Pizza Rat is, per Internet consensus, many lofty things: a spirit animal, “all of us,” a parable of life in New York City. But as the Internet’s latest viral Phenomenon, in the big-P sense of the word, Pizza Rat is also the perfect case study of how things go viral in 2015.
See, there’s a formula to these phenomena, a specific life cycle, and it repeats ad nauseam even as the things themselves change. A cute Target cashier, a spandex dress, a rodent — ultimately, they all play out the same way.
First, you have your organic murmur around a genuinely cool thing: your local blog pick-up, your increasingly high-profile RTs.
Then there’s that tsunami of identical, aggregated posts from every brand and online outlet trying to cash in on the clicks.
And, finally, there’s a sort of receding afterglow, a last-ditch search for any sort of permanence or meaning: the parody Twitter accounts, the Slate pitches, the novelty Halloween costumes … this very thing that you’re currently reading.
How fast does that life cycle play out now, though? And what exactly does it look like? We attempted to answer those big questions by mapping out Pizza Rat’s timeline.
Stage 1: The post
SEPT 21, 1 a.m.: Matt Little, an actor and comedian in New York, films a rat carrying a piece of pizza down the stairs in a Manhattan subway station.
1 p.m.: Twelve hours later, Little posts a clip of the video to Instagram and tweets a link, which racks up an unusual number of faves. Realizing that people really like this dumb rat, he uploads a copy to YouTube, too.
2:40 p.m.: The video is spotted by Gawker’s Jordan Sargent, who writes a post about it. (Headline: “Pizza Rat, Pizza Rat, I Love You.”)
Stage 2: The media avalanche
3:00 p.m.: In the 3 p.m. hour, DNAinfo, Gothamist, Buzzfeed and Mashable will all post more-or-less identical stories on Pizza Rat.
3:18 p.m.: Local news site DNAinfo New York makes a GIF of Little’s video and tweets it with the caption “this rat … gets it.” The GIF is promptly retweeted dozens of times by journalists, marketers and others in the New York media community, which brings it to the attention of Storyful, a well-known viral media newswire. Storyful posts Little’s original YouTube video to its Facebook and YouTube wires, bringing it to the attention of yet more marketers and journalists.
— DNAinfo.com New York (@DNAinfo) September 21, 2015
3:00 p.m. (and on): Cue the memes.
— Brian Ries (@moneyries) September 21, 2015
PIZZA RAT/ CIGARETTE CRAB 2016: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN pic.twitter.com/FHrWxcK0oa
— Peter Fries (@Peter_Fries) September 21, 2015
3:30 p.m.: Little’s YouTube video comes to the attention of viral licensing firm Jukin Media, which will license it not long after. Good thing, too: Within hours, dozens of people will have ripped off Little’s original video and reposted it on their own YouTube channels.
3:50 p.m.: Someone makes a parody Twitter account, @NYCPizzaRat, and begins sending typically unfunny tweets.
Look, I was hungry and trying to get home.
— NYCPizzaRat (@NYCPizzaRat) September 21, 2015
4:00 p.m.: #PizzaRat trends worldwide on Twitter. At its peak, there are more than 400 #PizzaRat tweets per minute.
Stage 3: The beginning of the end
4:10 p.m.: Buzzfeed kicks the second wave of Pizza Rat #content with an illustrated GIF that says “believe in your dreams” and an interactive quiz.
— BuzzFeed Animals (@BuzzFeedAnimals) September 21, 2015
4:18 p.m.: Because brands can’t stand to miss out on this sort of hot Internet action, Random House Canada tweets a book joke on the #PizzaRat hashtag. It is, as far as I can tell, the first major brand to hop on the meme — but certainly not the last!
— Random House Canada (@RandomHouseCA) September 21, 2015
4:27 p.m.: The Pizza Rat goes international with a story in Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid.
5:10 p.m.: Vox publishes a #PizzaRat explainer. Not to be outdone, Slate quickly follows up with a piece in that site’s signature genre: a contrarian “take” on the meme, titled “Pizza Rat is Okay, but Pizza Bear is the Far Superior Pizza Animal.”
7 p.m.: The New Yorker intellectualizes Pizza Rat in a Shouts and Murmurs column.
SEPT 22, 5 a.m.: Mashable posts a Pizza Rat-themed playlist, officially marking the rat’s transition from “fun and cool” to “eye roll.”
8 a.m.: By the time most people are heading to work, Pizza Rat has made appearances on CNN, NPR and the “Today” show.
9 a.m.: Your mother e-mailed you an article about Pizza Rat, probably. This is it: This is the end.
Pizza Rat, R.I.P.