For every thing, there is a first time. The internet was still incredibly new in 1997 when the very first viral video went online. Called “bad day,” it supposedly documented a worker destroying office equipment a full two years before the iconic scene in Office Space that you’re probably thinking of right now. Take a look:
Wired tells the story in great detail, explaining how the video isn’t really what you think. It was staged, but staged so well that it became a viral sensation years before the term “viral video” was even coined. But was it really the first?
That depends on your understanding of the term “viral” and the term “video.” Today we use the term “viral” to refer to something that grows on its own and becomes mainstream without there being anyone really guiding it, and “video” obviously means internet-delivered video, because how else would this sort of thing spread? If you keep to those definitions, then yeah it probably is the first. The world wide web itself was only a few years old in 1997, and e-mail wasn’t much older than that. Just being able to store video on a computer was practically impossible before 1992. So it would have been impossible for any video to get e-mailed and spread virally much before 1997. There may have been an earlier video, but “Bad Day” gets all the credit for spreading so globally.
But, I still don’t think it was really the first, if you open up your mind to some options.
Take a look at this video at NBC.com (it’s not embeddable unfortunately.) It aired originally in 1986, back in the days when few people recorded things for posterity and when the only way to pass video from person to person was to deliver it physically. The clip became infamous in the days when Star Trek was the vanguard of sci-fi, as the faithful argued over whether or not Shatner did actually feel the way he was portrayed. Some claimed that he ghost-wrote the sketch himself. But few people kept a copy of it and those who had seen it remembered it very differently.
About two years later, I happened to be at a Star Trek convention (because, really, like you’re surprised?) and bootleg copies of that sketch were being sold as quickly as they could be made using a pair of VCRs on site. It wasn’t just that video either — there were old 16mm films of out-of-distribution movies and blooper reels from old TV shows. Certainly their publishers didn’t intend for them to spread, not like that. So, were those the first viral videos?
Or what of the naughty films of the early 20th century that somehow showed up at bachelor parties? Those spread like wildfire too. Does that mean they were the first viral video?
I personally think there’s a reason that all cave paintings look similar, and that’s because people saw them and were determined to spread what they saw. 20,000 years ago people were making buffalo jokes on rock walls, and spreading the joke all over Europe. Then, they probably got some sort of infection and died from the toxins in the paints.
Now that’s a viral video.