From among the 10 years' worth of footage uploaded to YouTube every day, a lucky video will occasionally rise up from the masses, skyrocketing to fame and earning the title of "viral video." This modern phenomenon — rumor-spreading for the Internet age — has come to play a central role in shaping the collective consciousness.
But since the birth of YouTube in 2005, which viral videos have spread faster and farther than all others? Visible Measures, a Boston-based company that analyzes online video performance, has crunched the numbers to find out. Defining a video's virulence as the impromptu speed with which it and the videos responding to it collectively rack up 100 million views — and leaving out commercially produced music videos and video game trailers (as their release is often hotly anticipated) — here is a countdown of the five most virulent viral videos ever. [Watch All Top 10 Viral Videos]
5 ."The Annoying Orange"
An irritating video of an orange annoying its fellow fruit comes in at No. 5. The video, one of a comedy series by Dane Boedigheimer, shows an orange, with human eyes and mouth superimposed, telling inane jokes to similarly anthropomorphized apples and pears, who urge the orange to leave them alone. Toward the end of the video, an apple gets sliced to death.
Starting in October 2009, "The Annoying Orange," as well as excerpt and response clips, collectively accumulated 100 million hits in 167 days and spawned a TV series, video game, and T-shirt and toy lines.
4. Jeff Dunham and Achmed the Dead Terrorist
Footage of a 2007 performance by ventriloquist and stand-up comedian Jeff Dunham is the fourth most viral noncommercial video ever, having racked up 100 million views in 165 days. In the clip, Dunham converses with a puppet named Achmed, the skeletal corpse of an incompetent suicide bomber. (He had a "premature detonation.") Through the puppet, Dunham"taps into a repertoire of Muslim stereotypes" and "explores the outer edge of taste," as Time magazine put it in 2009.
As the numbers solidly attest, tastelessness is what the people want.
3. Rebecca Black: "Friday"
The third most viral video of all time also may take the cake for the most rapid accumulation of "dislike" votes on YouTube. The music video for "Friday," a song by teenage recording artist Rebecca Black, was released as a single on March 14, 2011, after Black's mother paid the record label Ark Music Factory $4,000 to produce the video as a vanity release. When the comedian Michael J. Nelson came across it and tweeted that it was "the worst video ever made," the music video's view count surged. According to Visible Measures, its total reach was 100 million views in 45 days. [Could the Internet Ever Be Destroyed?]
2. Susan Boyle: Britain's Got Talent
Susan Boyle, a Scottish singer, shot to international stardom when she appeared as a contestant on the TV program "Britain's Got Talent" on April 11, 2009, singing "I Dreamed a Dream" from the musical "Les Misérables." The clip of her performance, and response videos, were viewed 100 million times altogether in just nine days, the second quickest time to that benchmark.
Critics attributed Boyle's overnight fame to the stark contrast between her plain appearance and her eye-popping mezzo-soprano voice; it helped that the TV show's notoriously tough-to-impress judge, Simon Cowell, reacted with just the right balance of shock and awe. Boyle's first album was released in November 2009 and debuted at No. 1 on charts around the globe.
1. "Kony 2012"
On March 5, 2012, the charity organization Invisible Children Inc. posted a short film about the atrocities committed in Uganda by Joseph Konyand his rebel army. It was a campaign intended to raise awareness of the need to capture Kony, who is believed to have kidnapped and enslaved some 66,000 children since the late 1980s.
Raise awareness it did. According to Visible Measures, the original "Kony 2012" video documentary, and the hundreds of excerpts and responses uploaded by audiences across the Web, collectively garnered 100 million views in a record six days. "It's hard to understand how big 100 million views is, not to mention the unprecedented speed with which Kony has surpassed the milestone," Visible Measures stated on its blog.
Despite controversy surrounding certain claims in the video and the Invisible Children charity itself, the campaign has resulted in resolutions by the United States Senate and the African Union to renew their contributions toward efforts to capture Kony.
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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.