Videogum

Was 2006 The Golden Age Of Viral Videos?

In a recent post, I made a throwaway joke about how sometimes the internet works really hard to provide us with something new, and sometimes it just lays some Sarah Palin audio on top of some Miss South Carolina footage and calls it a day. As an example of a viral video in which the internet surprised us with its cleverness and ingenuity, I linked to the “Valentine for a Perfect Stranger” video. If you haven’t seen it, it’s one of the funniest and also weirdest viral videos in the short but storied history of viral videos. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of another viral video that is as uniquely odd and wonderful.

In that same recent post, I linked to a few viral videos as examples of the internet’s ingenuity. They were just the videos that stood out in my mind as being exceptional. You know, the viral video that is more than just some kid farting a powder cloud or a kitten that is also a ninja. The one you talk to your friends about. And what I discovered is that all of them were posted to YouTube in 2006. Begging the question, has the golden age of viral video already passed? Are we now living in its decline?

Observe…

Perhaps the most classic example of a viral video is the “mashup.” A mashup often involves taking two disparate elements and combining them, but even more simply, I think anything that starts with appropriated source material and turns it into something new is, by definition a mashup. (Congratulations, you just received your degree from Duh Academy.) Now there have been plenty of totally decent mashups over the years, but to my mind one of the very best mashups, and probably one of the most influential, is the Shining as romantic comedy mashup. Despite countless imitators, this has never been beaten in my book. It’s the funniest and most original example of this type of viral video, and everything since has been a decent but ultimately less exciting imitation. It was posted February 7th, 2006.

Another great mashup video, one that I refer back to every few months and which still, all these views and months later still makes me laugh every time, is the G.I. Joe “Porkchop Sandwiches” PSA, posted April 6, 2006.*

What about another classic meme in the viral video pantheon: the personal performance video? Previously there had already been the Numa Numa guy, and the Star Wars Kid, but both of those seemed almost accidental. People goofing around who did not yet realize the power of the internet. What about someone who wanted the attention a viral video could bring? What about someone who understood what YouTube actually was and hoped to reap its effects? My personal favorite remains to this day Reh Dogg and his “Why Must I Cry” video.

That video was posted on October 28, 2006.

By the end of 2006, the year of The Show with Ze Frank and Ask a Ninja, it was clear that viral videos were no longer just random bits of webjunk enthusiastically forwarded from person to person. You could actually make them. Not just outsider artists like Reh Dogg, but talented performers who recognized that the internet was the frontier (the already dying frontier, apparently) for the dissemination of entertainment. For example John Roberts’s “The Christmas Tree,” posted December 12, 2006, which was nominated for an Emmy. AN EMMY!

Even our precious Christian the Lion, which overtook the internet this summer and is, easily, the Cutest Thing of All History, was originally uploaded September 24, 2006, just without the dramatic Whitney Houston soundtrack and helpful narrative titles.

2006 was, of course, the last year in which viral videos were the exclusive work of amateurs, before corporate America decided to try their hand at it. Blame Pepsi. Obviously, the entire window in which viral videos could even exist only stretches from 2005 until today, so it might seem ridiculous to argue that we’ve already witnessed their rise and fall. But in internet time a week becomes an eternity. A viral video can go from sensation to old news in a few days. So it actually makes sense that it would aesthetically flame out that quickly. Art took thousands of years to be declared dead. As did literature. But it only took film a hundred years. The cycle keeps speeding up. So why wouldn’t viral video show them all what it’s like in the new world order? IN YOUR FACE, HISTORY OF CULTURE.

*“Porkchop Sandwiches” was created by filmmaker Eric Fensler, along with 24 other G.I. Joe PSA videos, prior to 2006, but was removed from the internet by the creator in 2004 due to Cease and Desist letters from the Hasbro corporation. Nevertheless, Fensler himself REPOSTED the videos in 2006, at which point they enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, thanks in no small part to YouTube and other video sharing sites. So while the videos existed for a couple of years, it is arguable that they were not “viral videos” until their second, 2006 appearance. This is cause for some debate, and I leave it to you to make the final judgment on their place in history, but if anything this video is a surprising exception rather than what might obviously be a rule, which is to say why weren’t there more backlogged videos finally dusted off and finding a new outlet that year? Why was so much of it as new as it was great?