Some Web videos get a few thousand views, and more are lost in cyberspace. A few break away from the pack and become superstars, with viewership in the millions.
Since YouTube launched in 2005 and made video sharing part of pop culture, viral videos have quickly become the latest mutation in mass media. The viral video is a Web video clip that takes on a life of its own thanks to viewers passing it along through e-mails and instant messages or mentioning it in blogs.
What makes a video go viral? It s not necessarily artistic quality or content. Some are created by Hollywood screenwriters and directors. Some are gleaned from TV news footage and commercials. Many others are amateur creations that strike a chord with Web surfers everywhere.
And it s not star power. In this alternate universe, a hamster running on a piano keyboard has as much of a shot at fame as Britney Spears.
There are sites devoted to measuring the viral-ness of videos. Viral Video Chart serves up the top picks for the day, week, month and year, complete with stats on number of views, blog posts and comments, graphs measuring hits over time, and even a buzz by language pie chart. TVWeek.com monitors the top videos from Google, Yahoo, MSN, YouTube, Veoh and others, based on numbers from Nielsen NetRatings.
The power of popular videos has been harnessed by the ad industry. Viral advertising and marketing homes in on target audiences through social networking platforms. In the viral marketing campaign built around the release of The Dark Knight, a virtual Gotham City was built through Web sites TV stations, cab companies and more, which were designed to keep interest high before the film s release.
And millions watch or post TV commercials they like online voluntarily. For example, sponsors pay a lot for a Super Bowl spot, but it s an investment with good returns: The ads especially the ones that generate buzz have a new life on the Web.
Here are five that made a splash in 08.
1. It s barely 2 weeks old, but the footage of Iraqi broadcast journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi throwing his shoes at President George Bush during his visit to Baghdad is a late entry in the race. Footage from different newscasts drew more than 2 million viewings on YouTube alone, and also can be seen on Metacafe, Break, Google Video and other sites.
The incident spawned several parody videos, which were less viral, including Funny or Die s ad for an Iraqi discount shoe emporium offering the most elegant shoes for throwing at world leaders.
2. Election 08 made political videos some of the most-watched online content this year. Barack Obama s road to victory made history on yet another level: It was the first presidential campaign waged in part on video sharing sites. There were the memorable speeches and creative get-out-the vote efforts that went viral.
And there were the stars Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.I.Am (named the online artist of the year by the Webby Awards) with his Yes, We Can video, and Sexy! Flashy! Wonky! Super Obama Girl! Amber Ettinger.
3. The separated-at-birth duo of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and comedian Tina Fey became two of the year s biggest viral stars. Fey s spot-on imitations of Palin on Saturday Night Live became Web classics: More people watched them online than they did on TV.
And Palin s own turkey pardon video, SNL and Katie Couric appearances, along with signature wink videos could have been SNL skits themselves.
4. When then presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain pegged his opponent as a celebrity, and mentioned Paris Hilton in the campaign ad, Hilton fired back with her own campaign video on Funny or Die, in which she outlined her energy policy and came up with a memorable slogan: I m like totally ready to lead.
5. Christian the Lion has all the elements of the classic feel-good movie, and it gets it done in less than three minutes. It s the true story of two London men who adopted a lion cub, raised it and released it back into the wild. The reunion scene where the grown male lion remembers them and rushes to give them a lion hug, is powerful stuff especially those seconds where you re not quite sure just what he s going to do next.
(E-mail Adrian McCoy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at amccoy(at)post-gazette.com.)