“Damn, Daniel!” and the Relationship Between Subjective Humor and Viral Videos

I only needed to watch the viral video “Damn, Daniel” once to know I never needed to watch it again. I had no reason to — my coworkers repeated the eponymous “damn, Daniel!” for the rest of the morning. Then the rest of the day. And on into the rest of the week.

My coworkers aren’t the only ones infected by Daniel and his white Vans. The “Damn, Daniel” video has thousands of views — millions, if Daniel’s appearance on The Ellen Show is to be believed. And what’s hard to believe? An irreverent internet clip is nothing new. What’s amazing to me is how viral videos, particularly funny ones, happen at all.

Screenshots from the viral video "Damn, Daniel."Humor is a pretty subjective thing. What makes one person laugh can easily turn another into a stone-faced gargoyle, yet viral videos suggest a commonality that enables their widespread popularity. I may not have cared for this one, but “Damn, Daniel” did get me thinking — how can so many people find the same thing so funny? What transforms them from random, even mundane video clips into nation-sweeping memes? Like a flea bite that morphs into full-blown Black Death, funny viral videos have a way of spreading across Internet cultures that defies their very nature.

Viral videos are different from other media. Unlike stand-up comedy or funny movies, which aim to be funny, many viral videos aren’t intended to get thousands of people guffawing. Beyond the people that posted them in the first place, viral videos are usually moments caught in time and saved for posterity; it’s only by complete happenstance that they get so popular.

But maybe it isn’t just by chance. Maybe it’s the content itself, or the ways people watch them, or even the people you’re with that is to blame for the existence of these infectious snippets of daily human life.

Finding the Funny

Screenshot from the viral video "Monkey Magic Trick."Viral videos are a diverse bunch. They’re always changing, manufactured by the endless content factory that is today’s internet. What’s interesting is there doesn’t seem to be any one thing about their inherent humor that seems to contribute to their virility. In my search for some of the hottest trending contagions, I found a susceptible baboon, a hydraulic press create fruit salad, and a knife-wielding crab. These, along with “Damn, Daniel,” are just a few that have been circulating through people’s digital nervous systems, and they won’t be the last. For now, though, the only thing they share is that they’re among the cream of the crop from the funny farm.

Looking at them, they don’t seem to share anything, any type of universal humor, that would make them viral. But this is NitWitty, damn it! At the risk of spending even more time on the various flavors of the week, I steeled myself to try to find commonalities between these videos, to try to discover the things that people may find funny about them.

  • “Damn, Daniel” – repetition, fast pacing, laughter in video
    “Monkey Magic Trick” – animal, big reaction/expression
    “Gangster Crab” – animal, contrasting images
    Fritz the Dog” – animal, repetition, slow motion
    “Hydraulic Press Fruit Salad” – accent, action (smashing)
    Charlie Bit My Finger” – accent, child
    Gangnam Style” – general irreverence

Reducing them to their base elements actually makes them seem pretty boring, so sorry if I shattered the illusion of a perfectly funny, spontaneous world for you. But you have to admit those are some pretty diverse styles of humor. “Accents” aren’t funny by default, but for the context in “Charlie” it probably helps. Repetition is a pretty sure bet for humor, especially for “Daniel,” which has such fast pacing; this video is just begging to be transmitted in meme-like fashion. And the irreverence of “Gangnam Style” is like a shotgun blast of weird; it’s throwing so much at viewers, there’s got to be something in there that someone will find funny. In an Internet culture where spectacle is increasingly valued over substance, “Gangnam Style” was primed to succeed. As of today it’s still the most viewed video on YouTube.

Screenshot from the viral video "Gangnam Style," in which singer PSY lies on the floor of an elevator and a colorfully dressed man dances over him.

But for every trait these videos share, there are others that aren’t shared. “Hydraulic Press” and “Charlie” may be partly funny because of the foreign accents, maybe even “Gangnam Style” to a degree — but “Damn, Daniel” isn’t accented (not in the same way, anyway), and “Monkey Magic Trick” doesn’t have talking at all. “Damn, Daniel” has fast repetition working in its favor, but “Fritz the Dog” has just the opposite.

You can see that trying to find a humorous commonality between these is just about impossible.

Humor changes. Hell, on the internet, everything changes. It’s why virility can’t be guaranteed, why it seems a product of chance more than anything else. The problem is that all of these videos, save for “Gangnam Style,” are little slices of life caught on camera; they aren’t meant to be funny. People “find” them funny in the truest sense of the word; they aren’t laughing, watching and re-watching them because they necessarily like one kind of humor over another. The humorous aspects of these viral videos is only one component that contributes to their virility.

The Social Network

Viral videos would simply not be possible without social media platforms. If video content sites like YouTube and DailyMotion are the engines, delivering their payloads directly into people’s viewing sockets, social networks like Facebook and Twitter are the fuel, the means that make all the movement happen. “Share,” “retweet,” and “like” functions allow users to show the latest wacky vids to their friends and families. But are these tools enough to warrant the obscene amount of views garnered by a baby biting his brother’s finger?

Measuring the success of funny viral videos is tough enough without having to think about why people find them so funny. Their “success” is measured by their view counts; there’s no other metric that accurately tracks how popular, how virulent, a video is. Although view counts on players like YouTube or DailyMotion can be inflated (multiple views, accidental clicks, etc.), the numbers don’t lie — viral videos gain a lot of traction.

The speed at which viral videos are shared is certainly enabled by social media. One click, one tap of the finger and you can put Charlie the Future Cannibal in front of hundreds of people across the world. Not everyone will like that style of humor — most probably won’t watch it at all — but that kind of far-reaching power is critical for these videos to become catching.

Screenshot from the viral video "Charlie Bit Me."

But all social media platforms weren’t created equally. Twitter only allows up to 30 seconds of video, while Facebook’s limit is by file size (it’s around 1.75 GB). Shared links are okay on both, which renders this kind of moot, but it gets trickier on other platforms. For Reddit, certain subreddits have stringent online cultures, where the content posted is more closely curated. On /r/YouTubeHaiku, a video longer than 14 seconds is not allowed. As for the content itself — the humor — videos with the most upvotes vary as much as ever; there’s no telling what the Reddit hivemind will latch onto simply by looking at the numbers beside the titles. The patterns I talked about earlier come into play here. Reddit users follow meme patterns very closely, and so memes such as “360 no scope” or “Give Us Another One” will proliferate across many, many videos, all based on the original content.

In this way, certain videos can become viral by virtue of where they’re posted. But for as popular as Reddit or Twitter is, there needs to be more than that to truly reach viral potential.

Click the next page to delve deeper into the more calculated side of viral videos…

Eric Seal

Eric Seal is a writer, drummer, gamer, husband, son, and father, and he can't decide which of these he likes best. Also writes fatherly musings at mostlymetaldad.com.

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