Going Viral

Brandon Hardesty discovered that in the age of YouTube, if you can make it in the family rec room, you can make it anywhere

By April Witt
Sunday, May 31, 2009

Brandon Hardesty sat so close to his video camera that only the top three-quarters of his enormous head was in the frame. As he stared into the lens of his camera, he clasped his chubby fingers this way and that around his big cranium. He adopted an expression of amazement, as if he were seeing himself for the very first time.

"Oh! Oh, no!" Brandon said. "Look at the size of my head!"

Suddenly, Brandon pulled back and let the camera capture his hands dangling limply in front of him. He twiddled his fingers and made nonsensical sounds as if he were trying to entertain a fussy baby. "Had-i-lay, did-i-lay, had-i-lay, pood-i-lay," he intoned as he twiddled.

It was Jan. 1, 2007. Brandon, then a shy 19-year-old grocery clerk and college student who sometimes stuttered, was in his parents' basement in Baltimore goofing off. He didn't have anything better to do. So he was making another video to upload on YouTube.

Alone in the basement, Brandon hooted at the camera. He bared and snapped his teeth. He lowered his head to expand his double chin to bullfrog proportions. He yodeled mournfully like a dog with its tail stuck in a door. He croaked like actress Linda Blair possessed by the devil. He laughed until his laughter morphed into a tribal-sounding ululation.

Fifteen minutes after Brandon stopped mugging and hooting, he uploaded his newest video, which he titled: "Strange Faces and Noises I Can Make III," because this wasn't the first time he'd entertained himself with this foolishness, and it wouldn't be the last.

Brandon wasn't just entertaining himself. Anyone with Internet access, and 1 minute 39 seconds to kill, could watch his goofing. By the next morning, Brandon recalled, a few hundred people had. Within days, Brandon's video had thousands of hits. People weren't just watching his video and laughing. They were posting links to it on their Facebook pages and favorite blogs, and e-mailing it to friends.

Dozens of people Brandon had never met were inspired to video themselves similarly hollering and mugging and to upload the results on YouTube. In no time, Brandon and his fans were making faces at each other, like monkeys at the zoo. One man uploaded footage of his giggling, gap-toothed 6-year-old son, so entranced as he watched Brandon's online antics that the child seemed almost unaware when he, too, began screeching and making funny faces.

Every time Brandon logged on to YouTube, which he did three or four times daily, viewership for his video had skyrocketed: thousands, then ten thousands, then millions. Brandon's notoriety was spreading geometrically -- like the spread of a cold after a single child sneezes in a classroom infecting 10 children, who each go on to infect 10 others with the virus, who all fan out across their communities to create a spiraling infection. Brandon's video spread until, before long, more than 4.7 million people had watched Brandon all alone in his parents' basement being silly.

It looked as if Brandon might be going viral. How weird was that?

It wasn't any weirder, as it turns out, than a University of Minnesota graduate student named Tay Zonday casually uploading a video of himself singing a catchy little tune he wrote -- "Chocolate Rain" -- which has been viewed more than 37 million times since 2007. Or, more recently, the phenomenon of millions of people worldwide watching and listening as Susan Boyle -- an unemployed church volunteer from a village in Scotland -- sang a triumphant rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" on the reality show "Britain's Got Talent." Mothers and daughters, sisters and brothers, friends, neighbors and co-workers hurriedly e-mailed links to Boyle's soul-stirring performance, saying: You have got to watch this. So they did. Again, and again, and again -- until Boyle's performance had been viewed more than 100 million times. All at once, it seemed, the world was falling in love with a dowdy, plucky and soaringly gifted woman.

Four years after the dawn of YouTube and other online video-sharing forums, the question of which of the legions of videos uploaded daily around the planet will become, however briefly, an object of human fascination, is as mysterious as why any two people fall in love. It's also a question increasingly studied as everyone from advertising executives to politicians, and even teenagers in their parents' basements, all try to go viral.

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