The top memes and viral videos of 2016

Harambe the gorilla Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Harambe was shot after a small boy got into his enclosure

It is that time of year again when I, in a disgusting post-Christmas rotund state, look back on what made it big on the internet in 2016.

This isn’t a scientific list. It's certainly not a comprehensive one. I am the sole judge of what can be considered list-worthy, using criteria as fluid as the rules of Calvinball.

That said, it’s not a complete free-for-all. To keep things focused, last year I added a rule: nothing miserable should make the list.

Now I’m adding two more. Firstly, nothing related to Brexit or the US election.

You’re welcome.

Secondly, no virals relating to dead celebrities (with one hairy exception). It’s been a tough year on that front, and other lists will reflect that with far more grace than this annual digest of internet buffoonery.

When compiling last year's stand-out virals and memes, I came to the conclusion that it had been a pretty bad 12 months for the internet - a time when the true reach of trolling and cyber-attacks was starting to become clear.

This time around, it's been a pretty terrible year offline. Indeed, if you search for what went "viral” in 2016, Google’s top result is “Zika.”

So, with that smack of the perspective stick, here is 2016 in memes and virals - a chance to enjoy the internet’s ability to share a global in-joke.

January was about… Joel’s tragic masterpiece

Image copyright Joel Goodman

1 January had us off to a flier.

Here’s how it happened: It was past midnight on New Year’s Eve and photographer Joel Goodman was in Manchester looking to capture scenes of people ringing in 2016.

Goodman captured the perfect picture. On the bottom right of the frame, two police officers restrain a man lying on the floor, while a woman helplessly stands nearby, peering in.

On the left of the frame, we have the almost romantic sight of a man in a blue suit sprawled across the road, grasping a bottle of beer he definitely doesn’t need.

And almost as if we were in a Shakespearean round, we can see some of the audience, clutching kebabs and staring.

Some called it a shocking sign of drinking culture going too far on New Year’s Eve. Others called it just another night in Manchester.

My colleague Roland Hughes tweeted out the image to a wider audience, giving a boost to its notoriety. Why was it so popular? “People really, really like to laugh at other people,” he said.

February was about… dancing Virginia

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Media caption106-year-old Virginia McLaurin broke into a dance with Barack and Michelle Obama

Virginia McLaurin, 106, was invited to the White House as part of an event celebrating black history, and her energetic embrace of the Obamas became an infectious celebration of life itself.

She’s lived through two world wars and the US civil rights movement. And so when she said "I thought I would never live to get in the White House,” you know she really meant it.

This month also unveiled a craze I’m not going to pretend to understand called "Damn, Daniel.” If anyone can explain it to me in the comments section, I’d be grateful.

March was about… squashing things

Image copyright Hydraulic Press Channel
Image caption A bowling ball about to be squashed by a hydraulic press

The Hydraulic Press Channel is a series of videos on YouTube showing things getting squashed by a hydraulic press.

It is a winning formula, but one that didn’t immediately hit the big time.

Finnish factory owner Lauri Vuohensilta had been posting the videos since October 2015, but it didn't take off until March this year. A video of Vuohensilta trying to fold a piece of paper more than seven times rose to the top of Reddit. Now, the Hydraulic Press Channel is a regular squishy treat.

April was about… naming a boat

Image copyright NERC

“Tyrants have crushed the people’s will,” cried the Guardian's Stuart Heritage. And he was quite right too.

When the good British public was asked to name a polar-research vessel, the overwhelming consensus was for it to be called Boaty McBoatface.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Science Minister Jo Johnson had 2016’s biggest sense of humour failure and decided it should instead be named after Sir David Attenborough.

Let’s just say it wouldn’t be the last time that the popular vote meant little when deciding the will of a nation in 2016.

May was about… Chewbacca Mom

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Media captionChewbacca mask woman becomes a viral hit

May was the month in which 2016’s viral legacy was secured.

I’ll start with Candace Payne, the 37-year-old Texas mother who bought a Chewbacca mask from Kohl’s, a US retail chain.

She posted a video using Facebook's only recently launched live service where she howled with laughter while showing off the key "feature" of the mask - the Chewbacca growl. Excellent. Her endearing show of delight has since clocked up 164m views.

She’s now set to start a new job as a video blogger for American network TLC.

Also in May, Mike Senatore.

In a short clip, the high school student stands on a stage in front of more than a hundred of his peers. He struts up to a table and, just as the music dramatically cuts, he flips a bottle of water which lands upright. The crowd goes wild.

In the coming months, water bottle flipping would take the world by storm - just ask any school teacher and they’ll tell you about the thud-thud-thud of bottles flying around their classrooms. Still, it’s pretty harmless, and as someone who spent an embarrassing amount of money on pogs as a boy, it’s good to see something so cheap and cheerful keeping kids occupied.

And now, a moment of silence, please, for Harambe. The 17-year-old western lowland gorilla was shot as a precaution after a small child fell into his enclosure.

That event caused a great amount of debate - which I won’t go into here - but the high-profile, tragic nature of Harambe's death mobilised a corner of the internet determined not to let his life be forgotten.

June was about… the Irish

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Thousands of Northern Ireland fans travelled to France to follow their side's whirlwind tournament

England weren’t in 2016’s European Championship (at least that’s how I’ve decided to remember it), and so it was left to the Welsh and the Irish to bring us any hope.

And it was the Irish fans - from both Northern Ireland and the Republic - that behaved as such good sports during the competition, the city of Paris gave them an award for "exemplary sportsmanship."

This includes things like tidying up after themselves, singing a lullaby, and serenading a French model in the street.

July was about… catching them all

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Media captionThe BBC's Chris Foxx took to the streets to explore Pokemon Go

Not so much a viral hit, granted, but a movement that saw millions of people get out of their seats and take a walk to the nearest park or beach in search of Pokemon. Or, in some cases, a cliff edge or top-security military base.

Nintendo’s share price surged as the game caught on in popularity - but as it turns out, Pokemon Go was as fleeting as it was brilliant.

By summer’s end, very few people were hunting the little critters, and a December update did little to reignite the craze.

August was about… angry Phelps

Image copyright Twitter

It’s time for the Olympics! And while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declared war on the internet by banning just about any unauthorised mention of anything slightly Olympicy, that didn’t stop some memorable memes taking hold.

It was the swimmers that captured our hearts. First it was Michael Phelps looking extremely angry, and then it was China’s Fu Yuanhui looking extremely delighted - especially after she was told she had won a medal by a TV interviewer.

Then there was the singing.

Later in this list we’ll look at the success of James Corden’s carpool karaoke, but it’s Ted McDermott who took the sing-a-long limelight in August, landing himself a record deal in the process.

September was about… PPAP

Image copyright Piko-Taro
Image caption What a time to be alive

"I have a pennnn, I have an apple…. UH! … apple pennnn!"

I’ll have whatever he’s on, as they say.

If you could bottle up the Mad Asian pop music formula and sell it you’d be very rich indeed. This year’s unexpected hit was Pen Pineapple Apple Pen - PPAP - which came from 40-year-old Japanese entertainer Kazuhiko Kosaka, performing as DJ Piko Taro.

But, while it had all the ingredients of a viral smash, it never did reach the heights of Gangnam Style - partly due to it not being very popular in Japan itself.

Also in September, grateful grandad Ted Thorne got a pair of light-up shoes. “Get outta town!” he screams, in one of the year’s great “had to be there” moments which, thanks to social media, we all were.

October was about… staying very, very still

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The internet loves a good challenge, be it ice buckets or wearing no make-up.

This year’s effort was particularly creative. The Mannequin Challenge (which had it been started in the UK, we’d have surely named it the Dummy Challenge…) requires a roomful of people to stand very still as a person weaves in and out with a phone, filming the, err, lack of action.

According to Know Your Meme, the version that started it all was from a high school in Florida. A notable effort included one by NBA champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers, at the White House.

November was about… evil Kermit

Image copyright The internet
Image caption Evil Kermit instructs Kermit to perform various indulgent, lazy, selfish and unethical acts.

It was a slow year for new memes, but November brought a cracker in the form of Evil Kermit.

The image of the hooded Kermit came from Muppets Most Wanted, a mostly forgettable musical from 2014. But once repurposed into a meme, it was used as a light-hearted way to express what your inner demons might say to you.

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Media captionFor racer snakes, the emergence of marine iguana hatchlings is a feeding bonanza.

Sticking with the animal theme, another memorable meme was inspired by the incredible footage aired by Planet Earth showing a heroic iguana escaping snake after snake even when it looked like the game was up. The clip was remixed with a variety of music.

December was about… carpool karaoke

Image copyright CBS
Image caption Adele's episode of Carpool Karaoke is YouTube's biggest viral video of 2016

The world changed in November. No doubt about that. And so with much of the internet failing to see the funny side, it was down to the professionals to keep things upbeat in December.

Step forward James Corden. It would have been easy to pick Corden in almost any month this year, such was the frequency at which he took the internet by storm with Carpool Karaoke.

But I’ll pick December, as it was during this month that the Late Late Show team posted the ultimate Christmas mash-up.

The montage of some of the music world's biggest stars singing along to the Christmas song to rule them all, Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, quickly became viewing gold.


So that’s it for another year. Not a cracker, I’m sure you’ll agree - but like that episode of Breaking Bad where they try to swat a fly for an hour, 2016 was hopefully just a necessary gear-change that was worth enduring just see what 2017 will throw up.

What stood out the most over these past 12 months? For me, it would have to be Chewbacca Mom. Moments like that, broadcast live, are extremely hard to manufacture. And so while advertisers have just about cracked how to make a video go viral, using live video brings virality back to the people - which is just how it should be.

Here’s to 2017!

Tell me what I’ve missed on Twitter: @DaveLeeBBC

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