Anatomy Of Viral Videos: ‘Pizza Rat’ Vs. ‘Boston Sunfish’

By 12/30/2015
Anatomy Of Viral Videos: ‘Pizza Rat’ Vs. ‘Boston Sunfish’

[Editor’s Note: Why do some videos rack up millions of views while others linger in obscurity? How does a particular clip become a cultural phenomenon while others remain perennially unseen? What is it that makes a video go viral? Tubefilter has partnered with Jukin Media to take an analytical dive into online video ephemera to try to come up with some answers. Join us for our new regular series Anatomy Of A Viral Video as we explore today’s biggest viral hits and how all those views add up. And for more Anatomy Of A Viral Video installments click right here.]

One or two times per week, a remarkable user-generated video goes viral. It’s posted to major websites and blogs, shared heavily on social media, and likely licensed for use on TV news and lifestyle programs.

On the other hand, one or two times per year, there are videos that not only go viral, but go well beyond that to turn into genuine cultural events. In 2014, two of the videos that took on a life of their own were Hero Cat and Train Selfie Head Kick, which combined for more than 50 million views on YouTube. Hero Cat became a phenomenon – the feline was even invited to throw out the first pitch at a minor league baseball game – and Jared Frank, the train selfie man himself, went on to do dozens of TV and radio interviews in the US and beyond.


Subscribe for daily Tubefilter Top Stories


2015 seemed like it was on a path to having a lot of great videos, but none that were transcendent. There was a remarkable clip of a gorilla unexpectedly charging the glass at a zoo in Omaha, Nebraska that gained a lot of attention back in April, but it didn’t quite have the ‘je ne sais quoi’ that makes a viral video become a pop-culture phenomenon.

But that all changed during the week of September 22, 2015, which saw not one, but incredibly, two viral videos, go off the rails and turn from popular online videos to cultural events. Skeptics need look no further than this piece from The New Yorker, which pits each video against the other for meme supremacy.

Pizza Rat

A 15-second video depicting a rodent carrying an entire slice of pizza into a NYC subway went viral in a way that few videos ever do.

Stephen Colbert, who featured the clip on the Late Show, said, “If you’re not familiar with Pizza Rat…the Internet blew up over this video,” and Conan O’Brien, meanwhile, put together a hilarious parody video, showing the ‘untold story’ of what happened before the rat was caught on film; the clip even was referenced on Saturday Night Live, in host Miley Cyrus’ opening monologue. Throw in the fact that there were Pizza Rat Halloween costumes and plush toys, and there’s no doubt about the video’s place in the cultural zeitgeist.

Curiously, the video’s viewcount on YouTube is at a relatively pedestrian 8.4 million views. This is of course more views than the vast majority of videos on the web, but for something that was as ubiquitous as Pizza Rat seemed to be, it’s surprising that there weren’t 2-3x as many views. That is, until you dig into the data.

Looking at statistics available to Jukin Media, the data revealed that Pizza Rat was illegally copied – that is, someone ripped the video and reuploaded it to YouTube in an attempt to monetize it – more than 400 times. By comparison, similarly-viewed viral videos typically see a few dozen copies. While the millions of views generated by all of those illicit copies are monetized by Jukin on behalf of the clip’s owner, they do not show up in the view count on the original video, and thus make it appear that the clip has far fewer views than it actually has.

The top 5 traffic referral sources to the original YouTube version of Pizza Rat are as follows: Facebook,, Gawker,, and (a Brazilian humor blog).

Boston Sunfish

In the same week, no less, a video of a pair of Boston-area fishermen who encounter an odd sea creature also went uber-viral, largely due to the colorful commentary of the cameramen. The genuinely excited and bewildered fishermen attempt to guess what the creature could be. Is it a sea turtle? A tuna? A baby whale? (Spoiler: it’s a giant sunfish).

The stars of the video were invited on to Jimmy Kimmel Live!, were featured on the front page of the Boston Globe, and have been featured on public radio shows and on national morning shows.

Oddly, the Sunfish video is another curious case whereby the original clip did not receive all that many views. It was first uploaded to Facebook where it received more than three million views; it was covered by BuzzFeed, Daily Dot, Mashable, Time, and dozens of other websites. Interestingly, it was the Facebook version of the video that was embedded on those websites, rather than the YouTube version. Facebook only made its videos embeddable early this year, and although sites are embedding Facebook videos with more frequency, publishers still seem to heavily favor YouTube embeds; Facebook does not yet offer analytics regarding embedded player views, so all we know is that some portion of those 3 million+ views are from embeds on the aforementioned sites. The YouTube version of the clip has 800k+ views; of that 800k, 123k came from an embedded player. The Top 5 referrers of the YouTube version were: Facebook (interestingly),,, Tumblr, and

A few takeaways about mega-virality from these two videos:

1) A video that connects deeply with a particular big city (Pizza Rat was said to perfectly embody New York’s spirit, while the fishermen carry an unmistakable Boston accent and were celebrated by Boston media), has a chance to catch on quickly in one geographic area, and spread well beyond.

2) The diversity of today’s video landscape is such that a viral video can seldom be measured by its view count on any one site alone.

3) If social media is responsible for helping push a video viral, it seems as though late night TV shows, more than anything else, are the benchmark that signify a viral video’s entry into the greater pop-culture stratosphere.

mike skogmo headshotMike Skogmo is VP, Communications at Jukin Media, the global leader in user-generated entertainment. Jukin Media receives more than one billion monthly views across digital platforms, and its portfolio of owned and operated entertainment brands combine for more than 20 million fans online. Learn more at

Subscribe for daily Tubefilter Top Stories

Stay up-to-date with the latest and breaking creator and online video news delivered right to your inbox.