A viral video is a video that becomes popular through the process of (most often) Internet sharing, typically through video sharing websites, social media and email. Viral videos often contain humorous content and include televised comedy sketches, such as The Lonely Island's "Lazy Sunday" and "Dick in a Box", Numa Numa videos, The Evolution of Dance, Chocolate Rain on YouTube; and web-only productions such as I Got a Crush... on Obama. Some eyewitness events have also been caught on video and have "gone viral" such as the Battle at Kruger. More recently, the Kony 2012 video by Invisible Children, Inc. became the most viral video in history with over 34,000,000 views on the first day of its upload on 5 March 2012 and now has over 100,000,000 views as of late 2013. Another recent example is Gangnam Style by PSY. As of June 2014, the music video has been viewed over 2 billion times on YouTube, which in turn makes it the most viewed video in the history of the site.
Viral videos began circulating before the major video sharing site YouTube by e-mail. One of these early videos was "The Spirit of Christmas" which surfaced in 1995. In 1996 "Dancing Baby" appeared. This video was released as samples of 3D character animation software. Ron Lussier, the animator who cleaned up the raw animation, began passing the video around LucasArts, his workplace at the time. A particularly well-known early example was "All your base are belong to us", based on a poorly translated video game, which was first distributed as a GIF animation and became popular in the year 2000.
Viral videos' staying power relies on hooks which draw the audience to watch them. The hooks are able to become a part of the viral video culture after being shown repeatedly. The hooks, or key signifiers, are not able to be predicted before the videos become viral. The early view pattern of a viral video can be used to forecast its peak day in future.
More recently, there has been a surge in viral videos on video sharing sites such as YouTube, partially because of the availability of affordable digital cameras.
Number of views
There have been the questions of "what exactly constitutes a viral video? How many views does it need to be considered 'viral'? How quickly does it have to rise in viewership?" There isn't exactly a set rule for how many "views" constitute a video "going viral". In a recent blog post, YouTube personality Kevin Nalty, aka Nalts, asks the question “How many views do you need to be viral?” In 2011 he said, “A few years ago, a video could be considered “viral” if it hit a million views.” But Nalts updated that definition. He said, “A video, I submit, is “viral” if it gets more than 5 million views in a 3-7 day period.”
Viral video study
Due to the profound societal impact, viral videos have been attracting attention in both industry and academia. CMU Viral Videos is a public data set for viral video study, in which the videos are carefully selected by experts on viral videos including editors from YouTube, Time Magazine and Ray William Johnson. The statistical characteristics of viral videos drawn from the data set is summarized.
Band and music promotion
A video broadcasting the Free Hugs Campaign, with accompanying music by the Sick Puppies, led to instant fame for both the band and the campaign, with more campaigns taking place in different parts of the world. The main character of the video, Juan Mann, achieved recognition after being interviewed on Australian news programs and appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Viral videos continue to increase in popularity as teaching and instructive aids. In March 2007, an elementary school teacher, Jason Smith, created TeacherTube, a website for sharing educational videos with other teachers. The site now features over 54,000 videos. Some college curricula are now using viral videos in the classroom as well. Northwestern University offers a course called "YouTubing 101". The course invites students to produce their own viral videos, focusing on marketing techniques and advertising strategies.
"United Breaks Guitars", by the Canadian folk rock music group Sons of Maxwell, is an example of how viral videos can be used by consumers to pressure companies to settle complaints. Another example is Brian Finkelstein's video complaint to Comcast, 2006. Finkelstein recorded a video of a Comcast technician sleeping on his couch. The technician had come to repair Brian's modem but had to call Comcast's central office and fell asleep after being placed on hold waiting for Comcast.
The Canadian high school student known as Star Wars Kid was subjected to significant harassment and ostracizing after the viral success of his video. His family accepted a financial settlement after suing the individuals responsible for posting the video online.
In July 2010, an 11-year-old girl with the pseudonym "Jessi Slaughter" was subjected to a campaign of harassment and cyberbullying following the viral nature of videos she had uploaded to Stickam and YouTube. As a result of the case, the potential for cyberbullying as a result of viral videos was widely discussed in the media.
The 2008 United States presidential election showcased the impact of political viral videos. For the first time, YouTube hosted the CNN-YouTube presidential debates, calling on YouTube users to pose questions. In this debate, the opinions of viral video creators and users were taken seriously. There were several memorable viral videos that appeared during the campaign. In June 2007, "I Got a Crush... on Obama", a music video featuring a girl claiming to have a crush on presidential candidate Barack Obama, appeared. Unlike previously popular political videos, it did not feature any celebrities and was purely user-generated. The video garnered many viewers and gained attention in the mainstream media.
YouTube became a powerful source of campaigning for the 2008 Presidential Election. Every major party candidate had their own YouTube channel in order to communicate with the voters, with John McCain posting over 300 videos and Barack Obama posting over 1,800 videos. The music video, “Yes We Can”, by will.i.am demonstrates user-generated publicity for the 2008 Presidential Campaign. The video depicts many celebrities as well as black and white clips of Barack Obama. This music video inspired many parodies and won an Emmy for Best New Approaches in Daytime Entertainment. 
The proliferation of viral videos in the 2008 campaign highlights the fact that people increasingly turn to the internet to receive their news. In a study for the Pew Research Center in 2008, approximately 2% of the participants said that they received their news from non-traditional sources such as MySpace or YouTube. The campaign was widely seen as an example of the growing influence of the internet on United States politics; further evidenced by the founding of viral video producers like Brave New Films.
During the 2012 US Presidential Election, Obama Style and Mitt Romney Style, the parodies of Gangnam Style, both peaked on Election Day and received approximately 30 million views within one month before Election Day. Mitt Romney Style, which negatively portrays Mitt as an affluent, extravagant and arrogant businessman, received an order of magnitude views more than Obama Style.
The web traffic gained by viral videos allows for advertising revenue. The YouTube website is monetized by selling and showing advertising. According to the New York Times, YouTube uses an algorithm called "reference rank" to evaluate the viral potential of videos posted to the site. Using evidence from as few as 10,000 views, it can assess the probability that the video will go viral. If it deems the video a viable candidate for advertising, it contacts the original poster by e-mail and offers a profit-sharing contract. By this means, such videos as "David After Dentist" have earned more than $100,000 for their owners. One successful YouTube video creator, Andrew Grantham, whose "Ultimate Dog Tease" had been viewed more than 150,000,000 times (as of April 2014), entered an agreement with Paramount Pictures in February 2012 for the development of a feature film. The film was to be written by Alec Berg and David Mandel. Pop stars such as Justin Bieber and Esmée Denters also started their careers via YouTube videos which ultimately went viral. By 2014, pop stars such as Miley Cyrus, Eminem, and Katy Perry were regularly obtaining web traffic in the order of 120 to 150 million hits a month, numbers far in excess of what many viral videos receive. In March 2014, it was reported that a YouTube channel called Stampylonghead, owned by a UK man named Joseph Garrett, was regularly receiving hits at a similar rate. Garret posts daily videos of himself playing Minecraft, an online video game targeted at 6 to 14 year-olds. Garrett estimates that "channels with more than 100,000 subscribers generate enough cash for a decent living."
- Internet meme
- List of Internet phenomena
- Positive feedback
- Shock site
- Viral marketing
- Seeding agency
- Streisand effect
- PC Mag explains, in its encyclopedia, how viral videos spread via email, blogs and instant messages. Retrieved 21st Dec 2012. http://www.pcmag.com/encyclopedia_term/0,1237,t=viral+video&i=58238,00.asp
- Lu Jiang, Yajie Miao, Yi Yang, ZhenZhong Lan, Alexander Hauptmann. Viral Video Style: A Closer Look at Viral Videos on YouTube. In ACM International Conference on Multimedia Retrieval (ICMR). Glasgow, United Kingdom. 2014.
- Numa Numa has “…clocked up more than a billion views…” according to the The Guardian Newspaper
- Guardian news reference to Numa Numa popularity: Guardian.co.uk
- Observer/Guardian newspaper mentions "Evolution of Dance" regarding how everyday people have become superstars (11 April 2010) Guardian.co.uk
- Fox News report about Numa Numa also mentions: ...fellow viral video star, 'Chocolate Rain Guy,' aka Tay Zonday (22 September 2010): Foxnews.com
- Crush on Obama mentioned by ABC news (13 June 2007): ABCnews.go.com
- Daily Mail uses the term "gone viral" regarding a "viral internet sensation" with more than 1,145,000 hits (11 October 2010): Dailymail.co.uk
- BBC News states "Almost 9.5m people have already watched the video, dubbed the Battle at Kruger, which was filmed by US tourist Dave Budzinski while he was on a guided safari."
- Flock, Elizabeth (4 April 2012): "Kony 2012 screening in Uganda met with anger, rocks thrown at screen". Washington Post.
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- Lefevre, Greg (19 January 1998) "Dancing Baby cha-chas from the Internet to the networks". CNN: "Internet-savvy animation fans have known about The Dancing Baby for years; he populates hundreds of Web sites and has been the subject of untold numbers of e-mail missives."
- Lussier, Ron (2005). "Dancing Baby FAQ". Burning Pixel Productions.
- h2g2 (13 February 2007) "'All Your Base Are Belong To Us'" BBC: "The GIF slowly started to spread across the Internet, but it wasn't until 2000 that it properly gained popularity. By the end of the year, altered images of various road signs, cereal packets and other photographs containing the words 'All Your Base Are Belong To Us' had started to appear, and by 2001 the phenomenon was in full swing."
- Burgess, Jean (2008).‘All Your Chocolate Rain Are Belong to Us?’ Viral Video, YouTube, and the Dynamics of Participatory Culture “Video Vortex Reader: Responses to YouTube”. Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, pp. 101–109.
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- CMU Viral Videos
- Viral Video Characteristics
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- 2006 YouTube Video Awards Free Hugs wins in "most inspirational" category. New York Times (27 March 2007): NYtimes.com ...see also BBC BBC.co.uk
- Free Hugs on The Oprah Winfrey Show (30 October 2006): "Thanks to a video on the website YouTube, Juan's movement is spreading worldwide—he is even organizing a global hug day!" Oprah.com
- Katherine Leal Unmuth, Dallasnews.com
- Wendy Leopold, Northwestern.edu
- Jackson, Cheryl V. (9 July 2009). "Passenger uses YouTube to get United's attention". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 11 July 2009.
- "The technician, in Washington, had arrived at Brian Finkelstein's home to replace a faulty modem and had to call in to Comcast's central office. Placed on hold just like powerless customers, the technician fell asleep after an hour of waiting. " (2 July 2006): New York Times
- Sleepy Comcast technician gets filmed, then fired (26 June 2006) Cnet.com
- "Finkelstein's ensuing video, complete with soundtrack ("I Need Some Sleep," by the Eels) and commentary on the company's poor equipment, high prices, and lousy customer service, quickly becomes a viral hit on the Web." CNN.com
- 'Jessi Slaughter' YouTube Cyberbully Case: 11-Year-Old Tells GMA She Didn't Want it to Go This Far, CBS News
- Jessi Slaughter, nouvelle tête de turc du web américain, L'Express, France
- Jessi Slaughter and the 4chan trolls – the case for censoring the internet, news.com.au
- Seelye, Katharine (15 June 2007). "A Hit Shows Big Interest in Racy Material – and Obama" (Web). The New York Times Company. Retrieved 20 October 2009.
- Wallsten, Kevin (2010). “Yes We Can”: How Online Viewership, Blog Discussion, Campaign Statements, and Mainstream Media Coverage Produced a Viral Video Phenomenon, Journal of Information Technology and Politics.
- "The Internet's Broader Role in Campaign 2008" (Web). Pew Research Center. 11 January 2008. Retrieved 25 November 2009.
- Rutenberg, Jim (29 June 2008). "Political Freelancers Use Web to Join the Attack". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-25.
- Cain Miller, Claire (October 26, 2011). "Cashing In on Your Hit YouTube Video". New York Times. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- McNary, Dave (February 13, 2012). "Paramount inks scribe duo for canine romp: Project based on YouTube 'Dog Tease' video". Variety. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- Woollaston, Victoria (5 March 2014). "Making money out of MINECRAFT: Barman gives up job to upload tips on the game - and now his YouTube channel gets more hits than One Direction and Justin Bieber". Daily Mail. Retrieved 2 April 2014.
-  A public data set for viral video study.
- Viral Video Chart Guardian News, UK.
- Photos Gone Viral! — slideshow by Life magazine
- YouTube 'Rewind' - YouTube's page covering their top-viewed videos by year and brief information on their spread.
- The Worlds of Viral Video Documentary produced by Off Book (web series)
-  Unruly viral video ads chart