In the past two or three days you may have seen what is supposed to be the bio video of a woman named Debbie for the dating site eHarmony. Debbie has an MBA from Villanova and she loves cats. She really loves cats. The video which spread rapidly through the various networking sites is actually a spoof. Indeed, eHarmony does not even use bio videos. Regardless, the video is an example of a phenomenon that has existed for some time: the viral video.
A viral video is any video spread through video sharing sites (such as YouTube), social networking sites, email, and so on that becomes so popular it is ubiquitous on the internet. They are essentially the internet video equivalent of the rumours and folk tales that have been spread from person to person from the beginning of mankind. As such it should not be surprising that viral videos existed even before the advent of such video sharing sites as YouTube and DailyMotion. In fact, the earliest viral videos arrived on the scene not long after the creation of the World Wide Web. Those of you have been on the Web from its early days may remember the obnoxious and nearly inescapable"Dancing Baby" video that arrived on the scene in 1996. "The Dancing Baby" became so inescapable that it appeared multiple times on the TV show Ally McBeal and was parodied on the shows Millennium, Celebrity Deathmatch, and The Simpsons.
Another well known viral video that pre-dates video sharing sites such as YouTube was known as "The Star Wars Kid." In 2002 a Canadian teenager made a video tape of himself pretending to be a Jedi, swinging a golf ball retriever as if it was a light sabre. Unfortunately a classmate discovered the video, then showed it to a friend who made a computer file from the video tape. The video was distributed amongst students at the teenager's high school, and then around 14 April 2003 it was uploaded to the World Wide Web. From there it took off, until finally a version existed complete with the Star Wars theme and the sound effects of a light sabre.
Of course, the spread of viral videos would be helped immensely by two phenomena. The first was changes in the means through which people access the internet, as more and more people around the world began accessing the internet through cable connections rather than the much slower dial up connections. Those of you, like me, who have been on the internet since the early days can probably remember trying to watch videos on dial up--often the video would take longer to buffer than the length of the actual video itself. This problem was solved with cable connections, in which even movie length videos would run almost immediately, with little to no buffering.
The second phenomenon was the advent of the video sharing site. Video sharing sites had actually existed since 1998, when the very first, ShareYourWorld.Com, was launched. ShareYourWorld.Com would pretty much crash and burn, but it would pave the way for other video sharing sites. MetaCafe was founded in 2002. YouTube and Dailymotion were founded in 2005. It was YouTube that would prove to be the most successful and that would lead the way in the use of video on the internet. It also made much easier than ever before for videos to go viral. Of course, much of the reason that MetaCafe, YouTube, and Dailymotion succeeded where ShareYourWorld.Com failed was, quite simply, the fact that in 1998 most people were still using dial-up to access the internet. By the mid-Naughts, many more people were using cable connections to access the net.
This has led to an explosion in viral videos, to the point that it seems as if there is at least one a week, usually many more. It has also led to a whole new phenomenon--individuals intentionally creating videos meant to go viral. A perfect example of this could be the aforementioned spoof of bio videos for dating sites mentioned above. I rather suspect that whoever created the video fully intended it to go viral. Another example was created by Indigo Productions as a parody of yet another viral video. "The JK Wedding Entrance Dance" featured a wedding party, from groomsmen to bridesmaids to the bride and groom themselves, dancing down the aisle. The video went viral days after it was uploaded to YouTube. Indigo Productions, a video production company located in New York City, created its own parody of "The JK Wedding Entrance Dance" with "The JK Divorce Entrance Dance." Of course, this points to another phenomenon that had existed at least since "The Dancing Baby:" parodies of viral videos.
Of course, as might be expected, viral videos have created internet celebrities. Perhaps no better example of this is Justin Bieber, whose career began simply because of viral videos. Starting in 2007, his mother uploaded videos of his various performances to the internet. This in turn led to Bieber being discovered by a record executive who signed him. The rest, as they say, is history. An even earlier example of a celebrity created by viral video, although one whose fame was a bit more fleeting, was Gary Brolsma. In 2004, even before YouTube was founded, Mr. Brolsma uploaded a video of himself, taken by webcam, lip syncing "Dragostea din tei" by O-Zone. For a time it seemed as if Mr. Brolsma was ever present, not only on the Web, but on television as well. And while he still makes videos, he is no longer seen as often as he once was.
Viral videos are not only capable of creating celebrities, but they can also created problems as well. In the instance of the "Star Wars Kid," the video was uploaded without his permission. As a result he suffered teasing and bullying not only from his schoolmates, but even the public at large. This resulted in a lawsuit against those who had uploaded the video. Oddly enough, his parents only sued because of the distress caused by the posting of the video. They did not sue because of copyright infringement, which they certainly would seem to have had a right to do so. After all, their son made the video and it was posted without his permission.
Regardless, there have been other instances where the owners of a particular material have insisted on enforcing their rights. Many viral videos contain content that is not original and owned by someone else, whether it is a song or footage from a film. In such instances it is not unusual for the copyright owner to enforce his or her rights when a viral video uses their material. A perfect example of these are the ever popular "Hitler Reacts to..." videos, in which Hitler reacts to such incidents as Michael Jackson's death, the break up of Oasis, and so on. The original footage was from the film Der Untertang, produced by Constatin Films, and portrayed Hitler reacting to news that Germany cannot win World War II. In April 2010 the studio began the rather hopeless task of getting every "Hitler Reacts to...." video pulled off the internet.
As to why videos go viral, that may be a difficult question to answer. If viral videos are considered the equivalent of rumours, then perhaps we could apply Robert Knapp's theories regarding rumours from his study "A Psychology of Rumour." Knapp theorised that rumours "provide 'information' about a 'person, happening, or condition' and that "they express and gratify 'the emotional needs of the community.'" Now I am not sure how much information viral videos actually convey, but they would seem to "express and gratify the emotional needs of the community" in some way. How they do this perhaps varies from video to video, although all of them probably satisfy some need for entertainment on the part of society.
Of course, just how entertaining many of these viral videos are is questionable. I personally found "The Dancing Baby" annoying more than entertaining. And while the aforementioned "bio video for a dating site spoof" starts out funny, it actually slides into being downright disturbing as the woman continues talking about cats. I also found "The JK Wedding Entrance Dance" irritating, although I thought its parody, "The JK Divorce Entrance Dance" to be hilarious. Anyway, my point is that I really do not know how many of these videos ever went viral as they simply do not seem to be very entertaining to me. I can only suppose I am atypical of the average internet user.
At any rate, viral videos existed almost from the beginning of the World Wide Web, well before YouTube. There can be little doubt that they will continue to proliferate in the coming years. In fact, I rather suspect they will become more and more common, as more individuals access the internet through cable and devices capable of recording video (cell phones, digital cameras, et. al.) before more and more commonplace.