All of the Viral Videos Worth a Damn Happened in a Single Year
Film historians have made great sport of pinpointing Hollywood's "best" year, what with a century of material to fuss over. Viral videos, on the other hand, have been around for less than a tenth of the time feature films have, so there can be comparatively little debate about when they peaked: It was in 2007, right on the cusp of the Web 2.0 revolution, that these clips had their unrepeatable heyday.
In the space of a calendar year, innumerable classics of the genre emerged on YouTube, a still-nascent video-sharing platform created in 2005 by three former PayPal employees and bought by Google toward the end of 2006. Although the founders recall envisioning a now-laughable video-dating site, it was Janet Jackson's breast-exposing "wardrobe malfunction" of the 2004 Super Bowl -- a split-second in American pop-culture mythos that people couldn't find online afterwards -- that predicted the site's true character. It would be a hub for the spreading, searching, and viewing of whatever footage its users deemed valuable. In other words, it was absolute anarchy.
Naturally, internet content had been "going viral" for some time already. The early 2000s saw digital contagion via email forwards and listservs, message boards, blog networks, chat services, and -- most tellingly -- word of mouth. Passing photos and videos from friend to friend was crucial in the pre-YouTube era, when (imagine!) one had to know specific creators' names and URLs to access the very best shocking, weird, or hilarious photos and videos, particularly flash animation series like Homestar Runner and Salad Fingers. Some of these became even bigger when they made their unofficial migration to YouTube in 2007.
Two canonical examples would be the satirical songs of Brad Neely -- today, he's responsible for Adult Swim's outlandishly hilarious China, IL and Brad Neely's Harg Nallin' Sclopio Peepio -- about presidents George Washington and JFK. These videos first made the rounds in 2006 but were ripped and posted to YouTube in 2007; Neely, the auteur himself, wouldn't upload the originals to the site until 2009. Likewise, comedian Liam Kyle Sullivan's endlessly quotable "Shoes" music video -- about a footwear-obsessed young woman, played by Sullivan in drag, who embarks on a trippy odyssey of familial and retail angst -- was a huge success on his own site in 2006 before he put it on YouTube in 2007, gaining millions more views through the site's added discoverability.
Fantastic as it is, the idea of anything like "Shoes" breaking through to mainstream appeal in 2017 seems faintly ludicrous. Ditto "Chocolate Rain," a basso profundo song posted to YouTube in April 2007 by grad student/musician Tay Zonday, which delighted viewers with its minimal production value, title phrase bellowed every other line, and cryptic lyrics that may or may not address institutional racism in the United States.
All of a sudden, YouTube was a force majeure, automatically condensing a wealth of manic energy into a single archive -- but it hadn't yet been overwhelmed by unboxing videos and Minecraft speedruns. As late as 2010, about 35 hours of new material appeared on YouTube every minute; by 2016, that number had increased tenfold, with 300 hours uploaded per minute. In 2017, people watch 1 billion hours of YouTube per day. With that exponential growth, we've seen rampant diversification and the evolution of unique subcultures, from ASMR videos to makeup tutorials. Of course, there's nothing wrong with carving out these niches, though the end of a more monolithic viral culture does also entail the demise of a unified experience. A decade in which only five television channels existed is bound to engender water-cooler conversations about what happened on this or that program the night before, while a world of on-demand cable splits the populace into an archipelago of fan bases. The proliferation of web video is no different: These days, instead of gravitating en masse toward flashpoints like "Shoes" or "Chocolate Rain," we are permitted to curate and explore without obligation.
The end of a monolithic viral culture entails the demise of a unified experience.
Take another 2007 example, one of YouTube's all-time biggest hits: "Leave Britney Alone!" In what amounts to a deceptively nuanced piece of performance art, 19-year-old Chris Crocker, on his way to becoming -- in the words of LGBTQ website Queerty -- "one of those self-invented social media icons," delivers a sobbing, histrionic monologue, begging the media and other critics to cut Britney Spears some slack during a notoriously turbulent year for the beloved pop singer. Crocker shut down his YouTube account in 2015, but copies and parodies of his confessional under a bedsheet remain.
What drove the clicks to Crocker's weepy tirade was the core tension of its premise: Is this guy for real, or is it an elaborate troll? (That is to say, is he affecting a character, or enacting his true personality?) The debate was heated at the time, with Crocker insisting that he "wasn't being disingenuous in any way," even as he confessed to blurring the line between video blogging and "acting," and truthers claimed that he hadn't shed genuine tears in the video.
In 2017, artifice and irony are foregone conclusions -- which isn't to say that a "Leave Britney Alone!"-type outburst couldn't have blown up these past few months, just that we're far less inclined to indulge this mode of confessional as potentially authentic. And this ambiguity was an undeniable factor of Crocker's allure in that moment. He was a pioneer of the online personal brand, which, as anybody on Instagram knows, has more to do with fantasy than reality.
Meanwhile, people began to identify another important engine of virality: cuteness dosed with a hint of the bizarre. We saw, in 2007, the debut of two legendary videos that traded on this formula. The first was "The Landlord," a short comedic film in which Will Ferrell is bullied and threatened by his foul-mouthed, alcoholic, toddler landlord Pearl, played by the adorable, wobbly daughter of filmmaker Adam McKay, who fed her the abusive lines from off-camera, which premiered on the brand-new site Funny or Die. The second, "Keyboard Cat," is a 1984 clip of a cat named Fatso being manipulated into pawing a jaunty synthesizer jingle that was soon repurposed as a meme to play people off following an unfortunate gaffe.
Both presaged a decade of deliberate attempts at going viral using children and household pets -- though by getting there first, both ensured that they would never be surpassed -- and both gave us a glimpse of the digital backlash cycle that now powers the discourse around such ephemera. McKay took flak for prompting his innocent little girl to swear like a sailor, and the makers of "Keyboard Cat" were forced to defend themselves against accusations of animal cruelty. One can easily envision the political firestorm we might have endured if the unforgettably incoherent answer from South Carolina's contestant in 2007's Miss Teen USA pageant had been a decade delayed. Hell, Trump would've invited her to the White House.
What changed? We found other ways to share what made us laugh or gasp. Consider the case of the 2007 vintage classic "Charlie Bit Me," a perfectly ordinary home video of a boy and his baby brother. The action is exactly as described, and while the teeny lads are charming, there is scant to distinguish it from countless other videos of this type. Yet as of May 2017, it had been viewed a staggering 849 million times, placing it in the highest echelon of YouTube favorites.
Harry Davies-Carr, the father, had no intention of making his kids stars when he uploaded the clip, which he originally set to private and sent to the boys' godfather in the US (the Davies-Carrs lived in the UK), as it was too big a file to relay via email. When he found it bothersome to keep adding acquaintances to the private list, he switched the video to public, allowing everyone with an internet connection to watch. "I was naive about the whole YouTube thing. It became viral and once that happened there was nothing I could do," he said in 2015. What's more, he "was just about to remove [the video] before it exploded," but once it had, he had "lost control of the clip," so he left it.
Davies-Carr and parents like him no longer face the same set of limitations when bouncing images of their children around the globe; instead of transmitting them to the public, they can send individual video texts and direct messages, or upload to the cloud. Simultaneously, social media gave us the option of engaging with kids (or cats) who belong to our actual friends and family, or even friends of friends -- anyone we can claim a tacit offline connection with. The runaway marvel of something as generic as "Charlie Bit Me" can't be duplicated in an era where we save our attention for youths who retain it over the course of an entire childhood, like Gavin, a contemporary viral kid whose expressive reactions are fodder for endless memes.
With YouTube overcrowded, Vine shut down, and Instagram and Twitter as cliquey as they are, it's nearly impossible for a viral video to have the impact it once did. What goes viral now are the channels, the people, and the trends or hashtags -- not the individual videos. We fall down the rabbit hole of watching objects crushed by hydraulic press, ice bucket challenges gone wrong, dash-cam crashes, and recreations of the "Harlem Shake" dance, but it's rare for any entry to stand out among the rest. The YouTube clips with genuine traction are carefully engineered corporate efforts -- see: your "Carpool Karaoke" segments or John Oliver investigations. When a truly organic and amateur video erupts -- "Chewbacca Mom," or "Damn, Daniel" -- those same late-night TV hosts who currently rule the viral landscape with professional writers and a slick aesthetic rush to book the unknown guests and annihilate whatever joy we found in their off-kilter, irreverent, grainy smartphone footage. If 2007 was the Golden Age of virality, it's in part because that age was swiftly coming to an end: August of that year marked the appearance of YouTube's first ad.
The good news is we will never again want for videos to distract from work or entertain during long commutes. We'll always tag hometown friends on the absurd local news story about the school or sketchy bar we went to. We may go so far, on special occasions, as to make people crowd around our laptop to witness "the funniest thing I've ever seen." But nothing can hope to resemble the thrill of hitting play on a video that is right now taking the web by storm, and realizing, as you wait a second for it to buffer, that you are what makes it a phenomenon.