By definition, a viral video is a clip uploaded to the web which, like some kind of contagious disease, spreads quickly amongst people, racking up view counts quick as a click. Now, it seems, we’re in a pandemic, with many videos receiving enough views to populate a none-too-modest city. But can looking at the videos which are propelled to near-instantaneous fame tell us something about society and its interaction with online content?

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Rights; YouTube (TM) & Rego Korosi (Photo)

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the viral trend began, but many attribute it to the entertaining-yet-endearing emotional rollercoaster which is Charlie Bit My Finger (spoiler alert: Charlie bites his brother’s finger). Something about those bittersweet fifty seconds has earned the home video 720 million hits on YouTube. Perhaps it appealed to the sadistic streak present in most, dormant in some, which delights in laughing at the misfortune of others. The 33 million views on Burning My Hair Off is testament to the veritable glee we discover whist marvelling at the (harmless) mishaps of on-screen strangers. The detached viewpoint of the viewer, spilling crisp crumbs over their keyboard, shut away in their bedroom at 10pm, means it’s okay to giggle at the drama unfolding on-screen.

Although humour is a winner in the path to online fame, twenty-nine of the top thirty most-watched uploads are music videos. These range from chart-toppers like Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance to the gimmicky Gummy Bear Song, but it is K-pop’s very own Gangnam Style which is undoubtedly the most viral of them all. In its journey to the top, it became the first YouTube video to receive one, then two billion views, and sparked a global dance craze. Not bad for a singer initially known only in South Korea.

The choreographic absurdity that is the horse-riding Gangnam Style dance inspired hundreds of YouTube users to upload their own take on it. Interactivity is another catalyst for video popularity; who doesn’t remember that abomination that was the Harlem Shake? The Cinnamon Challenge? The Cup Song? Quick, simple and easy to make, these videos, although not necessarily fast-track tickets to viral status, certainly raised the profile of small-time YouTubers, and formed one of the more bizarre video movements.  The accessibility of these internet phenomena exploded into other media – thanks to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, everyone could share in the glory of coughing up clouds of ground cinnamon.

Nothing, however, could come close in strangeness to the exalted position held by goats in viral videos. This confounds me; inexplicably, two minutes of Goats Yelling Like Humans and one minute of goats balancing on a flexible steel ribbon warrants a combined 33 million views. Is this why we developed the web, a technologically-rich, diverse network of information? So that domesticated, four-legged farm animals can gain celebrity status?

More recent viral videos have had a different tone to them, though. Look Up, a spoken word film, preaches, somewhat ironically, of the importance of getting away from electronic devices and technology, and experiencing the world for what it is. This, perchance, is the ultimate use of resources; riding the wave of viral popularity to broadcast a widespread message. Other campaigns have latched on to this idea, with #ViolenceIsViolence highlighting issues of domestic abuse and, in a video trending worldwide this week, The Secrets of Food Marketing teaching us about intensive farming and animal cruelty.

If this is the direction which viral videos appear to be taking, then, I say, let it continue. If they can make a Taylor Swift song even more popular with the addition of screaming goats, who knows what they can do as a voice for change?

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Sian Collins

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Bibliophile, logophile, linguaphile, philomath, big fan of dictionaries and thesauri. French student, more than a little pretentious.