"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.