Viral stars of YouTube (pictures)

As YouTube turns 10, we take a look at the biggest viral stars through the years.

James Martin
James Martin is the Managing Editor of Photography at CNET. His photos capture technology's impact on society - from the widening wealth gap in San Francisco, to the European refugee crisis and Rwanda's efforts to improve health care. From the technology pioneers of Google and Facebook, photographing Apple's Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to the most groundbreaking launches at Apple and NASA, his is a dream job for any documentary photography and journalist with a love for technology. Exhibited widely, syndicated and reprinted thousands of times over the years, James follows the people and places behind the technology changing our world, bringing their stories and ideas to life.
Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
James Martin
Richard Nieva
Joan E. Solsman
1 of 10 YouTube/Screenshot by CNET

Gary Brolsma

It was the birth of a genre that would become standard on YouTube: record yourself lip-synching goofily to a popular tune, then watch it spread like wildfire. But Gary Brolsma actually did it without the help of YouTube. He uploaded his video to the Web in December 2004. The first video would be posted on YouTube five months later.

Brolsma's song of choice was “Dragostea Din Tei,” a pop song by the Romanian pop group O-Zone. (The song would later be sampled in 2008 by rapper T.I. and singer Rihanna.) Today, Brolsma’s video has been viewed more than 700 million times.

2 of 10 YouTube/Screenshot by CNET


Who doesn’t like a good hoax? In 2006, actress Jessica Rose and the creators of what would become the media company EQAL played a good one on us. Rose played Bree Avery, also known as lonelygirl15, an awkward 16-year-old video blogger who recorded videos from her bedroom.

The blogs turned out to be part of a Web series, and the plot of her videos somehow spiraled to involve a secret cult called the Order, after Bree because of her blood type.

3 of 10 YouTube/Screenshot by CNET

Evolution of Dance

In 2006, motivational speaker Jonathan Laipply showed us our pop music roots -- at least starting at the 1950s. As with many other viral YouTube videos, it was deceptively simple: a dude in an Orange Crush T-shirt and jeans dancing by himself on stage, taking us through popular tunes from Elvis to ‘N Sync. At the time, his was the No. 1 and highest rated video on YouTube.

Now, we see that kind of thing everywhere. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake have made it their shtick, with the evolution of rap, SNL skits, and yes, even hip hop dance.

4 of 10 YouTube/Screenshot by CNET

"Leave Britney Alone!"

Chris Crocker really just wanted people to leave Britney Spears alone. Like really.

Crocker shot to Internet fame in 2007 when he posted a video responding to snarky comments about the pop star’s comeback performance at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards. Crocker's tear-filled defense got almost as much attention as Spears' singing and dancing.

5 of 10 YouTube/Screenshot by CNET

Antoine Dodson

Antoine Dodson’s rise to Internet fame was around potentially grim circumstances: In 2010, after someone broke into his apartment in an Alabama housing project and tried to rape his sister, Dodson went on the local news to address the attack.

Luckily, Dodson’s sister was OK, and we got a video clip for the ages. “Hide yo kids, hide yo wife,” Dodson said. The gangly Dodson became famous overnight. People made their own versions of the video -- even turning it into a song, as people edited the sound of the video to “auto-tune” the pitch of his voice to go up and down.

6 of 10 YouTube/Screenshot by CNET

Ted Williams

On a slow news day in 2011, Ohio newspaper The Columbus Dispatch created a video of Ted Williams, who solicited money from cars along a highway exit with a sign touting his "God given gift of voice." An anonymous YouTube user threw the same video up on Google's site later that day. It caught the attention of people on Reddit, a writer for Gawker, and -- later -- national television outlets like CNN, ABC's Good Morning America and CBS This Morning.

The clip of Williams -- then a homeless man begging for change with his "golden" voice -- was posted on YouTube on a Monday. By Wednesday, he was fielding job offers and flying to New York to appear on national television.

7 of 10 YouTube/Screenshot by CNET

Keenan Cahill sings Katy Perry

Keenan Cahill had been posting videos on YouTube of himself lip-synching and dancing for months when he uploaded one of him miming the lyrics to Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream." Within a week, the pop star tweeted at the Chicago teen with a link to the video, telling him "I heart you."

Cahill went on to create even more videos -- many with actual celebrity appearances by the likes of Perry, 50 Cent and cast members of "Glee."

8 of 10 YouTube/Screenshot by CNET

"Last Lecture" by Randy Pausch

Most viral clips are a couple minutes long. The video of Randy Pausch's "last lecture" goes on for 76 minutes. In spite of its length, millions watched the terminally ill Carnegie Mellon professor discuss how to live your life. The video was posted by his university so that a few people who missed the talk could still view it. But the video found a worldwide audience, leading to Pausch's appearances on Oprah Winfrey and an ABC News special program. He also co-wrote a New York Times bestseller based on the presentation.

9 of 10 YouTube/Screenshot by CNET

Charlie Bit My Finger

The most-watched videos on YouTube, those with hundreds of millions of views, are almost uniformly music videos. "Charlie bit my finger -- again" is the exception. The clip itself is barely noteworthy -- a British boy sticks his finger in his brother's mouth, who bites it and expresses a bit of glee at his sibling's squeals of pain. But it has been viewed more than 800 million times, as people watch a clip just because so many others have watched it.

10 of 10 YouTube/Screenshot by CNET

"Chocolate Rain" by Tay Zonday

Tay Zonday, born Adam Bahnar, was a graduate student in Minneapolis on track to be a university professor. That was before April 2007, when he started posting songs he'd composed. His "Chocolate Rain" was marked by cryptic lyrics, awkward mannerisms and the mismatch of Zonday's Barry White-like bass voice coming from his baby-face, slender body.  The video was featured on YouTube's front page in July and, by August, Zonday was performing live on Jimmy Kimmel's talk show.

Zonday jettisoned his plans to become a professor and made YouTube his job. With his channel now at 180 million views, he still posts videos of himself covering popular songs and answering fan questions.

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