We Just Couldn't Look Away: The Viral Videos of '08
The viral Web is infinitely vast, highly personal and totally ephemeral. A video that enthralls one viewer perplexes another, and either way it's replaced within hours by a new meme. Talking cats give way to precocious toddlers give way to Barack Rolling. So in a fragmented medium with something for everyone, the most astounding alignment is when there's one thing for everyone, when for a single moment the whole country seems to be laughing, groaning and forwarding the same thing.

Here's a recap of the best -- silly, meaningful, meaningless -- of what landed in your in-box in 2008.

(Be warned: A few of these videos contain language not appropriate for minors or office computers.)

Tom Cruise and Anonymous

Way back in January, before he made nice with Matt Lauer, Tom Cruise was still Creepy Tom -- a state of being exemplified nowhere better than this leaked Scientology promo video. Cruise rambles, he cackles, he avoids proper nouns and he proclaims himself an "the only one who can really help" at car accident scenes.

It was classic unhinged celebrity voyeurism, but the story got really interesting when a group calling itself "Anonymous" posted a response video, in which it vowed to bring down the Church of Scientology. The two minutes of eerie digital voice-over eventually led to real-life protests in more than 100 cities.

Will.I.Am's "Yes We Can"

How do you choose a political video in a year that just kept on giving? Do you go with the high concept (the Obama/McCain dance-off)? The topical ("Wassup 2008")? Or do you just go with Sarah Palin pardoning one turkey while another is decapitated in the background?

In the end, we went with Will.I.Am's "Yes We Can." Slick, yes, but a stirring videotorial that helped unify Generation Obama. With nearly 15 million views, it's hard to argue the impact.

Single Men Do Single Ladies

Seemed that nothing could be more euphoric than watching Beyoncé strut her butt off in the music video "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)."

But then came all the boys. The boys and their leotards. We're not talking "SNL's" Justin Timberlake/Andy Samberg flabby version; that came after. We're talking fierce, fierce dancing, filmed in bedrooms and studio apartments. We're talking Shane Mercado, wearing what looks like two pieces of dental floss.

Re-creating music videos is an art (how many ways can Soulja Boy be cranked?) and this -- worshiping, improving, sassifying the original -- represents the best of it.

Cellphones and Popcorn

Did anyone really believe that pointing four cellphones at kernels of corn would pop them? Probably not, and debunking memos began circulating online just days after the originals appeared in June. This video went viral not because we thought it was true but because it tapped into the paranoia and guilt of our dependence on technology. We shuddered to think of cellphones frying our brains, then we used our cellphones to forward the video to everyone we knew.

Western Spaghetti

No one gets injured, no one gets embarrassed, no two girls do something with one cup (you don't wanna know). This whimsical stop-motion video by artist collective PES is "Sesame Street" for grown-ups: pin cushions become tomato sauce, candy corns are flickering candles. Revel in the strangely satisfying knowledge that the Internet can still be G-rated, and that G-rated can still be mesmerizing, and that mesmerizing doesn't have to mean "puppycam."

YouTube Divorce

Rule: We, the American public, want to know every private, tabloidy detail of the lives of the rich and powerful.

Exception: Tricia Walsh Smith.

Congrats, Park Avenue Princess, for showing us the line between "Ooooh!" and "Ewww." (FYI, it occurs somewhere between giving us a Web tour of your luxe pad and using that tour to tell us about your 74-year-old estranged husband's alleged porn stash. By the time you have the husband's secretary on the phone and you are asking her what to do with the condoms, you are way past the line.)

Literal Videos

It's kind of hard to explain why "Sketchy aaaaarm" and "Band montaaaage" are hilarious phrases. You pretty much just have to watch Dustin McLean's collection of "literal music videos" in which he changes the lyrics of songs to describe exactly what is happening in the video. His take on "Take on Me" is especially wondrous, and not only because of the prolonged duet about pipe wrenches.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

From the content wasteland caused by the Writers Guild strike of early 2008, a beacon of hope: Joss Whedon's made-for-Internet musical, starring Neil Patrick Harris as super-villain with a doctorate in "horribleness."

Aiming simply to give viewers something to watch while the WGA got its business together, "Dr. Horrible" ended up raising the webisode bar with a surprisingly twisty plot and a hefty 43-minute running time. Plus, songs inspired by Sondheim! By the time "Dr. Horrible" was released in July, the strike was long over. Still, the video was enough to make us consider the types of things we might all be watching when we're no longer watching TV.

Drunk History

Guy gets smashed, guy slurringly recounts American history. The first installment stars Michael Cera as Alexander Hamilton, resplendent in powdered wig. By the fourth and latest, Drunk Guy is telling us all about President Harrison, who died after 19th-century doctors "were like, 'Hey William Henry Harrison, here are some leeches and [stuff]' " to help him get better.

Like much of online content, it's juvenile, it's simplistic, yet somehow we sense (hope?) we're learning something about something.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company