing, typically through video-sharing websites, social media or email. Viral videos can be divided into a number of categories, including music, sketches, gaffs, shock videos, amateur home movies and others. The more exploitable viral videos often lead to parodies, remixes, YouTube Poops and other forms of replication, as well as memes.
Although the term itself was not coined until 2009 after the clip David after Dentist (see below) went viral, the first examples of viral videos can be traced back to the mid-1990s. One of the best-known examples is the Dancing Baby. This represents the first widely distributed video, although, at the time of its creation in 1996, the primary method for sharing was via email. Due to dial-up internet speeds, early viral videos were often distributed as animated GIFs, rather than proper video files. With the advent of video-sharing sites in the mid-2000s, most notably YouTube in 2005, the spread of viral videos became much easier, and most of the recent examples of viral videos are uploaded using YouTube.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, there were a large number of sites devoted to spreading viral videos, such as Funny or Die, Newgrounds and Nico Nico Douga. In the late 2010s and early 2020s, these videos were largely popularized through sharing on social media, mainstream media coverage, memes or influencers discussing the trend.
Music Videos and VEVO
YouTube has also allowed for the sharing and spread of music and music videos. Early on, many music uploads were done illegally and have since been removed due to copyright claims. This, of course, did not stop people from uploading music by any means. Artists and record labels soon realized that they could jump into this market and "official" channels are now common, although many only upload clips of songs or music videos. Many famous artists upload their music videos with VEVO, which is a joint venture between the labels Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and EMI. VEVO videos generally get millions of views, not due to viral spread, but due to the immense popularity of the artists involved.
As such, most of the top-viewed videos on YouTube are VEVO music videos. In fact, eight of the all-time top 10 videos were released by VEVO artists, with Justin Bieber's "Baby" at the top, having almost 750 million views. Incidentally, it also has the highest number of downvotes of any video on YouTube (about 2.7 million).
The examples below are listed in chronological order, from 2003 to 2011. It is important to note that earlier examples of viral videos usually have much fewer views than later examples; this is because of the dramatic increase in the popularity of YouTube, and the increased integration of video sharing sites with social media. Some of the original uploads have also since been deleted and reuploaded by others later on.
“Badger Badger Badger” is a Flash animation created by Jonti Picking in 2003. It consists of images of dancing Badgers over an electronic song while a voice repeats the word “badger”, breaking off to say “mushroom” at the appropriate moment.
Lightning Bolt! (a.k.a Ogre Battle LARP) is a video clip of a live action role-playing (LARP) group engaged in a medieval skirmish reminiscent of Dungeons & Dragons. Among those playing on the side of humans was a guy dressed in a kilt, who kept yelling “Lightning Bolt” while pelting tiny beanbags at another guy dressed as an Ogre. Since gaining popularity across LARP communities in early 2000s, the video went viral and introduced the obscure hobby of live-action role playing to the general public.
Star Wars Kid is a name given to a video of teenager Ghyslain Razaa pretending to fight off enemies using a lightsaber, while actually using a type of club. It was spread around by Kazaa in 2003, and was digitally edited to make the club look like a lightsaber in the style of the movie series. Subsequently, the video was featured on major news sites across the internet.
Numa Numa is a lipdub video by Gary Brolsma, done to the song “Dragostea din tei” by the Moldovan pop group O-Zone, and uploaded to Newgrounds in 2004. The video quickly gained notoriety, and was uploaded to YouTube in 2006. It has been remixed countless times.
Technoviking refers to a man in a video of Berlin's techno festival “F**kparade”, shot in 2000, and uploaded to YouTube in 2006. The Technoviking is noteworthy because of his Viking-style hair and clothing and intense dancing. The original video has been the subject of many remixes and parodies.
Chocolate Rain is a song uploaded to YouTube by user Tay Zonday in 2007. It features rather unusual lyrics, with each verse beginning with the phrase "Chocolate Rain," sung in Zonday's remarkably deep voice. The video was spread on 4chan, and is now one of the most recognized viral videos.
I Like Turtles is a viral news video featuring ten-year-old Jonathan Ware, dressed as a zombie, responding "I like turtles!" when asked by a newswoman about his face paint. It is difficult to say exactly why the video became viral; it is a good example of the unpredictable nature of viral videos. As with many other viral videos, it has been the subject of many mashups and remixes.
On January 30th, 2009, Youtube user booba1234 posted the video David After Dentist. The video stars the user’s son David, just after having oral surgery to remove an extra tooth during the summer of 2008. According to Booba1234, David was very nervous about the surgery and so his father decided to videotape a before-and-after to make him feel better. Following the surgery, young David was high as a kite, and the rest… is history.
Keyboard Cat is an amateur video shot by YouTube user Charlie Schmidt in 1984, and uploaded in 2007. It features his cat Fatso playing a keyboard. It did not gain notoriety until 2009, when user Brad O’Farrell mashed the video up with footage of a man falling down an escalator, and titled the result “Play him off, Keyboard Cat.” Since then, the mashup and the original have gained widespread notoriety, and are often used in forums to "play people off."
Double Rainbow is a video uploaded by YouTube user Hungrybear9562 in 2010, showing a double rainbow at Yosemite National Park in Wyoming, USA. It is famous, however, for the filmer's off-camera reaction that can be heard; he exclaims about the rainbow's beauty multiple times, and can be heard crying. The video was brought to the public eye by talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, and is the frequent subject of remixes, most notably by YouTube user schmoyoho, who applied liberal amounts of autotune to the dialogue, and made a proper song out of the video.
Bed Intruder is a viral interview video, featuring Antoine Dodson being asked about in his neighbourhood in Huntsville, Alabama, USA. He advised the viewer to "hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband cause they’re rapin’ everybody out here." It was first posted to Reddit in July 2010, and quickly spread. As with Double Rainbow (see above), YouTube user schmoyoho created a song featuring Dodson's heavily-autotuned voice, which became relatively famous in its own right.
Interior Semiotics is the name of a contemporary art performance by student Natacha Stolz. The performance consists of Stolz opening a can of expired Spaghetti-Os, rubbing them on her shirt, and then to fingering herself and urinating into a can. The video was spread across 4chan after being uploaded to YouTube in 2010, and its extreme absurdity has been associated with the ridiculousness of hipster culture.
In an unusually successful viral marketing campaign, Old Spice created a series of advertisements and response videos featuring former NFL wide receiver Isaiah Mustafa promoting their body care products. The advertising campaign began in 2010 during the Superbowl, and was later expanded to the internet after the advertisement was well-received. The original ad, and those that have followed, have been disseminated around the internet, and have set a new standard for appealing to young demographics; the style has been emulated both by other corporations and by amateur YouTubers.
Friday is a song and music video by 13-year old Rebecca Black which gained notoriety after being posted on The Daily What in 2011. It was generally derided by internet users for its heavy autotune use, poorly-written lyrics, and overall generic feel; many saw it as epitomizing everything that is wrong with contemporary music. The music video currently holds the record for the most downvotes of any video on YouTube.
Zangief Kid is a name given to a Australian teenager Casey Heynes, thanks to a video showing him bodyslamming fellow student Ritchard Gale in a move reminiscent of the Street Fighter character Zangief. The video showing the fight was originally uploaded to YouTube in March of 2011, and quickly spread to 4chan, as well as the mainstream media. On 4chan, Heynes was praised as a hero, and the mainsream media used the video to comment on bullying.
Asians in the Library, posted to YouTube in 2011 by UCLA student Alexandra Wallace, is a video in which she rants about Asian students talking loudly on cell phones in the campus library. Once the video was noticed, it drew a huge negative response, both online and off. Numerous reaction videos were uploaded, sometimes in the form of a rebuttal to her complaints, and sometimes mocking her, i.e. ranting about White girls in the library. Wallace claimed to have made the video as an ill-thought-out joke, and although she was not reprimanded, Wallace withdrew from UCLA shortly after it was posted.
Kony 2012 is an online campaign that went viral after a 30-minute documentary, produced by Invisible Children, was uploaded to Vimeo in February 2012, and then to YouTube in March. The YouTube upload received over 43 million views in the span of 72 hours, making it one of the most prolific viral videos ever. The video and its message were passed around Reddit and Twitter, and was featured in major media outlets. It has garnered significant criticism, however, as many have pointed out that Invisible Children could have better-served their cause had they spent more money on actually helping those in need, rather than producing videos and conducting marketing campaigns.