The viral video is dead. Long live the viral video!

rebecca black

So take a look at the list of the top 10 independent videos on YouTube over the past year, and what do you see? Rebecca Black, Nyan Cat and … what? Yes, there are tons of people who watched those talking babies. And yes, that mom cat hugging its baby sure is cute. But they didn’t exactly invade the cultural zeitgeist in the way that memes of the past have.

Consider Pork and Beans. Back in 2008, Weezer released the following video, incorporating some of the site’s top viral sensations … and predictably going viral itself.

Back then, there was Tay Zonday, the Numa Numa kid, Afro Ninja, Chris Crocker, All Your Base, etc. Pork and Beans was a subtle wink and nod to the memes of the day, with Weezer knowing all the while that incorporating those brands would go a long way toward users engaging in conversation. It was all about cashing in on the social currency that came with knowing what was cool or interesting on the Internet.

But fast forward a few years and could you imagine such a video being made today? Who would be in it? Rebecca Black, most likely. If Weezer went back a year or so there would be the Old Spice Guy. And Antoine Dodson.

Of course, we’re not in new territory. My colleague Liz Miller called it a year ago when she predicted that 2011 would be the year that viral video died. Back then, the Double Rainbow guy and 12-year-old Greyson Chance were the only members of the top 10 not linked to existing brands. One could argue that things have gotten somewhat better, with Rebecca Black, Karmin and Maria Aragon emerging as surprise music sensations.

But even Karmin and Aragon are performing covers — really impressive covers, but covers nonetheless. As AllThingsD’s Peter Kafka noted Tuesday, what YouTube’s top videos list suggests is that people just really like “watching” music videos on the site.

What this all speaks to is not the diminishment of YouTube’s ability to take videos viral, but the fact that YouTube just isn’t about viral videos anymore. More and more, the site is about professionally produced content, repeatable success and creating consistently engaged audiences. Machinima, for instance, might not have a breakout hit in the 2011 most-watched list, but it’s created a sustainable business off the YouTube platform.

Of course, there will always be a place for stupid human tricks and cute pets on YouTube, for the same reason that America’s Funniest Home Videos somehow continues to exist. But as time goes on, the novelty of those videos — and their effect on the cultural zeitgeist — will continue to be diminished.

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