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A viral video is a video that becomes popular through the process of Internet sharing, typically through video sharing websites, social media and email. Viral videos often contain humorous content and include televised comedy sketches, such as The Lonely Island's "Lazy Sunday" and "Dick in a Box", Numa Numa videos, The Evolution of Dance, Chocolate Rain on YouTube; and web-only productions such as I Got a Crush... on Obama. Some eyewitness events have also been caught on video and have "gone viral" such as the Battle at Kruger. More recently the video by Invisible Children, Inc. named Kony 2012 became the most viral video in history with over 32,000,000 views within its first week since its upload on 5 March 2012 and has been viewed more than 90,000,000 times as of 13 June 2012.
With the proliferation of camera phones, many videos are being shot by amateurs on these devices. The availability of inexpensive video editing and publishing tools allows video shot on mobile phones to be edited and distributed virally, by email or website, and between phones by Bluetooth or MMS. These consumer-shot videos are typically non-commercial, intended for viewing by friends or family. A video becoming viral is often unexpected, and an accident, and therefore a video cannot be called viral purely in the creator's intention at the time of recording.
The behaviors behind viral videos, where ideas and news spread between individuals through dialogue, have been present in society since prehistoric times and form part of the foundation of culture. These behaviours are studied by the sociological fields of memetics and semiotics. Word of mouth marketing has long exploited the credibility of personal recommendations, and viral videos also benefit from this effect.
Viral videos began circulating before the major video sharing sites such as YouTube, Funny or Die and CollegeHumor, by e-mail sharing. One of these early videos was "The Spirit of Christmas" which surfaced in 1995. In 1996 "Dancing Baby" appeared. This video was released as samples of 3D character animation software. Ron Lussier, the animator who cleaned up the raw animation, began passing the video around LucasArts, his workplace at the time. A particularly well-known early example was "All your base are belong to us," based on a poorly translated video game, which was first distributed as a GIF animation and became popular in the year 2000.
Viral videos' staying power relies on hooks which draw the audience to watch them. The hooks are able to become a part of the viral video culture after being shown repeatedly. The hooks, or key signifiers,[clarification needed What are "key signifiers"?] are not able to be predicted before the videos become viral.
More recently, there has been a surge in viral videos on video sharing sites such as YouTube, and the availability of affordable digital cameras. Due to these sites, many of the traditionally shared videos have been phased out, though some early examples have been added to the mainstream sites.
Geriatric1927, is a pensioner from England, born in 1927, who gained widespread recognition within a week of making his debut on the site. For these users, Internet fame has had various unexpected effects. YouTube user and former receptionist Brooke Brodack has been signed by NBC's Carson Daly for an 18-month development contract.
A video broadcasting the Free Hugs Campaign, with accompanying music by the Sick Puppies, led to instant fame for both the band and the campaign, with more campaigns taking place in different parts of the world. The main character of the video, Juan Mann, achieved recognition after being interviewed on Australian news programs and appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Viral videos continue to increase in popularity as teaching and instructive aids. In March 2007, an elementary school teacher, Jason Smith, created TeacherTube, a website for sharing educational videos with other teachers. The site now features over 54,000 videos. Some college curricula are now using viral videos in the classroom as well. Northwestern University offers a course called "YouTubing 101". The course invites students to produce their own viral videos, focusing on marketing techniques and advertising strategies.
"United Breaks Guitars", by the Canadian folk rock music group Sons of Maxwell, is an example of how viral videos can be used by consumers to pressure companies to settle complaints. Another example is Brian Finkelstein's video complaint to Comcast, 2006. Finkelstein recorded a video of a Comcast technician sleeping on his couch. The technician had come to repair Brian's modem but had to call Comcast's central office and fell asleep after being placed on hold waiting for Comcast.
The Canadian high school student known as Star Wars Kid was subjected to significant harassment and ostracizing after the viral success of his video. His family accepted a financial settlement after suing the individuals responsible for posting the video online.
In July 2010, an 11-year-old girl with the pseudonym "Jessi Slaughter" was subjected to a campaign of harassment and cyberbullying following the viral nature of videos she had uploaded to Stickam and YouTube. As a result of the case, the potential for cyberbullying as a result of viral videos was widely discussed in the media.
Viral videos that do not feature original content often violate copyright laws. Users frequently upload television, movie and music clips onto popular viral websites like YouTube. The use of copyrighted material has caused several problems in the entertainment industry. The most notable incident occurred following the release of "Lazy Sunday", the popular digital short that appeared on NBC's Saturday Night Live. Within hours fans posted the video onto YouTube, where it received a substantial number of hits. NBC then released an order to remove all reproductions of Lazy Sunday from YouTube and other websites, claiming that the postings constituted copyright infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In some cases, copyrighted material in viral videos may be used legally, either with a license or under the doctrine of fair use or fair dealing; for example, many videos featuring only brief clips are likely to fall under these legal exceptions.
The 2008 United States presidential election showcased the impact of political viral videos. For the first time, YouTube hosted the CNN-YouTube presidential debates, calling on YouTube users to pose questions. In this debate, the opinions of viral video creators and users were taken seriously. There were several memorable viral videos that appeared during the campaign. In June 2007, "I Got a Crush... on Obama", a music video featuring a girl claiming to have a crush on presidential candidate Barack Obama, appeared. Unlike previously popular political videos, it did not feature any celebrities and was purely user-generated. The video garnered many viewers and gained attention in the mainstream media.
YouTube became a powerful source of campaigning for the 2008 Presidential Election. Every major party candidate had their own YouTube channel in order to communicate with the voters, with John McCain posting over 300 videos and Barack Obama posting over 1,800 videos. The music video, “Yes We Can,” by will.i.am demonstrates user-generated publicity for the 2008 Presidential Campaign. The video depicts many celebrities as well as black and white clips of Barack Obama. This music video inspired many parodies and won an Emmy for Best New Approaches in Daytime Entertainment. 
The proliferation of viral videos in the 2008 campaign highlights the fact that people increasingly turn to the internet to receive their news. In a study for the Pew Research Center in 2008, approximately 2% of the participants said that they received their news from non-traditional sources such as MySpace or YouTube. The campaign was widely seen as an example of the growing influence of the internet on United States politics; further evidenced by the founding of viral video producers like Brave New Films.