2012 has been an incredible year for viral online video. A retrospective of 2012’s most successful videos tells a story of two very related running themes. The first, as the success of “KONY 2012” proved, was a web audience’s desire to shake off the previous year’s thick coating of cynicism for something more honest and impactful.
Last year’s most-viewed video was Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” which will arguably rank as one of the highest members in the “it’s so bad, it’s good” pantheon. As a collective Internet audience, we spent much of 2011 making fun of a 15 year old that had too many resources and not enough honest family members.
I wish I could say it was the Internet’s most shameful moment, but then I’d have to willfully ignore everyone who helped that prince transfer diamonds and gold bricks out of Nigeria.
It was in this way that many of us emerged from 2011 looking for redemption, not only from those brave enough to subject themselves to anonymous YouTube criticism, but for ourselves as well.
Six days after its release, “KONY 2012” gained over 100 million views, making it the most viral video of all time. Invisible Children’s viral powerhouse was released just as 2011’s wave of trolling began to recede making the video a perfect storm of sorts. It had masterful production values that audiences were craving as well as a powerful message that would redeem our year of teen bashing if only we shared it with everyone we knew.
Our quest for YouTube penance didn’t end there though. Fervor for the 2012 London Olympics added fuel to the viral fire as countless ads and clips from the games flooded inboxes and Twitter feeds worldwide. These were advertisements broadcasting the strength of the human spirit and the ability to connect globally. Procter & Gamble released a series of incredibly sugary advertisements following the mothers of 2012 Olympic athletes. Naturally, they hit YouTube in a big way, in part stating web crawler’s hunger for saccharine viral videos.
As the first half of 2012 came to a close, with our moral compasses pointing northward, we were ready for something more than just a way to make us feel better about ourselves. We wanted something to replace the bad tastes left in our mouths from not only “Friday,” but also the factory-generated pop hits ruling YouTube.
2011’s largest contribution to new pop music through YouTube was Rebecca Black. The Web needed a new pop artist they could get behind and feel good about. The success of artists like Gotye and Carly Rae Jepsen on YouTube was in most part due to their infectiously catchy singles. However, another part of their viral equation resided in these artists’ ability to deliver on that unknown artist turned pop megastar desire we all crave. The last time an unknown artist released a viral hit on YouTube, it ended up being the most disliked video in history. This was the Web’s way of rectifying that in 2012.
Of course, YouTube pop sensations cannot be spoken about without mentioning the reigning king of YouTube, PSY. In less than five months “Gangnam Style” became this year’s most celebrated pop single and the most-viewed YouTube video of all time. To a majority of the YouTube audience, PSY was as unknown as musicians get. “Gangnam Style” presented an opportunity for viewers at home to become obsessed with a hidden gem who gave us equal parts absurdity and actual musical talent. PSY was 2012’s antithesis to Rebecca Black. “Gangnam Style” was everything “Friday” wasn’t, and exactly what we needed from YouTube in 2012.
Viral video in 2012 has in many ways acted as reflection of the emotional turmoil that Internet audiences were feeling at the tail end of 2011. As this year comes to a close, we can only guess at what will be a viral hit in the New Year. It has been a year of earnest and uplifting videos, maybe so much so, that spirit of optimism will continue to carry us through 2013.