Natalie investigates the reasons behind the enormous (and sometimes bizarre) popularity of a few YouTube videos

The phenomenon of the internet is one that has changed the world immensely, arguably more than any other single event in living memory. One area that the internet has had the most effect on is the world of ‘celebrity’. In the 1960’s they had the likes of Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn; today we have Rebecca Black and Honey Boo Boo. That is not to say that nowadays we haven’t got some fantastic talent in the celebrity world, but the level of talent has certainly been diluted. Although I can sit here and complain about this, I am guilty of fuelling this change. There is something deliciously irresistible about watching these people doing things that not only semi-repulse you, but also make you want to tell all your friends about. These are the celebrities of the viral-video generation. But what makes a viral video go viral? Sometime the clips are of very mundane scenes. The father of the two boys in the ‘Charlie bit my finger – again!’ video said that when he filmed the scene, he didn’t realise that it was even remotely funny. It was only when he uploaded it and watched it a few times that he noticed the humour. According to Kevin Allocca, the trend manager at YouTube, there are some similarities between the most successful viral videos, that could be the key to their outrageous viewing numbers.
The ‘Double Rainbow’ video, featuring a man who is shocked at the occurrence of a double rainbow, was originally uploaded on Janurary 3th 2010. Initially it didn’t have much of an impact…. in fact it had very few views until July 8th 2010, when the views suddenly increased to over 1 million. By July 15th the video had 4.8 million views. So what happened on January 3rd? Jimmy Kimmel, a ‘tastemaker’ stepped into the mix. A tastemaker is a celebrity or well connected person who has a huge influence on the tastes of others. When Jimmy Kimmel tweeted about the video that summer, he sent the viewing numbers rocketing.

Then there was the unforgettably nauseating “Friday” by Rebecca Black. In the process of researching for this article I watched the video again. I severely regret it now, a few days on, as I still have it in my head. I am sure every single person reading this will be able to relate to this acute sense of regret. Love it or hate it, the video was a massive hit. It was one of the most popular videos last year, having had over 200 million views. Similarly to ‘Double Rainbow’, this was up for a couple of months before it became famous, so how did it happen? In this case it wasn’t down to one individual tastemaker, but a large group of lesser known individuals. It was picked up by some semi-famous blogs, before slowly starting to seep into popular media and then, all of a sudden, the video went viral. Today the video has over 10,000 parodies on YouTube. This is another way in which videos become viral – through the opportunity for audience participation. The existence of 10,000 parodies is bound to drum up interest in the original video, and the viewing figures reflect this. In March 2011 it made it to number 19 on the iTunes music chart, despite being famous for being unbearable. Interestingly, the viewing numbers reliably spiked on Fridays.

Then there is Nyancat. A looped animation with looped music, described by Wikipedia as ‘a Japanese pop song with an animated cartoon cat with the body of a Pop-Tart, flying through space, and leaving a rainbow trail behind it’. Nobody in the world could have read that description and thought ‘hmmm I think we have a real hit on our hands’ but the viewing figures were huge, over 85 million views so far. Another statistic that is genuinely concerning, is that there is a 3 hour version that was viewed 4 million times. In total, the human population has watched up to 16.8 million hours of a pop-tart cat on a loop. We can really give ourselves a pat on the back for that one. Parodies were made in many bizarre styles, bringing in the participation aspect that is so key to the success of viral videos.

Finally, the case for the ‘unexpected’ aspect of a video. A YouTube post of a guy protesting cycling fines in New York is a great example of this. The concept sounds pretty boring but the video made me laugh out loud in the library. I won’t say what happens and ruin it for those who haven’t seen it, but of all the videos mentioned here today, it is by far the funniest and smartest, without making you cringe.

Take a look at it here:


Natalie Keir

Image by Popperipopp