A look back at 5 of the most viral videos from the last decade

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A look back at the most viral videos of the 2010s.

In the early 2010s, viral videos began to mean something different. It was around that time when people began to learn the limitations and possibilities of the internet. We began discovering how to harness attention and awareness.

People started to decipher what happens when a video goes viral for all the good reasons or for all the bad ones. Now, we have a clear picture of what happens when the internet bestows someone with sudden fame. Here’s a look back at five of the most viral videos of the 2010s and how they paved the way for the internet we enjoy today.

‘Friday’

There are some songs that are bad only because they offend someone’s naturally developed personal taste; it’s just not your cup of tea. Then there are songs that everyone can agree are universally bad. Those creations start awful and then somehow continue getting worse as their runtime drones on. There isn’t much more to say about “Friday,” Rebecca Black’s infamous 2011 viral music video. 

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By now, you probably know the story. Black’s parents paid for a recording session for their daughter. She somehow laid down “Friday” without a single person telling her that it probably wasn’t a good look. The autotuned-to-hell song and its equally garish, nonsensical video made the rounds on YouTube and nothing was the same. After the online vitriol died down, Black returned to semi-normalcy. However, in an extremely end-of-the-decade turn, Black (still a singer and songwriter) is now an influencer. She still boasts over a million subscribers on YouTube and over 800,000 followers on Instagram. So, in a perverse way, it all worked out for her. Here we are, eight years down the road, still writing about it and waiting for the weekend while Black got into her overstuffed convertible and never looked back. 

KONY 2012

Few viral videos of the ‘10s have as strange a backstory as KONY 2012. Everything about KONY 2012 was (and remains) mind-boggling—especially through the ultra-woke lenses of 2019. Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children, created KONY 2012 to “spread awareness” about infamous Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. The video spread like wildfire across the internet. Meanwhile, critics of the video dismissed it as a piece of glossy internet propaganda. Then, it came out that Kony had left Uganda six years before the video made its internet rounds. In another twist, bystanders later videotaped Russell as he experienced a breakdown in public and no one has really heard from him since. 

It’s a video and campaign that would probably never succeed in today’s climate. The internet is too wizened now, too cynical, too aware of gimmicks like this. Today’s video-watchers would sniff out any similar attempts for what they really are: marketing stunts. In 2012, though, you could still say things like “spread awareness” and not get laughed out of the room.

‘Gangnam Style’

K-pop has been around for a while now and it is all but ubiquitous in the United States. However, that wasn’t always the case. Americans, on a broad scale, really received their first taste of the South Korean music industry when PSY invaded our digital shores with his inexplicable and wild “Gangnam Style.” In a lot of ways, PSY walked so that other K-pop groups could run in the U.S.

Pizza Rat

There are only about five good and/or famous rats in the history of mankind. Splinter, Templeton from “Charlotte’s Web,” the rat from “Ratatouille,” the rat from “The Departed” and, arguably the most famous of them all, Pizza Rat. What makes Pizza Rat’s rise most astonishing is that he only needed 10 seconds. A quick stumble down a flight of stairs in a New York subway station is all it took to launch him into internet notoriety. In an online landscape where people will do literally anything for clout, Pizza Rat became famous by not actively seeking fame. He entered the internet hall of fame based on an outsized ambition to eat an entire slice of pizza, a primitive pursuit, but a noble one nonetheless. 

Ice Bucket Challenge

Back in 2014, the Ice Bucket Challenge had everyone from Bill Gates to Will Smith dumping buckets of ice water on their heads. The challenge was the ALS Association’s attempt to raise awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). 

While the ALS Association’s heart was in the right place, as well as everyone who donated (to the tune of $115 million), the challenge is also a prime example of how viral charity stunts often have less than ideal outcomes. It’s not like the ALS Association squandered the money—$80 million of it went to research. The remaining money went to local ALS Association chapters who spent it on equipment to help ALS patients. However, the challenge illustrates how difficult it is to capitalize on a viral stunt’s good intentions. Most of the people who donated in 2014 are probably one-time donors. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help sustain the ALS Association. In worst-case scenarios, the money just disappears. Hopefully, going into 2020, initiatives and campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge will be able to look back and determine how to wed internet virality with scalable good causes.