By Rachel Flynn and Corey Conley
To past generations, the phrase “it’s going viral” conjures up images of death and disease. Thanks to YouTube and its legion of imitators, the phrase means virtually instant fame (or infamy). Comedy Central’s Tosh.O is a show dedicated entirely to viral videos. From the gross to the violent, Tosh.O plays it all like a 21st century America’s Funniest Home Videos. They come and go very quickly, but they are rapidly becoming a fixture of our attention-deficit culture. Still, the viral video is evolving into something new and powerful – a new, uncensored window into the world.
Videos such as Rebecca Black’s “Friday”, or “Charlie bit my finger” (in which the line is spouted by a very unhappy toddler who stuck his finger in his baby brother’s mouth.), have each took their turn in the public consciousness in a way once reserved for broadcast television. With only three (and then four) major national networks, the shows that aired on CBS, NBC, ABC, and, later, Fox became cultural forces in a way that may never be seen again.
Yesterday’s liberals and conservatives both gathered around to watch Walter Cronkite, now many, if not most, would rather watch, read, or listen to media tailored to their political tastes. The same is true of non-political interests – there is a YouTube channel for every conceivable interest.
It is wrong to blame the splintering of broadcasting to “narrowcasting” solely on the Internet; it is merely completing a process begun by cable television’s increasing popularity. But where cable divided audiences into smaller chunks, the Internet’s infinite nooks and crannies diced audiences into razor thin slices.
It’s reasonable to expect this fragmented media world to produce fewer shared “water cooler” moments. Reasonable, but wrong. Now these moments of collective consciousness come and go faster than ever before. A teenager from middle America can become a star overnight, superstars can rise or fall on the power of a single video. Some may only have their 15 minutes, but the collective memory lingers on far longer.
Of course even the oldest of viral videos, say “Star Wars Kid,” the infamous, almost 10-year old video of a chubby high schooler acting out his Jedi fantasy on a video he never meant for others to view (it was found and, cruelly, uploaded by a classmate), or “Numa Numa,” which showed another portly young lad aptly lip-syncing to a Scandinavian pop song (both still available to view online, if you’re curious), cannot compare with the collective experience of Mr. Murrow, or perhaps even Murder, She Wrote.
Realizing this I shouldn’t be surprised that when showing my mother Rebecca Black’s infamous Friday video, she simply looked at me and asked why she should care. I had no real answer. Viral videos have become such a part of our life, and a generation is used to seeing the newest Internet sensation and then quickly forgetting it. It seems every week, there is a new video to watch, to laugh at, and to discuss.
The Serious Side of Viral Videos
As the technology matures and the mobile phone camera become ubiquitous, viral videos are turning from court jester to court reporter. “Exhibit A” is a video showing a young, presumably Chinese, child get hit by a bus. The child is ignored by passers by for what seems like hours before a woman finally runs to help the child.
If this video had not become a viral video, many people would not have been able to show their outrage and the Chinese government would not have had to come out to tell the world they too, are horrified. Whether this creates lasting change within Chinese society remains to be seen, but the viral images of smoke and revolution that spread throughout the Mid-East surely played a role in sustaining the various uprisings in those countries. It is clear the viral video is shaping the world. While we laugh at many of them, more and more they are shining a light on the darkest corners of society.