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Pizza Rat, Keyboard Cat, and Dancing Matt: What makes viral video tick, and why we click

A person uses a laptop computer showing Youtube's logo on March 27, 2014 in Istanbul.
A person uses a laptop computer showing Youtube's logo on March 27, 2014 in Istanbul.
OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

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In 2004, before YouTube existed, a teenager named Gary Brolsma posted a video to the Internet that would change his life forever.

At face value, the video is unremarkable. Brolsma is seen sitting at a desk, wearing headphones and lip-synching along to a catchy song by a Romanian band while dancing and fist-pumping. But something about this video made millions of people watch it over and over again.

The ‘Numa Numa’ video, as it’s now known, is just one of thousands that, for one reason or another, have caught on with the Internet and have been shared across many platforms. We swooned and giggled as Charlie bit his little brother’s finger, we laughed at David’s expense as he asked “Is this real life?” while still loopy on nitrous from a visit to the dentist, we admitted that being Rickroll’d was funny (the first few times), and we danced along to Psy’s smash hit “Gangnam Style.”

The most recent example of viral video’s power came on Monday, when a New York City-based comedian posted a video of a rat carrying an entire slice of pizza down a set of stairs at a Manhattan subway station. Within hours of the video’s posting, several major Internet publications had shared the video, #PizzaRat was the number one trending hashtag on Twitter, and someone had created a ‘NYC Pizza Rat’ parody Twitter account.

So, why did the Internet fall in love with pizza rat? Was it because the rat, in his dogged pursuit of reaching the bottom of the stairs with the pizza in tow, symbolizes all of our day-to-day struggles? Or is it just because it’s kind of funny to watch a rat try to haul a slice of pizza twice its size down some stairs?

What makes a viral video go viral? Why do some videos go viral but others don’t? Are there criteria for a video being viral?


Jonah Berger, associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and author of the book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” (Simon & Schuster, 2013). He also co-authored a study titled “What Makes Online Content Go Viral?”