Top 7 Viral Sensations of 2009... So Far

What makes something go from obscurity to celebrity almost overnight?

June 16, 2009, 8:05 PM

June 17, 2009— -- What do a deceased cat, a 48-year-old Scottish woman and $165 million in Wall Street bonuses have in common?

For a brief moment in time this year, each of them was all we could read about, hear about or talk about.

They leapt onto the national stage, enjoyed a flash of fame and then slipped back into relative anonymity. But why were they so contagious?

In a new book, "And Then There's This," Bill Wasik, a senior editor at Harper's magazine, analyzes the appeal of the overnight sensation to help us understand why stories spread like wildfire one day and then peter out the next.

"We've always had them and they've always been a subject of public discussion," he said. "But we used to have fewer of them, they used to arrive far less quickly and they used to die out far less quickly."

Now, thanks to the Internet, viral sensations have given rise to a viral culture, he said, that counts the insta-celebrity – be it a person, video or Web site – as a key participant.

"Every day," his book tells us, "we are distracted by a culture that rings our doorbell and then runs away."

In an interview with, Wasik identified some of the most recent "nanostories" to distract us in 2009. Here they are.

It started with a decades-old video clip of a cat appearing to play the keyboard. But when a video-savvy 22-year-old married that clip with another of a person falling down an escalator, an Internet sensation was born.

The user-generated video meme has attracted the interest of millions, including comedian Stephen Colbert.

According to The Associated Press, the recent craze was put in motion by Brad O'Farrell, a syndication manager for, in February.

Since then, hundreds of copycats have combined a video clip of a person in the middle of embarrassing accident with the clip of the keyboard cat (actually a cat named Fatso, who's said to be long dead). Fatso's performance is meant to ostensibly play the person "off the stage."

"It is really great example of the remix culture," Wasik said. Once people saw how hilarious it was, they went off to make their own videos to "advance the absurdist march of who else the keyboard cat could play off," he said.

The Obama Puppy

Who doesn't remember the moment the president promised his daughters a puppy in his inaugural address? Even before the first family had settled on a breed, the new puppy had captured nearly as much attention as the president himself.

Wasik said that part of our obsession with Bo – even before there was a Bo – came from our desire to connect with history.

"This was the classic example where you have this very historic moment but the way that people want to appreciate that moment is through something that's very small and funny and personal," he said.

Online polls hosted by blogs, kennel associations and even this Web site, attracted thousands who wanted to help the Obamas pick the breed.

"For this brief intense period of time, we really cared about what kind of puppy the Obamas would get," Wasik said.

But, he also pointed out, by the time the new puppy finally arrived much of the interest had already died down.

In a similar way, Wasik said, the AIG bonuses – and all the outrage they engendered – also become a focal point for a far greater issue.

For weeks, the $165 million paid out in bonuses by insurance giant AIG held center stage. Government officials and the public were furious that the flailing company released the money just after receiving more than $170 billion in taxpayer funds to stay afloat.

But that story too spiked and then sank.

"We obviously have had and continue to have a giant economic crisis in this country. And a lot of people made a lot of bad decisions out of greed and out of stupidity," Wasik said. "But again it seems that people, not just the media, but the amateur media insist on seeing those big stories through a lens of tiny little controversies that just don't bear up under the weight of the significance that people try to lay on them."

And, Wasik said, never underestimate the power of the gross-out factor.

In May, videos of Dominos pizza employees violating a raft of public health laws gathered such momentum online that it ultimately drew an apology from the company.

Millions of people viewed the video, damaging the 50-year-old brand virtually overnight.

But, Wasik said, "Personally, I feel like it's been totally forgotten at this point.

"The good news and the bad news about these viral sensations is that they are very short-lived and people obsess about them for a brief period of time. And then it's on to something else."

There was a time we couldn't get enough of her. But it didn't take long for her story to run its course.

For weeks, Susan Boyle, the 48-year-old contestant on the U.K. reality TV show "Britain's Got Talent," was the hottest story in town. But even before the final days of the show, the media and general public lost interest.

"What I find interesting about Susan Boyle is that really her kind of spike ended before she lost the competition," Wasik said. Although she was on the TV news in the U.K., her fame in the U.S. was driven mostly by the Internet.

"There were a few weeks when everyone was going crazy," he said, but added that soon after "you could feel the oxygen being sucked out of her time on the media stage."

25 Random Things About Me

This Internet fad polarized Facebook users, who either loved or loathed the "25 Things About Me" forward.

In February, PC World magazine estimated that 5 million of the chain-letter-like forwards populated Facebook pages in just one week.

The fad involved sharing 25 random things about yourself and then forwarding it on to 25 other Facebook users.

It grew to such near-spam proportions, that one Facebook user spoofed it with a "25 Things I Hate About Facebook" video. Facebook later contacted the user, Julian Smith, and worked with him on other videos.

"This is one that had a long spike," said Wasik. Even after the original burned out, Facebook picked up on a fad that was going on inside its own site, he said. "That wound up being a boon for them."

One of the viral sensations just starting to spike, Wasik said, "Auto-Tune the News" is a series of Web videos that mix pop songs with TV news footage.

Brothers Michael, Andrew and Evan Gregory, and sister-in-law Sarah, use Auto-Tune, software that tweaks singers' voices to perfect pitch (think Cher in her chart-topper "Believe"), and cut themselves into the broadcast clips singing pop favorites.

"To me, Auto-Tune the news is the Internet," said Wasik.

Like other classic Internet sensations, he added that it's "deliriously funny, completely frivolous and disposable." But he said that while you're watching it, you're hooked.

Driven by humor, he said that this latest viral sensation moved up the blogosphere's food chain until it surfaced on the bigger blogs, such as Andrew Sullivan's blog and MetaFilter. More than a million people have viewed them online.

He said that things that are funny spread naturally but these Web videos especially show just "a classic juxtaposition of the high and the low.

"You kind of light up and want to pass it along to someone else," he said.

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