A viral video is one that becomes popular through the process of Internet sharing, typically through video sharing websites 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, amateur video clips like Star Wars Kid the 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.

Humor is often a characteristic of viral videos, but not a defining one. A viral video is any video that's passed electronically, from person to person, regardless of its content.

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.

Viral videos began circulating before the major video sharing sites such as YouTube, FunnyorDie and CollegeHumor, by email 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. The surge of viral videos seen in the wake of this video's circulation can be attributed to the advent of sites designated for video sharing, 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. Viral videos derive from viral marketing, also known as word of mouth marketing, buzz marketing and stealth marketing. The history of viral marketing is open to interpretation. Historians tend to focus on the specific term "viral marketing." Viral marketing is analogous to traditional word-of-mouth, so it can be seen as starting long before the internet.


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