Internet video is booming. Presidential candidates take questions from YouTube users. VH1 talks about the week's best clips. Bill Murray and Danny DeVito star in straight-to-web skits. When Miss Teen South Carolina lost her mind on the air, millions saw it — online. But after all this excitement, why is the most famous Internet video of all time a four-year-old home movie?
In the history of the Internet, no video has earned more views than "Star Wars Kid" — an awkward boy swinging a stick to imitate a Jedi. As of late 2006, the Viral Factory marketing company estimates it's been seen 900 million times. (The total includes an estimated 600 million e-mailed copies, millions of TV views, and over 90 million views on video sharing sites; even a skeptical reading guarantees well over 100 million views.) The most popular YouTube clip this year is Avril Lavigne's music video for "Girlfriend." It has 62 million views — under a tenth of Star Wars Kid's audience. (YouTube favorite Lonelygirl15 gets more buzz, but her most-seen episode has under two million views.) It's not just that the older video (and the all-time runner-up, "Numa Numa") had more time to catch on, but the context in which they rose has disappeared. The way we view video now has ensured that no one will ever again get as many online viewers as these two classics.
In 2003, out-of-shape high-schooler Ghyslain Raza recorded himself imitating light saber moves. Shortly after, his fellow students found and uploaded the video, and Raza became Star Wars Kid.
Why did this clip beat out so many other videos to get so popular? There are plenty of theories: Star Wars Kid captured the joy of a fan of a power fantasy, winning over the compassionate and fellow geeks and making him a simple source of mockery for everyone else. The concept was simple; it was easily (and often) parodied. But most importantly, there just wasn't much else to watch.
At this point, web video was still a new world ruled by grab-bag sites like Ebaum's World, which made money by copying images, articles and videos (often without permission), slapping on their own watermark, and showing them on an ad-filled web page. These sites resembled a Bob-Saget-free version of "America's Funniest Videos," with more emphasis on public humiliation, pranks, and video games. Viewers were mostly young males (a demographic that still dominates online video), but the enthusiasm for short-form video was spreading as the clips got more mainstream and the early viewers spread them to high school and college friends. It was inevitable that something would break out into a runaway hit and become the first online video that casual Internet users had ever seen.
But these outbreaks were flukes. Watching online video was still a fringe activity largely confined to young males. Uploading video was even rarer; it was novel that this amateur content was even available to the public. A well-informed Internet user could stay abreast of every major fad. At the time of Star Wars Kid, these were a short animation named "Badger Badger Badger" and the beginnings of a Photoshop in-joke named "Little Fatty," as well as a few long-running favorites. (I was a college freshman, sharing all the old fads as they found their way onto my school's unofficial chatroom and file-sharing forum. Every day for the first month of school, I could hear someone on the hall seeing "All Your Base" for the first time.) Star Wars Kid offered something more authentic: it gave a peek into someone's life, at that time a rare opportunity in a media world dominated by TV.
Over a year after Star Wars Kid broke out, another portly young man recorded a similarly exuberant performance, chair-dancing to a Moldovan pop song named "Dragostea Din Tei." Unlike Raza, Brolsma uploaded his performance himself to an entertainment site named Newgrounds, thus proving that reluctance wasn't a necessary factor for viral success. The video, named "Numa Numa," became a sudden hit, thanks again to the joy of peeking at someone's private nerdy exuberance. Though Brolsma didn't quite anticipate the attention and avoided the press for a few months, he was back with more videos by 2006.
This was still a pre-YouTube era, and Brolsma's video was shared through Quicktime and Windows Media files on Newgrounds and its competitors, as well as e-mail and Kazaa. Even without a one-click way to view the video, "Numa Numa" spread much quickly. In under three years, this video has earned an estimated 700 million views.
Two things kept online video from exploding: difficulty of publishing, and difficulty of viewing. Digital video, introduced in 1994, was still replacing tapes in the home camcorder market, finally putting the computer ahead of the VCR. Webcams were still evolving. And publishing to the web, or even to a file sharing network, required more computer knowledge than that of the average Internet user. Once a video was online, it was still difficult to view. Even the relative ease of accessing videos on Ebaum's World and Newgrounds required downloading plug-ins for specific video formats.
But as I explained in Slate this year, YouTube simplified the process by letting users upload any type of video with a simple web interface, then converting it to a universal format that required the already common Macromedia Flash plug-in. Now the average Internet user could create, share, and watch online video. And they did. Which should have meant a thousand new stars bigger than Star Wars Kid, right?
Hundreds of monster hits on YouTube get played over a million times. (Over 100 have topped 6 million views each.) But even the most popular video of all time, earning just over 55 million views in its 16-month existence, has no hope of touching Star Wars Kid's 900-million-view record.
Even assuming it's been viewed another hundred million times in copies on and off YouTube, "Evolution of Dance" can never catch up. Unlike its predecessors, it has competition. The interest in web videos has increased, but not nearly as much as the ease of publishing them. As of November 2006, YouTube claimed 65,000 uploads per day; thousands more videos are loaded on sites like Vimeo, Blip, and Veoh. There is an unprecedented flood of content being pushed online. Who could watch it all?
Star Wars Kid and Numa Numa had novelty. But novelty is easily reproduced. This fall alone has included viral videos like the much-parodied Soulja Boy Crank That, "Leave Britney Alone," Chuck Norris's endorsement of Mike Huckabee, a televised standup routine called "Achmed the Dead Terrorist," and a cartoon song about "Internet People." Four years ago, any one of these fads could have become the Internet's sole sensation for a whole season. Now they're just drops in a torrent.
Online video is obviously not the first medium to balloon and diversify. TV did the same thing over the last half-century. The total audience for TV grew every decade. Audiences for single shows, however, peaked in the 50s. The 2004 series finale of Friends and the 2000 finale of Survivor earned about the same audience as the 1983 finale of M*A*S*H. The viewers went from millions to more millions, but the channels went from three to hundreds, so the most-watched show still shared an audience with hundreds of concurrent shows. The competitive effect may be why only one film from the last ten years has entered the top 20 box office hits of all time (adjusted for inflation). The new Internet star faces the same effect on a vast scale, competing with the millions of videos past and present.
That isn't to say no one's getting famous. The most obvious example is Andy Samberg and his comedy group, The Lonely Island. The group posted videos on their site and at a video competition site, Channel 101. Their videos stayed pretty underground, but they got the team hired by Saturday Night Live. Lonely Island then made the immortal "Lazy Sunday" and "Dick in a Box" for SNL, then released the feature film "Hot Rod," establishing themselves as mainstream stars.
Samberg and his friends, though, weren't the average online auteurs. They went to film school; they pitched shows; they shot a rejected pilot for Fox. Since then, Hollywood has been looking for stars online, though most only make it to the B-list. YouTube user Lisa Donovan (LisaNova) won a job at MADtv. YouTuber Brooke Brodack (Brookers) signed a deal with Carson Daly. Web show Ask a Ninja earned sponsorships and sells DVDs, proving there's a living to be made online. That living is built through a long, concerted effort, not with one stunt. The same rules of competition will apply: Hope is Emo, a second project by the Ask a Ninja team, never found the same popularity.
Star Wars Kid has been off the radar for years; last year he settled a lawsuit with the students who made him famous. As for Gary Brolsma, he came back online in 2006 with an uninspired follow-up, "New Numa." Did it work? Well, for anyone else, 7 million views would be a breakout success. For the Numa Numa guy, it means fame has fizzled out. But he does do a good impression of Star Wars Kid.
Photo by amarillopollo_QUIT at Worth1000. Nick Douglas writes at Valleywag, Too Much Nick, and Look Shiny. In 2000 he almost put a video on the Internet of himself dancing in his underwear. Let's all be glad he didn't.