Ever since the first viral videos popped up, all the way back in the year 2005, you no longer have to feel bad when someone asked you, “Hey, did you see that last night?” With the advent of sites like YouTube, you can catch up on what people are talking about — and then you can ask other people if they saw that last night.
That’s the power of the viral video. It may not be a TV event that captures the attention of a mass audience at the same time, like the Super Bowl. But when something goes viral, it attains a word-of-mouth momentum that can turn a mistake into the defining moment of a candidate’s life and a nobody into the world’s next celebrity.
These are kind of like underground rap mix tapes, or even the home made VHS tapes passed from friend to friend in the days before the Internet. But there are some things that are unique to a viral video. And it’s these three that define this phenomenon. If there is a Viral Video Hall of Fame, these three are part of the charter class. In ascending order:
3) “Chocolate Rain” It’s just a guy with a funny name and a freakishly low voice with headphones, a standing microphone and a curtain. And yet Tay Zonday’s original tune, “Chocolate Rain,” became a viral sensation. He may not have superior writing chops or a rock star presence, yet the commitment he shows to his serious song about racism embodies the democratic spirit of what a viral video is all about. He did all of this by himself, and he was unique enough for other people to see that he has some talent in him, and it was worth it to at least see his video. Well, it’s been seen over 50 million times, and while he still has to look for a day job, Zonday still keeps putting his music online. That’s the American Dream right there.
2) “Thriller” No, I’m not talking about the original Michael Jackson video — but you guys know that. No, it’s the dance at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in Phillipines. The prison chief, Byron Garcia, wanted to change the exercise regimen and instill a sense of community amongst the 1,500 prisoners. So he made them learn the moves to many songs, including from the Village People and Pink Floyd, a practice he continues to this day. He’s put all of them online, but none of them have had more popularity than that of “Thriller.” It’s amazing to see so many people pull off the “Thriller” dance so well. After watching, you’re filled with so many questions about it — How did they get so many people to pull it off? How are they not rioting? The aspect that makes this a viral video is the “found treasure” effect; how did someone videotape a group of prisoners, all dressed in orange, performing a dance you try to do at your senior prom drunk? It’s been seen almost 41 million times, and it remains an awesome spectacle.
1) “Lazy Sunday” This video has been so influential in so many ways, maybe more so than any other viral video. It doesn’t have the amateur origins of so many of the best virals because it was made by The Lonely Island comedy troupe for Saturday Night Live. It isn’t really even that funny. But the rap song about spending an off day eating cupcakes and watching The Chronic–what!–cles of Narnia with your friend is so awesome that if you missed you, had to go see what they’re talking about, and then you get so excited to be in on what everybody’s talking about that you spread the word to your clueless friends. “Lazy Sunday” made YouTube into the website for videos, viral and otherwise; YouTube simply isn’t YouTube without it. In fact, you can say that this professionally made SNL Digital Short is the first viral video in history. That feat alone makes this sketch important in the history of social media and the Internet.