If you watched the Kolaveri Di video or just laughed at funny videos on YouTube today, you’re using the Internet the way 70% of people do, according to online measuring agency comScore, which published findings on online video usage in March. The huge popularity of viral videos today makes it hard to believe that YouTube is only six years old; it was launched in December 2005.

Since 16 November Kolaveri has been seen over 11.8 million times. A new video of a flash mob dancing to Rang De Basanti at Mumbai’s CST Station has crossed 514,000 views in 3 days.

Are you watching?: Kolaveri Di

Viral videos are a new phenomenon, and it’s hard to tell why some are popular and others go unnoticed. One thing that’s common is the video’s ability to become a meme—it should be easy to modify and replicate so it can spread in a number of ways. What really makes a video go viral and how do you go about making one?

In the beginning

The first viral video is hard to pinpoint, but it might have been the Lazy Sunday clip from the popular TV show Saturday Night Live that generated five million views in 2005. The song video, which is no longer online, followed two comedians from the show on a Sunday afternoon viewing of The Chronicles of Narnia, while eating cupcakes and rapping.

Another early video that quickly grew popular was Star Wars Kid—a student made a video in school of himself swinging a golf ball retriever around as a weapon. It was uploaded in 2002, but later removed. A duplicate was uploaded in 2006, which has been viewed more than 24 million times, and was replicated by many others, with even George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, creating a version for the TV show The Colbert Report.

The ABC of a viral video

Charlie Bit My Finger

Most successful viral videos are funny too. Remember Charlie Bit My Finger ? This was the most viewed video online from 2007 till 2008, and remains the most popular amateur video on the platform.

Two children playing is a sure way to strike the “cute" chord, and the short lines are really memorable. It’s got everything needed to become a meme, and it’s easy to rework into new forms, making it perfect for sharing.

As Kanika Mathur, president of digital marketing agency Digitas India, says: “A video goes viral because it’s entertaining or it has a unique element of surprise or both."

Going pro

Old Spice Guy

The Old Spice YouTube spot states: “We’re not saying this body wash will make your man smell into a romantic millionaire jet fighter pilot, but we are insinuating it." The gentle parody led to a number of outright spoofs that included an 11-year-old boy, a muppet and Old Christ.

Gamer Commute

Right at the end, a line of text pops up in the video to give thanks to Samsung for giving Galaxy SII phones for filming in full HD. That’s the only time a brand is mentioned at all in the video.

Short, funny and easily parodied videos are very popular. Sometimes a viral video will work simply because it’s clever and quirky. A 2008 clip called Bike Hero got 2.7 million views and a plethora of imitators. It featured a person riding a bicycle along a track like the Guitar Hero interface, and music played as he rode over “notes", just as in the game.

Warriors of Goja.

Defying the formula

The best part of all this is that no one really knows what works and what doesn’t. A dozen similar videos are ignored while one makes it to the top. Who would’ve guessed that Susan Boyle’s straightforward singing would be shared more than 80 million times? If that reminds you of evolution, then you’ve noticed that we’re talking about memes again. Like genes, there’s a lot of random selection, and continuous mutation.

This means that for YouTube junkies, there’s going to be a lot of fresh and interesting content, and we don’t need to worry about getting the same few ideas repeatedly, unlike television.

Gaurav Bhaskar, global communications and public affairs manager at Google India, says: “Trying to predict which videos are going to ‘go viral’ is a bit like catching lightning in a bottle— extremely hard to predict. YouTube is a place where culture is created and shared— phrases like ‘double rainbow’ have entered the lexicon. Viral videos tend to share a few characteristics: Like any news story, they are authentic, surprising, and often topical." He adds that what works will keep changing, creating a steady stream of fresh entertainment.