What qualifies a video as viral?

A video is considered to have “gone viral” when it spreads rapidly through social media and across the internet, gaining widespread popularity and being viewed, shared, and discussed by a large number of users in a short period of time. But what exactly makes a video go viral? There are several factors that determine whether a video has viral potential.

Popularity Metrics

One of the most obvious metrics for determining if a video has gone viral is view count. A video that receives hundreds of thousands or millions of views in a short time frame can definitely be considered viral. However, view count alone doesn’t tell the whole story. A high number of likes, comments, and shares are also signs that a video is resonating with viewers and provoking reactions that spur further sharing. Videos that go viral tend to display a spike in these popularity metrics that far exceeds what an average or moderately popular video would receive.

Example metrics for a viral video:

  • 10+ million views within one week of being posted
  • 100,000+ likes
  • 50,000+ comments
  • 500,000+ shares

Videos that hit these types of numbers show how rapidly they are spreading across social channels and being engaged with by viewers.

Virality Factors

While popularity metrics can confirm when a video has gone viral, the more interesting question is: why do certain videos go viral in the first place? There are a number of elements that can help a video take off virally.

Entertainment Value

Videos that entertain people tend to get shared more. Humor is a key component – funny videos often go viral, from cute animal clips to comedic sketches and prank videos. But excitement and dramatic moments in sports, movies, TV, or video games can also provide entertainment value that makes a video worth sharing. Creative editing and storytelling techniques that engage viewers can boost entertainment as well.

Strong Emotions

Videos that evoke strong emotional reactions from viewers also have high viral potential. Some of the most shared videos tap into emotions like inspiration, joy, sadness, awe, anger, or shock value. Moments packed with emotional power get people to share the experience with others.


Trending news stories and timely events often spur viral videos. A video that captures a current hot topic or news moment is primed for virality based on public interest in the subject. Timely videos essentially ride the wave of an existing trend, which gives them a boost in exposure and sharing potential.

Cultural Relevance

Viral videos also tend to have cultural relevance – they tap into pop culture, current trends and events, or topics that internet audiences relate to. This could be a video related to a celebrity, politician, influencer, brand, meme, or activity that has cultural significance for many people. Videos with cultural resonance have an engaged built-in audience primed for sharing content related to that subject.

Influencer/Celebrity Involvement

Having a well-known figure or influencer featured in or sharing a video can propel it to viral status. Celebrities, YouTubers, brands, and social media stars with big audiences inherently draw more attention to videos they are associated with, which leads to more views, engagement, and sharing with their fanbases.


Certain videos are almost engineered to be shared – they are created specifically with viral purposes in mind. Short length, clickable titles, thumbnail images optimized for social, built-in calls to action, hashtags, challenges, and formulas designed to encourage sharing are all features that can make a video more likely to go viral.


Videos with an element of surprise or unexpectedness tend to get shared more due to their novelty factor. A twist ending, surprise reveal, unexpected event capture, or unusual behavior can spur viewers to share a video with the “you won’t believe what happens” factor.


Controversial, shocking, disturbing, or clickbait-style videos have high potential to go viral, often being shared for outrage or debate value. While provocative viral videos risk bad publicity, they do tap into human psychology of morbid curiosity and attracting attention by breaking taboos.

Viral Video Examples

Looking at various top viral videos can illustrate what specific elements made them take off.

“Baby Shark Dance” – Pinkfong (10 billion+ views)

This children’s song went mega-viral with its catchy melody, cute animated video, fun kid appeal, and short length ideal for repeating views. The trend inspired countless baby shark themed videos, dances, products, media, and memes.

“Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen” – Piko Taro (277 million views)

The absurdist short video spawned thousands of remixes and imitations. Its massive viral spread came from its sheer weirdness and newcomer Piko Taro’s quirky persona and backstory.

“Chewbacca Mask Lady” – Candace Payne (167 million views)

This viral video showcases infectious joy and laughter as Payne tries on a Star Wars mask in her car. This feel-good moment was easy to relate to and get swept up in for Star Wars fans.

“David After Dentist” (139 million views)

The funny reaction of a young woozy boy after dentist anesthesia surprised and amused viewers. Humor combined with cuteness made it highly shareable.

“The Dress” BuzzFeed Post (37 million views)

This viral debate over a dress appearing white/gold or blue/black fascinated the internet. The mystifying optical trick and disagreement over what people saw drove discussion and sharing.

“Leave Britney Alone” Chris Crocker video (47 million views)

This viral video of Crocker crying and defending Britney Spears was both humorous for its melodrama but also timely during Spears’ struggles when many related to defending her.

Viral Hoaxes and Controversies

Viral videos are not always a positive phenomenon. Videos can be faked, or real videos can be shared in false contexts. In addition, controversies regarding harmful viral video trends have emerged when it comes to risks of challenges, privacy concerns, youth safety, etc. Some examples of viral video hoaxes, controversies, and dangers include:

  • “Lonelygirl15” – A fictional vlogger that initially fooled viewers into thinking she was a real teen broadcasting her life online. The hoax was eventually revealed as a creative project.
  • Tide Pod challenge – A dangerous viral challenge where teens ate laundry detergent pods on video, resulting in poisonings and government warnings.
  • Dangerous stunts – “Bird Box challenge” while blindfolded, reckless driving while blindfolded, etc.
  • Private videos posted without consent, like embarrassing or shaming videos of people filmed without their permission.

These types of issues reveal some darker sides to viral videos. While virality can make compelling content spread fast, it can also be unpredictable and problematic when harmful content gains traction.

Gaming the System

With the power of viral videos, some creators and companies try to artificially manufacture virality. Buying fake likes, views, and shares; using bots; aggressively optimizing for algorithms; and spamming people to boost engagement are potential strategies people employ, against platform terms, to feign virality. However, these tactics usually don’t lead to sustainable virality the way that organic user passion for content does.

Viral Marketing

Companies often hope to create branded viral videos as part of marketing campaigns. While ads can certainly go viral, the intent behind them is usually more obvious than viral user-generated content. Marketers may imitate viral tropes in ads, like humor, cute animals, celebrities, or timely topics. But just because an ad is designed to be viral doesn’t guarantee it will actually become a smash viral success. Authenticity, emotion, and entertainment value ultimately drive users more than commercialism.

Virality vs. Quality

Viral videos can offer entertainment and cultural moments, but sheer popularity does not always equal quality. Some videos are just fads that fizzle out quickly. Just because a video went viral doesn’t necessarily make it worthwhile, groundbreaking art. The internet and algorithms prize novelty, clickbait, and shareability, which don’t necessarily reflect the most meaningful or enriching content. Viewers are left to judge for themselves the value they derive from viral videos based on their own standards.


Achieving viral video success involves some perfect storm of timing, emotion, entertainment, and culture. While certain formulas may increase chances of virality, nothing can guarantee a video will take off. The internet hivemind is ultimately unpredictable in which content it latches onto and propels into the spotlight. Marketers, creators, and viewers alike are left fascinated by the phenomenon that makes a video spread like wildfire across the web.

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