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Did You See the One About...?
Making Sense (and Use) of the Web's Viral Videos
An article from David R. Smith at TheSource4YM.com
4/8/2011

87.8 million. 169.3 million. 301.2 million. No, these aren’t the net worths of today’s richest people; those numbers represent the amount of times various online videos have been played on YouTube.

They’re called “viral videos,” and like their medical counterpart, there seems to be no cure.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words
That means a video is probably worth a million.

Today’s kids love online videos. In fact, Kaiser Family Foundation’s study entitled Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds, discovered that today’s teenagers spend a whopping 7 hours and 38 minutes being entertained by media every day, 15 minutes of which is dedicated exclusively to watching online videos.

These videos are popular with kids not because they tell a story, but because these videos tell their stories. YouTube allows kids to upload and view videos made for them, by them. (In fact, I just wrote an article about YouTube’s “how-to” videos that range from funny to fatal.)

Defining exactly what a viral video is can be a tough task. Fortunately, Jennifer Aniston made a viral video about viral videos; to date, it has well over 8 million views. The best way for a video to reach “viral” status – besides total views – is to be the video that everyone’s talking about. Viral videos are those that spread through the (global) Internet like a virus. Fortunately, search engines like Yahoo will use their homepage to regularly notify readers of videos that have gone viral.

A Long Line of Laughs
With few exceptions, viral videos are funny. These videos have been around since the Internet went mainstream in the 90’s. Granted, those early viral videos didn’t attract the mega viewership that some of today’s videos have, but they were influential nonetheless. Some of those first viral videos included Monkey Sniffs Butt and Farting in Car.

There are way too many viral videos to mention in this article, but if you’ve got a lot of free time on your hands, you can check out TIME’s 50 Best YouTube Videos. (Be warned: this is a time killer; procrastinators stay away.)

Most of today’s viral videos stand in a long line of humorous history. The one making the loop right now is Talking Twin Babies. It’s only been around for about 10 days but it’s already reached 16.2 million views on YouTube (though there are others sites that host it as well). Rebecca Black’s Friday was the most-talked about viral video of March. It was so popular (88.8 million views) that it even garnered a spoof from TBS’ Conan O’Brien on his late show.

Looking back on the last 5 years or so, the online landscape has been dotted with these 60-second long videos that reach the world in a matter of hours. In what is possibly the shortest viral video known to man, about 5 seconds, Dramatic Chipmunk racked up almost 28 million views. From my home state of Florida, “Don’t Taze Me Bro” drew in 5.5 million viewers during the Bush/Kerry election. And The Evolution of Dance, an instant smash hit, has been viewed on YouTube more than 169 million times.

Charlie the Unicorn, a video that will leave you wanting a do-over on the last 3 minutes of your life was still viewed a grand total of 57 million times. Though he’s not related to the unicorn, another Charlie video reached viral status; Charlie Bit My Finger has been viewed over 300 million times! (It’s hilarious!)

The Story of Antoine Dodson was a simple news video that went so viral it spawned its own viral music video that has been seen over 2 million times itself on YouTube. Further, the original was featured on Comedy Central’s hit TV show Tosh.O. Joe Jonas spoofed Beyoncé’s Single Ladies which was enjoyed by more than 25 million people…mostly tween girls, I’m guessing.

While these videos are almost a complete waste of time, they are almost completely clean, as well.

Almost.

Good Clean Fun?
For the most part, yes. It’s hard to complain about baby twins “talking” to each other or a monkey sniffing his butt. But not all viral videos are created equal.

Some of them have questionable content, including Kobe’s Jump over an Aston Martin. While it was fake, it caused some adults to wonder if the viral video might prompt teens to try and replicate the stunt…in the real world…with real world consequences. The guys behind Waterslide Jump into Kiddie Poolalso a fake video – faced similar criticism.

But sometimes, the viral videos are just vile. That’s the case with Saturday Night Live’s digital short crudely entitled D**k In a Box; it quickly went viral bringing in 26.4 million hits to date. J**z In My Pants, another vulgar viral video, starring some of the same SNL cast members, raked in 18.1 million views.

Knowing that not all viral videos are appropriate for students, what do we do with them? Do we throw the baby out with the bath water, or do we run the risk of endorsing something while trying to use what’s salvageable?

Putting the YOU in YouTube
Harnessing the power of YouTube can be akin to harnessing the power of the atom. However, if you’re not careful, it might blow up in your face. Here are a few thoughts on how and why viral videos might be used in your youth ministry.

  • Use them for a purpose. Long ago, I learned the captivating power of viral videos. When I had hundreds of teens roaming through our facility, I knew I could get them gathered up and focused on the stage area by showing them a viral video. Teens like to laugh, and I like to have their attention; it’s win, win. Just be careful with what you show. Use discretion! I’ve shown hundreds of viral videos in my day, but I caught a little flak for showing Farting Preacher Part 2 one time. (For the record, I still think it’s funny!) Just make sure the video is in good taste so you don’t have this powerful tool taken from your arsenal by someone in authority over you.

  • Referencing/showing viral videos gains you street cred. Knowing what’s hot at the moment can be a major connection point when visiting school campuses or speaking to kids not familiar with you. For instance, when I speak at a weekend retreat, I might have the tech team play Charlie Bit My Finger (mentioned above) to illustrate the dangers associated with repeatedly making poor decisions. Kids desperately want youth workers and parents to “keep it real.” Showing – and enjoying – a viral video from their lives isn’t the same as dressing like them. The first will get their attention; the second will get you labeled a poser.

When we can reference what kids like, it subtly communicates that we’re interested in their lives. That’s always a good thing. Viral videos might only last for 60 seconds, but the relationships that start because of them might last 60 years. So take advantage of this culture connection by knowing what millions of kids are watching millions of times.


David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org. David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.



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