What Makes a Video Go Viral?

We all know the internet.  It is an amazing, magical tool used for everything from expanding one’s intelligence to nurturing one’s most deviant interests with great privacy (except privacy from the government… wear your tinfoil hat when you read this).

Much like anything else that is a great advancement in society, the human race has found ways to turn it into something that can be used to kill time more than anything else.  Heck, if you are reading this article, you know exactly what I am talking about!

Some may go back to the days of the Ooga-Chaka Dancing Baby gif that swept the nation in the 1990s (remember when Ally McBeal was a thing besides the bag of bones Han Solo sticks it to?) but the YouTube generation has bred a new breed of celebrity and entertainment with the viral video.

Scripted shows like South Park have paid homage to some internet celebrities and entire programs like Web Soup and Tosh.0 have been created to show some of the “internet’s finest.”  Now, when it comes to the shows centered around airing these videos, who can blame the networks?  They are super cheap to make, fairly effortless, and in a generation where reality television thrives, people cannot get enough of peering into the (mostly misfortunate) lives of others.

But how do some of these things pick up steam?  I don’t think you will find an answer in this article.  I am more just asking by taking a look at some I can’t comprehend.

For example, take a look at one of the most successful viral celebrities: Fred.


In 2006, a teenager from Nebraska made a YouTube channel with his cousins, where he pretended to be a six-year old with anger management issues.  While making video after video of shrieking and yelling in the camera, this teenager was getting millions upon millions of views.   Taking a look at the videos labeled Season One on Fred’s official YouTube channel, some clips have upwards of 60 million views.

Three years into his Fred career, in April 2009, Fred became the first YouTube channel with over one million subscribers.  Fred has had three movies, guest starred on iCarly, and even his own live action series on Nickelodeon, as well as an animated series.  You have to burn when the iron is hot when you have material like, “Fred Goes to Camp Iwannapeepee.”

And Fred isn’t the only person to segue random YouTube videos into a semi-relevant entertainment career.

How about Brandon Hardesty?  Some may know his YouTube profile – ArtieTSMITW.


With a profile named after the legend of The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Brandon put videos of himself re-enacting scenes from various movies online.  He got attention re-enacting R. Lee Ermy’s role in Full Metal Jacket, although in scenes with multiple characters, he would play them all.

He played off some of the internet trends.  Remember 2 Girls, 1 Cup.  He did 1 Guy, 1 Lunchable.

And people ate it up more than those two girls ate up the contents of that one cup.

His videos reached the front page of YouTube several times.  When YouTube did a live show, he was one of the featured performers.  By 2008, Hollywood came calling.  He was cast in a role in the independent William H. Macy flick Bart Got a Room and was given one of the featured roles in straight-to-video American Pie “sequel”, American Pie: Book of Love – starring Bug Hall aka Alfalfa from the 90s Little Rascals movie and Beth Behrs aka Caroline Channing from 2 Broke Girls.

While some may consider these to be mild endeavors, keep in mind, this was someone who just posted some random videos on YouTube.  Now he’s been paid to be in real Hollywood projects.  He found his way into some larger profile work with a supporting role in the Happy Madison classic Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star and was Cartman during the live-action sequence in the South Park episode, “I Never Should Have Gone Ziplining.”

But how do these videos catch on?
Sure, when people were eating up The Lonely Island Digital Shorts, they were seen by people on Saturday Night Live and got a positive word of mouth.  With Tosh.0 becoming one of the most popular shows on Comedy Central, some of the videos have become more identifiable. I remember years ahead of the feature on Tosh.0 when people were showing off the “Leprechaun in Alabama” news report.

Comedy writers scour the internet and come across things they find amusing.  Because they are paid to amuse people, if they find it funny, hundreds of thousands of others watching their shows surely will too.

We still get these super random videos that people cannot stop talking about.  Remember when Chocolate Rain was a thing?  Or people couldn’t get enough of the Honey Badger?

What made these things so popular?

Some people’s comedy comes from ‘real life’ once again, like “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That” or “Hide Your Wife, Hide Your Kids”.

Personally, I’ve never been huge on the whole “reality craze”.  I don’t actively tune into any reality shows.

It has always been curious to me what makes some of these things take off.  For instance, I want to take a look at some videos from some guys I know.

For instance, here is a video from an aspiring filmmaker, Marcus Quaratella, posted to his YouTube channel:

Now, if you ask me, there is probably a large market on the internet for videos about jizzing on the face of cute British girls.  I guess this one isn’t what they are looking for but still.  As of when this article is being written, the video had 84 hits in over two years on the internet.

“Charlie Bit My Finger” is approaching 534 million views.  Although to be fair, “Charlie” had a four year advantage… this one is bound to catch up.

Now, this one could have limited viewership for a few reasons.  First of all, the title is simply “Friendship”.  How many other videos pop up when that is put in?  Probably a lot.  That could have something to do with it.  People are more likely to search for something along the lines of, “Sitting on a Toilet,” and be much happier with what they find.

But how does one pick up steam?  Clearly, stuff like “Charlie Bit My Finger” gets passed along.  I doubt anyone was searching for anything close to that until it got passed around.

Now, the actor featured in the Quaratella film tried launching an online comedy group under the YouTube Channel Uncle Ralphie’s Cabin. Granted, the videos aren’t incredibly special but there is a little bit more effort shown than some of the stuff that gets talked about.   You may go with Scott Steiner when you see the actor and just be like:

But think about Fred shrieking getting 19 million views and then some of these videos getting only around 80 – 130:

It could be the target demographic.  Dumb videos by some kid will lure in plenty of kids.  These videos are a little too much for children and adults probably have better options.  These videos had been shown to be fairly successful at some Phoenix-based comedy shows and positive feedback from those who did view them but they never took off.  After months of being out there on the internet, they can go months without a view at this point.

Checking in with those who participated in the short-lived Uncle Ralphie’s Cabin videos, YouTube had their own suggestions for getting your videos hyped: make friends with other channels.

But it is never easy to exchange promotion with other channels.  When they were trying to do the dual advertising, they were able to get partnership with some upstart musicians, which helped a little, but mostly found the people being most willing to participate being someone who dressed up cats to re-enact fairy tales and some lady who just sat in front of a webcam giving life advice to strangers. People watching cats re-enacting Peter Pan probably aren’t seeking out these videos with jokes about abortion and race.

So what makes a video take off?  Is it proper advertising?  Are there too many amateur filmmakers out there pumping out material?  Is it really more entertaining to watch babies bite fingers?

It will be interesting to see, as many major companies shift some of their entertainment to web-based formats and have content available on YouTube or even Hulu, the rise or fall of people in situations like Fred and Brandon Hardesty.  Will people prefer to watch YouTube for the unscripted videos of people’s misfortune?

Sometimes the car wreck approach is more appealing to people.  As a wise man once pointed out, “Barney’s film had heart, but “Football In the Groin” had a football in the groin.”


Written by B. Patrick

Currently residing in Phoenix, Arizona, B. Patrick's interests include comedy, basketball, wrestling, comic books and can change as quickly as a butterfly flaps its wings.

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