Viral before the Internet

Things spread, but the content, often documentary, was darker and weirder

Was there viral documentary film and video before the Internets? You bet. As Kliph Nesteroff wrote recently in The Awl, viralness or “virality” as he calls it, was around long before the Nyan cat.

Lots of documentary footage circulated and had an impact way before the Web through now-dead media: mimeographs, public access cable, and videotapes. As Nesteroff puts it, “Internet sharing favors the simple, the silly, the cute. Before the web, when cassettes and VHS tapes were the most easily shared technologies, the things that went viral were countercultural, naughty, or just plain strange.”

Take the 17-minute film Heavy Metal Parking Lot, about teenage metal heads, or Shut Up Little Man, a viral meme based on two guys who recorded their extraordinarily abusive neighbors. They were passed around on VHS in the early 1990s. Back then, the documentaries traveled via video stores rather than YouTube, Vimeo, or Firefox. Pre-Internet viral culture was more cultish in character partially because even though it was viral, it was typically harder to obtain. A person had to work to dig it up, back when places like Mondo Video or Kim’s Video or even Blockbuster were “platforms,” kids.

Pre-Web viral culture was more bizarre, too, because it took more effort to become obsessed with the works than it does now now. Nesteroff didn’t mention one significant example, Superstar, Todd Haynes’s doll-filled reenactment of the life of anorexic songbird Karen Carpenter. It was passed around samizdhat-style on tapes due to copyright issues.

Made in 1987, I watched Superstar in college in the 1990s and then again, later, at a friend’s house. I heard about it by word-of-mouth and I had to unearth it at rarified video store, a college film library, and via a filmmaker pal. I had no idea while watching it that one day I would be able to obtain it without any labor by firing up a laptop.

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Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.