Oct. 6, 2001, was the night that would make David Bernal famous, although he didn't know it at the time. He was 21 and a senior at California State University at Long Beach, majoring in art and illustration and doing a little break dancing on the side. On the night in question he had been hired to perform at a Korean-American talent show in Los Angeles. There's a grainy amateur video of the event in which you can see him mumble his name into the microphone and then do his thing for about 60 sec.
The audience goes insane. Those watching can't believe what's happening. Bernal, who performs under the name David Elsewhere, describes his dance style as a mixture of "popping, waving, liquiding, breaking, roboting." What this means in practice is that, first, his body physically melts into a little puddle and then rebuilds itself bone by bone; then he becomes a giant robot; then weird energies go surging through his arms and legs; then he makes it look as though something is crawling around under his shirt; then he becomes a springy hopping creature. And then, just like that, it's over.
Except it wasn't over. Somebody converted the grainy video from that night into a digital file and posted it on the Web. One by one, then hundreds by hundreds, people started downloading the video, e-mailing it, linking to it, sharing it, copying it and reuploading it. In other words, the little video went viral--it multiplied and reproduced and spread out of control on the Internet like a virus. And millions of people caught it.
Bernal is famous now, in a way, but it's a new kind of fame, courtesy of a new medium. Viral videos are only a few minutes or even a few seconds long, and they're generally amateur in execution and wildly eclectic in subject matter. Browse one of the websites that hosts them, like YouTube or Google Video, and you'll see drunken karaoke, babies being born, plane crashes, burping contests, freakish sports accidents and far, far stranger things. The one thing they have in common is that people can't stop watching them.
The viral video probably began with the infamous Dancing Baby, which surfaced in 1996. A strangely compelling animation of a diapered infant getting its tiny groove on, the Dancing Baby was born as a software demo, but people started sending it to one another as an e-mail attachment. Until the Baby came along, nobody realized that that kind of spontaneous In box--to--In box sharing, following the and-they'll-tell-two-friends model, could ever add up to much, let alone scale to the level of a mass medium. "It wasn't as though a marketing firm attempted to create the phenomenon," says Michael Girard, one of the programmers who helped create the Dancing Baby.
Soon, other clips followed the same branching path the Baby did: a cheerleader apparently being flipped through a basketball hoop; Paris Hilton's sex tape; Janet Jackson's famous wardrobe malfunction; a 19-year-old New Jersey man (doomed to be forever known as "the Numa Numa guy") overenthusiastically lip synching to a Romanian pop song. Last December, Saturday Night Live's Lazy Sunday video appeared on the Net after airing on the show. The white-boy rap about cupcakes and Narnia immediately went viral, spawning half a dozen catchphrases and endowing SNL with an aura of cool it hasn't enjoyed since Wayne's World (see page 69).