"Charlie Bit Me," the fourth most-viewed YouTube clip of all time, is a viral video in the truest sense of the word. In May 2007, the father of two British tykes uploaded a home video he wanted to share with the kids' godfather in Colorado and a few American colleagues. After three months, only a few dozen people had seen the video, and he considered taking it off the site. Then, something strange happened: On Aug. 24, 2007, the video was viewed 25 times in California. Three days later, that number was up to 79, with a dozen more coming in from Washington, Texas, and Wisconsin. The number of daily views doubled roughly every week as "Charlie Bit Me" spread around the country and through Europe. On Nov. 5, a couple of guys in Canada filmed a frame-by-frame remake. Two weeks later, CollegeHumor.com linked to the video, and by January it was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. A year and a half later, it's been watched 104 million times.
This is the great promise of YouTube: Your video can soar in popularity through sheer word-of mouth—or rather, click-of-mouth—until eventually people are making T-shirts about it. No one ever said this was going to happen for everyone. So, what are your chances of achieving YouTube stardom? I crunched the numbers to find out what percentage of YouTube videos hit it big, cracking even 10,000 or 100,000 views. The results: You might have better odds playing the lottery than of becoming a viral video sensation.
On Friday, May 22, I used Web-crawling software to capture the URLs of more than 10,000 YouTube videos as soon as they were uploaded. Over the next month, I checked in regularly to see how many views each video had gotten. After 31 days, only 250 of my YouTube hatchlings had more than 1,000 views—that comes out to 3.1 percent after you exclude the videos that were taken down before the month was up. A mere 25, 0.3 percent, had more than 10,000 views. Meanwhile, 65 percent of videos failed to break 50 views; 2.8 percent had zero views. That's the good news: Your video is slightly more likely to get more than 1,000 views than it is to get none at all.
You can see the day-by-day stats in the box below. You can download the raw data here (Excel).
Out of my original litter, the only entry to break 100,000 views was a music video from a German house/disco DJ named Michael Mind. I reran the experiment a couple of days later with a new batch of URLs and snared two videos that eventually became six-digit stars. One features a soccer mascot—I think it's a bumblebee—inadvertently smacking a player in the face. Another shows VH1 personality Brooke Hogan's new single, "Hey Yo!"
All in all, the results from my second experiment were almost identical to the first, with 66 percent of videos getting 50 or fewer views. These figures are somewhat lower than those from a similar study conducted by the British company Rubber Republic in January 2008. Rubber Republic's examination (PDF) found that 10 percent of videos broke the 1,000-view ceiling, while 1 percent got an inconceivable 500,000 views. (Mouse over the dot to compare Slate's data with Rubber Republic's.)
Why are my data so different? A developer for Rubber Republic told me the company selected videos at random from a feed of newly added material. My best guess for the decline in odds is that, in the 18 months between the two experiments, the number of total videos uploaded has grown much faster than the audience of people willing to watch them. A YouTube spokesman confirms that the amount of content uploaded to the site has grown continually—it's now up to about 20 hours of footage a minute from 15 hours at the beginning of 2009. (The company also says it does not collect data on how many videos get more than 10,000 or 100,000 views.)
So, what are we to make of these numbers? First, getting even 10,000 views is an impressive feat, particularly if momentum builds organically, like it did with "Charlie Bit Me." It's obviously easier to get lots of views if a few popular sites embed or link to the video—the main reason that the bumblebee mascot got so popular, for example, is that it was embedded on the Portuguese-language sports site Globo Esporte.
A short-term experiment like this one doesn't have a chance of sussing out a phenomenon like "Charlie Bit Me," which didn't go viral until months after it was posted. I'll post an update to this piece if I discover in the coming weeks that I managed to catch such a long-gestating monster. Anything's possible, but considering that just 3 percent of my videos have as many as 1,000 views, I'd say the odds of that happening are vanishingly small.
These figures certainly don't ratify the grand promise of social media. Not everyone uses YouTube to launch their showbiz or political career, but the potential to do so is central to the Web 2.0 narrative that figures in so many newsmagazine panegyrics. When the odds of even 1,000 people viewing your video in a month's time are only 3 percent, however, it's tough to argue that hitting it big on YouTube is anything more than dumb luck. You could argue that this is the way it's always been in show biz, and you'd be right. But wasn't the Web supposed to change all that?