Viral Videos 2012: What Gangnam Style, Kony, and Call Me Maybe, Say About Us


Is November too early to be making year-end compilations? Stephanie Haberman at Mashable seems comfortable dismissing what remains of 2012, having published "The 10 Most Viral YouTube Videos of 2012" on November 13. Whether she jumped the gun or not, this list came to my attention as a welcome break from everything involving Hillary 2016.

This list, besides being an early reminder of our penchant for year-end list-making, is arguably an authoritative picture of pop culture. These 10 YouTube videos were not picked by anyone in particular, they were the year's most shared. Forget ratings or sales; in our current digital cultural landscape, virality resonates as the most relevant measure of popularity, for the act of sharing reflects the democratic undertones of the internet age.

Quite honestly, I approach all quantifiable measures of cultural relevance with some trepidation, since I'm afraid of extrapolating too much from what threatens to pass for objectivity in accounting for taste. I'm also always afraid of being disappointed by the champions of pop, just in case these do say something true about the humanity I'm a part of but I'm not necessarily attuned to. When I face pop culture today, I can't help but think of Sterling Professor Emerita in English at Yale University Marie Borroff's warning in a 2007 talk of a threatening kind of meaninglessness, "in the raw information that floods in upon us […] along ever more crowded electronic highways." Watching YouTube, I'm wary of providing a definitive answer to Richard Eberhart's verse, "Was man made stupid to see his own stupidity?"

Then again, I did giggle at the sight of a German dude nearly breaking his ass after a failed cannonball into a frozen pool (number 6 on the list, "Catch the Ice Dude"). 

The theme of human foible is the leitmotif of many a viral video and the root of many lulz. Much like when you see someone fall and you can't stop laughing, the misfortune of others remains a formula for comedic success. Number 9 on the list, "Donna the Deer Lady," showcases intellectual failure akin to the German cannonballer's physical failure: one listens to Donna's obliviousness to the reality of the causal relationship between deer crossings and deer crossing signs and is transported to the world of an idiot. It's almost magical, and quite comparable to some of Karl Pilkington's best, but I'm left reeling with embarrassment.

Number 10 on the list, "Arrested Drunk Guy Sings Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody'," captures an epic moment in the life of an internet-age everyman, Robert Wilkinson. He deserves much credit for being able to laugh at himself and posting this for the world to see. However, the Royal Canadian Mountain Police officer who patiently listened to this complete butchering of one of Queen's most operatic works is the unsung hero for never having silenced (let alone cuffed) Wilkinson. It's in the context of such tolerance, perhaps something characteristically Canadian, that this drunken a cappella performance feels like liberation.

With more accomplished deliveries, musical performance is the main feature of four other videos in the top ten. What can be said about number. 7, Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know"?

Or no. 5, Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe"? 

That we've been there, whether letting go or wanting to grab on to someone special? This is probably the case for many who shared either one of these songs. Additionally, Gotye's video is strikingly intimate and its colors memorable; Jepsen's was mentioned in a tweet by Justin Bieber. Both these factors contributed to their success as pop phenomena. These music videos are remarkable for having entered pop culture on account of their virality. None caused a bigger splash than number 2, PSY's "Gangnam Style." A Korean language song parody of the lifestyle in a wealthy district of Seoul, it's, as of writing, the second most viewed video of all time on YouTube. Its popularity speaks of the mystery not only behind what makes something go viral video, but also behind what makes for successful pop. Odds are that after PSY gets done doing "Gangnam Style" with the likes of Madonna and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, people will joyously dance as though on horseback in weddings for years to come.


Number 4 on the list, "Opera duo Charlotte & Jonathan - Britain's Got Talent 2012 audition," is one of those moments that comes along with every season of reality TV, when the audience gets to believe that even the unlikeliest among us can aspire to stardom. It is moments such as this one that the entire talent contest apparatus was created for; Jonathan, after a dazzling lyric performance, wows the entire audience and the judges, and even gets to stick up for Charlotte against Simon Cowell, who says that she might hold him back: "Well, we've come on here as a duo and we're going to stay here as a duo." The moment couldn't have been staged better; tears are flying and these two would go on to earn second place in the competition and a £1 million record deal. Meanwhile, every penniless artist in the world gets to wonder why people are so cheesy.

And it does seem we are rather saccharine in our taste, if the number 8 entry says anything about ourselves: in time for the London 2012 Olympics, the consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble released an ad called "Best Job" featuring a beautifully realized visual narrative of the lifelong dedication various olympians’ moms. I hate it when the corporation behind my toiletries poignantly reminds me that I love my mother and so effectively plays with my emotions, but props are due to the evil and gifted Alejandro González Iñárritu, who directed this ad. 

I'm much more comfortable with silly and less exhausting propaganda, like number 3, "A Dramatic Surprise on a Quiet Square." This TNT ad takes from the tradition of the flash mob and … well, just push play on it to add drama to your YouTube session.


We finally come to the number 1 most viral video: “Kony 2012.” No video has ever spread faster than this one, reaching 100 million views in six days

No viral video has aspired to do so much with its popularity as this one either. The creators of Kony 2012 sought to harness the power of sharing to give unprecedented momentum to their activism; it’s in the pioneering attempt to exert political influence by means of virality (and not in the specific results of this effort) that Kony 2012 should figure prominently in the annals of internet and pop culture history. Never mind Jason Russell’s very public breakdown, or any of the warranted or unwarranted criticism of Invisible Children (the non-profit behind this); this video got people to look away from the usual banality of what entertains us online (videos like 2-10 on this top 10, for example) and focus on something veritably consequential. Joseph Kony will likely elude facing justice by year’s end, but “Kony 2012” set an important precedent for civic engagement in the digital age. In this way, it is the only indispensable video in this collection, even if "Gangnam Style" outlasts it.

So what do the top 10 most viral videos of 2012 tell us? In some respects, nothing all that new: we like to watch people embarrass themselves, we dig pop music and we will eat up a finely crafted ad. Stardom these days is now a function of our sharing, but our collective taste doesn’t seem all that different from before. Nevertheless, it was remarkable for us to wonder this year whether change and justice can be contagious like pop culture. For all my apprehensions towards virality, such a tendency is a source of hope in new media. Maybe next year’s sensation will also bridge the digital and the analog and inspire people to do even more.