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They always begin with "You Gotta See This!" and end with an "LOL" (Internet shorthand for "laugh out loud").
E-mails with video-clip attachments or links containing anything wild and wacky the World Wide Web has to offer are part of the latest craze to sweep cyberspace. These "viral videos" can be a funny clip from NBC's sitcom "The Office" or a homemade short of a kid turfing it on cement while attempting a skateboarding trick.
One video that spread through the Internet like hot butter was a duplicate of the animated introduction to "The Simpsons" - filmed with real people. President Bush embarrassing himself while trying to leave a press news conference through a locked door was another hot item.
The popularity of viral videos is an example of social networking at its most high-tech - passing laughter in the form of short video chunks from pal to pal via e-mail or through the community-based network MySpace.com.
"What's going on in pop culture is everybody and their mom are sending hilarious and outrageous videos that are appearing in their inboxes," said Andrew Cohen, vice president of programming and production for the Bravo cable network and executive producer of "Outrageous and Contagious Viral Videos," a half-hour TV show devoted to the craze. "We're all big fans of these videos ourselves. We thought, 'Wow, wouldn't it be great to put all the best videos together and make a show out of it.' "
Anna Recksiek, a 30-year-old hotel sales coordinator from Salt Lake City, says she passes around video links on "E-mail Wednesdays." She scours the Internet for that day's funniest videos and mass e-mails links to them to more than 40 friends and family members.
"I like viral videos. I think they're fabulous," she said. "Everybody needs a bit of humor. So I like to send out things I think are funny."
Viral videos aren't new (the "viral" refers to them quickly spreading like a virus, but - don't worry - they don't actually contain a computer virus).
Even in the slow dial-up days of 1997, "The Dancing Baby" was a bizarre and hilarious video of a computer-animated dancing infant that swept through the early days of the Web.
More than five years ago, people were sharing an uproarious video, a 1970 TV news report from Portland of a beached whale carcass that authorities blew up into fleshy chunks (one falling piece actually struck a parked car). That sequence is now so famous it has its own fan Web site, http://www.theexplodingwhale.com" Target="_BLANK">http://www.theexplodingwhale.com.
In 2003, Quebec teenager Ghyslian Raza unwittingly became an Internet icon as the "Star Wars Kid" after a private and decidedly dorky video of him wielding a golf-ball retriever like a light saber became a Web sensation.
The video wrought such humiliation on the teen that his parents filed suit against the parents of the high-school students who swiped the video and uploaded it on the Internet. Earlier this month, the boy settled the suit with his tormenters for an undisclosed amount of money.
One reason for the recent sudden explosion of video on the Internet is a rising number of Web users with fast broadband connections that allow them to watch videos.
The number of active broadband users at home jumped 28 percent from February 2005 to the same month this year, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, which monitors Web activity. Today, 68 percent of Net users, or 95.5 million people, have high-speed connections at home.
In the past year, Web sites like YouTube, eBaum's World and Google Video have cropped up as repositories for the Net's best madcap videos.
The most popular, YouTube, allows people to upload their videos for the world to see and grew from 571,000 unique visitors per month six months ago to 12.8 million per month now, a 2,142 percent jump, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. The number of visitors to Google's new video site increased 388 percent at the same time.
"Video sites have successfully tapped into the use of viral campaigns, capitalizing on consumers' impulse to share funny clips with their friends," wrote Jon Gibs, senior director of media for Nielsen//NetRatings, in a March study on the popularity of viral videos.
And two television shows debuted this season featuring the best viral videos of the week. In addition to Bravo's series, there is "Web Junk 20" on the cable music channel VH1, which is in a partnership with iFilm.com, a Web site of short films.
"Everybody's computers have the ability to play video," Bravo's Cohen said. "It's multigenerational and covers everybody, and everybody can take part. It's good, clean viral fun."
Not all popular videos are exactly "clean." Some videos featured on such sites as eBaum's World.com or Spiked Humor.com include horrific clips of people killing themselves or getting into bloody accidents. One appalling video showed a man chopping off one of his fingers to capture it on film.
"It's like someone's head getting chopped off, and it's not funny, it's just there for the shock level," said Jeff McClellan, a 27-year-old hospital health information technician from Salt Lake City who likes to pass around less offensive videos to friends and family. "The cleaner it is, the funnier it is."
The Mobile, Miss., news report he passed around of a neighborhood of people who honestly believed a leprechaun was living in a tree was one of them.
"They even had an artist's rendition of what the leprechaun would look like, and it was just a little face with a hat," McClellan said. "It was unusual, funny stuff."
Recksiek likes to spread videos on her "E-mail Wednesdays" because "it's a way to communicate to people."
"It's a reflection of my personality or the personality of the people I send them to," she said. "It's what you find entertaining and enjoyable, and you hope it's what your friend finds entertaining. Video is like a moment to look at and smile."