How A Video Becomes Viral – A Lesson From YouTube, In 3 Steps

Given the subject matter, it’s appropriate that this blog is posted on a Friday. Don’t sigh and turn away yet—we’re all sick of the song, but in order to understand what makes a video go viral, it’s crucial that we look at the video that last year spread as virally as smallpox.

This music video by Rebecca Black was viewed 200 million times in 2011—a miraculous feat for a song about it being a day of the week. After all, there are 48 hours of video footage uploaded to YouTube every minute; this one certainly isn’t more special—or is it?

Kevin Allocca, the Trends Manager at YouTube, says no. A video becomes viral not because it has redeeming special qualities, but because it follows a crucial three-step trajectory to stardom:


A “Tastemaker,” or an influencer/celebrity needs to make a comment on a video. In the case of Rebecca Black’s Friday, the video was practically dormant until one day the comedian Michael J. Nelson (who happens to have a following of over 33,000 on Twitter) called it “the worst video ever made.” Within a week, the video had been seen millions of times and there were already parodies of the song made and uploaded onto YouTube for every other day of the week.

Which brings us to the next STEP:


An inside joke begins to form around the video, forging a community of those who have seen the video and share that joke.

Because of the social quality of YouTube and other networking and microblogging sites like Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter, these communities not only watch and share the video, they also post their own comments and opinions. Kevin Allocca observes that for a video to go viral, there needs to be a responsive community that adds to the culture of the video by reposting and commenting. He says, “We don’t just enjoy now, we participate.”

One of the most parodied (and thus, viral) videos from last year is Nyan Cat.

You can watch the original here. And since the Internet techie culture became attached to this video, you can now watch the Nyan Cat in France and in Japan. And pretty much any other country you can imagine. You can even watch a cat watching Nyan Cat. And a cat watching a Nyan Cat watching Nyan Cat. And so on and so forth.

To this whole trend, the Huffington Post commented, “We are unimpressed.” (I agree.) But without the participatory culture built around the original Nyan Cat video, “Nyan Cat” would have never become the phenomenon that it is today.


What is Nyan Cat? It’s a looped electronic soundtrack with a looped animation. No one would script this thing—why would you want to? But with so much content uploaded all the time, it takes an unexpected video to be noticed.

Information from: Allocca, Kevin. “Why Videos Go Viral.” TEDYouth. Nov. 2011.

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