I am trying to determine when the phrase "going viral" was first used. Similarly, when did the phrases "viral video" and "viral marketing" get their start? I have looked online at various sites, but none really address this question (other than saying "recently").

8 Answers 8


The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest citation for the use of viral in the sense of ‘involving the rapid spread of information’ is dated 1989. The earliest citation actually including the verb go is as late as 2004:

Their petition also went viral, gathering half a million signatures in a few weeks.

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    Found a use with go in this article dated from 2000. (Under #2 of the "six key steps") Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 4:23

It looks like the phrase started being used in print in about 1999 or 2000. And viral video seems to date from 2004.


Going viral

I found no earlier example than the one in Callithumpian's comment from July 31, 2000 by Seth Godin for Fast Company:

Have the idea behind your online experience go viral, bringing you a large chunk of the group that you're targeting without your having to spend a fortune advertising your new service.

"go viral" OR "went viral" OR "gone viral" OR "going viral"

Viral video

The earliest I found is from 21 March 2003 in an article by MediaWeek titled:

Splinter Cell for the PS2 launches with viral video

In 2002, search engine Lycos had set up a Viral Chart for people to upload the viral attachments that people spread via email. When promoting the chart in May 2002, they referred to viral videos:

Sign up to the Viral Chart vTeam and become part of a select group spreading the word about Lycos' brilliant new Viral Chart - it's THE place on the web to find the coolest, funniest, most outrageous viral games, pictures, videos and more!

Here's an archive of the Lycos Viral Chart.

Viral marketing

I found nothing earlier than the 1989 Barrie noted from the OED, in PC User:

The staff almost unanimously voted with their feet as long waiting lists developed for use of the Macintoshes... ‘It's viral marketing. You get one or two in and they spread throughout the company.’


We, an advertising strategy team at Chiat/Day Los Angeles( Now TBWA) developed the term viral marketing in 1994/5 when launching the first PlayStation for Sony. It came partly out of the notion that our target of gamers, especially younger people were huge marketing cynics and rejected things pushed at them. Sony had no credibility with this target at the time to make video games. Our insight was people seek things that elude them , especially among the gamer community constantly trying to discover a way through. So we did a 'stealth' campaign to go after influencers/opinion leaders, we took about a million dollars and created street teams and layered an intricate web of info. and intrigue, everything from club hand stamps to urinal cakes with game code on them, insiders picked up on it, found how to use it in trials of the game and it took off. It fueled the rest of our ad campaign (MTV VMAs, gamer mags) and within 6 months PlayStation was #1 in category- Sony's most successful launch in History.

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    Is this excerpt copied? If it is, could you please cite the source? If these are your own words stemming from your personal experience, could you please provide some concrete evidence, other than anecdotal. It is quite interesting, although I'm thinking printing game codes on "urinal cakes" is not something Sony would ever have done.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 16:03
  • We did! I lead strategy for this at Chiat/Day. The case study is outlined in the US Advertising Effectiveness Awards back, 1997 I think, we won the Grand Prix award for most effective and creative campaign strategy. It's probably in the archives which are accessible online.
    – lorraineK
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 16:25
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    I'm not doubting the success of launching Playstation, but the appearance of the term "viral", you claim that the term viral marketing was first used in 1994 developed the word viral marketing in 1994/5 but you haven't provided any form of evidence. EDIT: Barrie England's answer states the first instance recorded of viral was 1989
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 16:55

The Larry Sanders Show s04e07 (1995) http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0625359/ The idea of a video itself, spreading like a virus because of public interest, may have inadvertantly been paraphrased when Rip Torn's character compares Hank's sex-tape to the ebola virus. Quote: "That tape you copied is crawling around town like the f***ing ebola virus." "I only made one copy" "And then sent it into the world like the f***ing ebola virus" ~1:08 https://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://m.youtube.com/watch%3Fv%3DMIzPVGn8Xes&ved=0ahUKEwitlL2b4c3TAhVNVWMKHUJ1BGgQo7QBCBwwAA&usg=AFQjCNEL-REAjwHAC1aMVY7W4YoBVRnHvQ


I'm not sure if Malcolm Gladwell borrowed the concept or originated it. But in his book the Tipping Point [published in 2000], he compared something reaching a tipping point as being spread like a virus. If he didn't originate the term, he was likely responsible for make it "go viral" and increase it's common usage.

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    What research have you done on this?
    – J. Taylor
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 23:13

I used the concept and the terms viral (in this usage) and went viral in and about my novel 'Triangulation', which I wrote in 1988 and which was published in January of 1990. It features an epidemiologist working on HIV who is also the victim of a practical joke that gets out of control and "infects" much of the city of Baltimore. Jack Stephens


I think it was first coined in my book Media Virus, Ballantine Books, 1993.

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    Did the book literally use the term "going viral"? If so, a quote of the appropriate sentence would improve the answer. Commented Aug 11, 2023 at 14:25
  • Jack Stevens claims an earlier coinage. Commented Aug 11, 2023 at 14:33
  • “Douglas Rushkoff himself described the very first sign of what then became the shift from broadcasting to engagement. In his Media virus (1994) he mentioned a game released in the 1970s called Pong, the first video game that could be played on a home television screen.”
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 11, 2023 at 16:31

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