There was, however, often a darker edge to the viral this year, as nicotine addicted-children and bedroom intruders struck the public fancy. But though times and tastes may change, one thing is certain — as long as there are cute animals, celebrity meltdowns and OK Go, we’ll keep hitting the refresh button on our browsers.
10. Trololo guy
Just try to get it out of your head. In the year’s greatest testament to the pure randomness of the Internet, a decades-old clip of Russian vocalist Eduard Khil smiling like a scary puppet and majestically lip syncing “la la la la la la oho ho ho ha ha ha” — and other words to that effect — became the ear-worm of the winter. A slew of mashups, remixes and imitations from fans — including, brilliantly, Oscar winner Christoph Waltz – ensued, leaving Khil to remark with gracious pleasure on the “kind people of different nations.” Who’d have guessed that a glimpse behind the iron curtain, circa 1976, would prove such a giddy delight? And even if the words don’t make sense, it sure is a pleasure to watch a man get his yah yah yahs out.
9. Double Rainbow
Ah, the splendor of nature. The OMFG did you see THAT? of it all. Not much happened last January when Paul Vasquez, known on YouTube as Hungrybear9562, posted a clip of a double rainbow — along with the former cage fighter’s enthusiastic, occasionally teary three-and-a-half-minute long narration of his unbridled awe. But six months later, when Jimmy Kimmel tweeted his appreciation of “the funniest video in the world,” the clip, like a double rainbow itself, became a whoa-inducing thing of wonder.
Vasquez’s unscripted “full on, all the way” monologue soon sparked an app, a heap of parodies, and, inevitably, a spot on the stage of Jimmy Kimmel himself. But while the clip certainly inspires a fair amount of “What is that guy on, and where can I get some?” speculation, it’s the sparkling purity of Vasquez’s reaction that makes it as charming as it is funny. And the next time you’re looking for another phrase for “awesome,” you’ll find it under “double rainbow, all the way, across the sky.”
8. Old Spice
In the past few years, the advertising industry has thrown an insane amount of money into figuring out how to use this Internet thingy to create buzz. The results have frequently ranged the gamut from the awful to the spectacularly awful.
What a delight, then, that at the height of the Super Bowl’s rampaging festival of he-man, down-with-women marketing, Old Spice came up with an ad that was witty, sexy, original and — ingeniously — begged for multiple viewings. The clip, done in one elaborately constructed take and featuring some of the most quotable ad copy since “Have it your way,” made Isaiah Mustafa a household name and inspired “Sesame Street’s” Grover himself to get in on the act. Sure, it helps to have a gimmick, but the success of the Old Spice campaign is proof that the best campaigns also have humor, heart and, whenever possible, a hot guy on a horse.
7. Jessi Slaughter
If you want to see the perfect storm of everything that can go terribly wrong on the Internet, consider the nightmare of a girl who goes by Jessi Slaughter, aka Kerligirl13. Slaughter was just another slut-shamed, attention-seeking 11 year old on the depressing-as–the-name-implies teen gossip site StickyDrama when she went particularly ape on YouTube last summer, in a message to the “hater bitches” in which she threatened to “pop a Glock in your mouth and make a brain slushee.”
Nothing like a little girl laying it out like a gangsta to attract the attention of the hackers at 4chan and their free-for-all /b/ board. And 4chan isn’t famed for playing nice.
Before long, Jessi was being elaborately trolled, from comments on her MySpace page to the posting of her apparent real phone number and address, to death threats aimed at her family. (Encyclopedia Dramatica still refers to her as a whore.) Then her dad got into the mix with the piece de resistance of the whole horror show, a two-minute clip of Slaughter weeping while her father raged into the camera, dispensing such instant memes as “You done goofed,” “cyberpolice” and “Consequences will never be the same.”
Jessi and her family were soon doing the news show rounds, where she said she was about to go into counseling, and soon after that, she was posting on YouTube that “I’m back, bitches!” There isn’t a single element of the whole sordid tale that doesn’t make you despair for our species. But in particular, it’s the sight of a little girl crying while her father howls into the Internet, a misguided child whose eagerness to be watched by the trolls doesn’t stop even when she’s being so easily, viciously victimized by them, that haunts us still.
6. Greyson Chance
Not all kids on YouTube wind up getting the Jessi Slaughter treatment. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the one-in-a-million story of a middle-schooler who went from being a fan to a star in his own right. When 13-year-old Chance’s father posted him playing piano and singing a stunning interpretation of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” last spring, the Internet fell gaga over itself, asking “Who is that kid?” Gaga, a former prodigy herself, called him when he appeared soon after on “Ellen” to tell him, “You’re so sweet and so talented. Keep following your dreams and work really hard.” Shortly thereafter, Ellen announced she was launching a music label, and guess who was the first artist she signed?
Chance released his first single, the self-penned “Waiting Outside the Lines,” in October, but it’s that soulful original clip — that rare glimpse of true talent, a star clearly being born — that’s racked up nearly 33 million views. And it’s still awesome every time.
5. Christine O’Donnell
If you’re a fan of WTF? political ads, this year was like Christmas every day. There was Tim James’s cutting-to-the-chase “This is Alabama. We speak English” spot, Carly Fiorina’s genius Demon Sheep ad, and too many other truly outstanding examples of pure political lunacy to mention. But the one that inspired the biggest outbreak of head-scratching was the one from evolution-doubting, First Amendment-questioning Tea Partier and youthful occult dabbler Christine O’Donnell. In a pitch straight out of an Arthur Miller play, O’Donnell declared, “I’m not a witch. I’m nothing you’ve heard. I’m YOU.” Soon, Kristin Wiig was paying homage on “SNL” with a spot that had O’Donnell vying for “the human Senate” and Elvira was declaring, “I’m you. Except with bigger tits.” It’s the deadpan original that still packs the most entertainment value, and props to O’Donnell for declaring her non-witchness while wearing black against a midnight dark sky. She may have lost the race, but if she ever wants a gig as queen of the night, she’s got her demo reel ready to go.
4. “Pants on the Ground”
In its decade of existence, “American Idol” has given us Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and an excuse to stay home two nights a week. It has also spawned William Hung and Sanjaya. You’re a fickle mistress, “Idol!” This year, before we even fully understood what a Bowersox was, “Idol” gave us Mr. Larry Platt — or General Larry Platt, as the former civil rights advocate would like to be known — and the baggy jeans admonition known as “Pants on the Ground.”
What is it about Platt’s doomed Atlanta “Idol” audition that so captured our hearts? Was it the 64-year-old’s remarkably spry dance moves? Those haunting lyrics — “Looking like a fool with your pants on the ground?” Or was it his tenacious refusal to stop singing even when Simon gave him a terse “Thank you!” for the umpteenth time? It’s all of the above, and also the fact that the world would truly be a better place if there were more belt-wearing and less boxer-flaunting. A Neil Young-flavored Jimmy Fallon tribute, countless remixes and more than 7 million YouTube views later, Simon’s shuddering prediction that “I have the horrible feeling that song could be a hit” has proved more than accurate. Larry Platt, for your sartorial public service and unique musical stylings, Tim Gunn — and the rest of us — thank you.
3. Smoking Toddler
And the award for moral litmus test of the year goes to Ardi Rizal, an overweight Jakartan who likes to hit the bottle and smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. Rizal, by the way, is 2 years old. When footage of Rizal, cuddling up to his baby bottle like a normal toddler and puffing away like Robert Mitchum, the Internet split down the middle over whether it was child abuse in action — or just darn good entertainment. Gawker rather facetiously called him “totally cooler than you” and YouTube commenters were quick to point out his “badass leather jacket” and deem the video “great.” Many, however, were appalled, berating his parents for encouraging a dangerous addiction in a child well below decision-making age — and getting to feel plenty smug in the process. (If not letting your child smoke before he’s fully toilet trained qualifies you as a stellar parent, go ahead and congratulate yourself!)
Because of the attention the video received, Rizal underwent a month of psychosocial therapy away from his family and has since kicked the habit. His native land still has no age limits for smoking, no public bans on cigarettes, and an industry that can peddle directly to children via its television ads and sponsorship of concerts and sporting events. But thanks to YouTube, that’s one nicotine-addicted baby down, just a few million more to go.
2. Antoine Dodson
When life handed the Dodson family a break-in and attempted sexual assault, they made lemonade. After chasing off the intruder, Antoine Dodson gave a fiery warning on the Huntsville, Ala., local news to “hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband” and disgustedly admonished the attacker to “run and tell that, homeboy.” With his streetwise rant and distinctive red bandana, Dodson became an overnight star, prompting a Gregory Brothers “Bed Intruder” remix that gave “California Gurls” a run for the money as song of the summer.
Dodson has been shrewdly parlaying his viral fame into television appearances, Halloween costumes, and “trying to get us out of the hood, period” ever since. There’s something discomforting about leveraging a spontaneous diatribe about rape into a cottage industry, but Dodson’s righteous, protective rage on behalf of his sister and his sweetly enthusiastic embrace of his random stardom have made him the surprise Cinderella story of the year. And you can run and tell that.
1. “It Gets Better”
When an ugly rash of homophobic bullying and a devastating outbreak of teen suicides put the spotlight on the abuse and harassment too many gay and lesbian kids live with daily, columnist and author Dan Savage decided enough was enough. Writing on the death of Billy Lucas, who hanged himself after being taunted by his classmates, he said, ” I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”
What began as a simple invitation in his column — a fed-up observation that “Gay adults aren’t allowed to talk to these kids … Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now” — became the “It Gets Better” project. Savage launched it with his own testimony, and that of his husband, Terry, about overcoming their own difficult teen years to get to the place of being “ecstatic to be alive.”
What followed was a deluge of responses from regular folks and celebrities, from Perez to the president. The result has been a moving testament to the best side of the Net’s nature, and the power of community to stand up for love and tolerance in the face of hate. And bullies? As a clever satire warns — it will not get better for you.
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.