The evolution of viral videos

When you think of viral videos, what comes to mind? Absurdity, humor and general outrageousness and fun are the usual opinions; I think it's fair to say. They top the charts with their views and buzz, and they've created a new breed of celebrity, called the “YouTube sensation.” Rebecca Black and Colleen Ballinger - also known as Miranda Sings − are among them.

Following the infamous “Harlem Shake” phenomenon and the “Gangnam Style” craze is a new viral video: Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis' “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?).” It's a weird yet catchy song with almost 150 million YouTube views that has even made its way into the top ten singles on iTunes.

But when did viral videos begin appearing? One of the earliest surfaced in 1995 titled “The Spirit of Christmas,” two animated shorts by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. These shorts are considered the precursors to the pair's later television colossus “South Park.” Other notable viral videos throughout the years include “Numa Numa,” “Scarlet takes a tumble,” “All your base are belong to us” and “The Ultimate Showdown.” What makes these “viral videos” is the fact that almost everyone will know what I'm talking about when I name them; no descriptions necessary.

The difference between the older virals and the newer ones is that both their appeal and support have skyrocketed, which would not have been possible without the predecessors that paved the way. Ylvis' “The Fox” is an actual music video despite its absurd premise and lyrics. It has a production budget: direction, scenery, cinematography and all. Psy's “Gangnam Style” and The Lonely Island are slightly earlier examples of this.

Viral videos are becoming a medium for more than sudden popularity and fame. They are becoming almost mainstream. Major Hollywood productions are using viral marketing to expand the audience for their stories and characters and increase buzz for the movies themselves.

Director Zack Snyder and his team did this for his superhero epic Man of Steel. A static-ridden video of Superman's nemesis General Zod went viral prior to release. This is just one of many innovative viral marketing campaigns used for films.

The “KONY 2012” video, produced by Invisible Children, sparked a short-lived but inspiring movement of sorts. The organization used the video to promote its initiative to make war criminal and fugitive Joseph Kony known across the globe in order to expose his acts and arrest him. This is a great example of a viral video for a cause that brought people together and attempted to make a difference.

Another realm of viral videos is that of bullying. These videos are capable of exposing the cruelty of such behavior, regardless of who makes the video. One such example is “Making the Bus Monitor Cry,” which depicts students harassing a 68-year-old woman serving as a bus monitor. It escalates to the point of physical harassment and the woman in tears. The video brought about donation campaigns and various anti-bullying movements.

Whether it's a fairly big-budget sensation, an amateur farce, a studio-based marketing plea or a serious issue brought to new light, viral videos are an increasing part of modern society and culture. They are capable of having greater impact than pretty much any other form of entertainment out there.

That's not to say that they're better in quality than theater or musical performance or movies, but they're potentially more powerful, depending on how we use them. Some can be of great social importance, and others can be very addictive and exciting. Let's just remember to tread carefully.