What It's Like When Your Tiny YouTube Channel Suddenly Goes Viral

Some YouTubers are discovering the permanence of the internet, as their half-forgotten videos are reaching a new audience.
September 14, 2020, 1:00pm


Trying to go viral on YouTube is a bit like closing your eyes and throwing a basketball at the hoop – except the hoop is three miles away and there’s a 60mph wind. It’s not impossible, it’s just not very likely. Many are happy with a couple of views, while others stop uploading when they fail to "make it." So, what happens when your channel suddenly blows up years later and you find yourself in the spotlight?

Ian Nicholls, 58, from London is a YouTube veteran but you probably haven’t heard of him. He started his channel IDMproductionsteam back in 2007 and spent four years making comedy sketches, editing himself into popular British shows like The Bill or Coronation Street for a laugh.

His nephews liked the videos which were doing well online and he became a bit of a name down the local pub, but he stopped uploading in 2011 when life got in the way. Then in 2018, something strange started happening. 

“It just seemed to shoot up overnight with the views,” Nicholls said. “I can't really say how it started to get popular.” 

With his YouTube days long behind him, Nicholls was unware a video he’d made over a decade ago had just been shared on r/deepintoyoutube. The subreddit, which now has 1.5 million followers, highlights videos from the past 15 years which may have been underappreciated. “My nephew says to me, ‘Oh god there's lots of people watching now’,” Nicholls said. “It was lovely to see.” 

This belated fame found its way into Nicholls’s offline life; he’d walk into a room and spot people watching his videos or hear them quoting one of his sketch lines. “I can be somewhere, someone's house or a pub, and somebody is actually watching me, which can be a bit strange,” he said. “You don't expect it, to walk into a pub and there's me on the big TV.”

Excited by the new wave of attention, Nicholls hopes to make his return to YouTube. “It's nice feeling immortal and ever popular,” he said. “I'm still there, ain't I? At the end of the day, I'll always be there.”

James from Scotland has spent the last seven years uploading thousands of beer reviews to YouTube—or “BeerTube” as he calls it—a niche pocket of the internet where he sips from a pint and talks about things like “floral hops” for 20 minutes. With no fancy editing and no desire for fame, James has slowly built his channel RampantLionReviews for a very specific community, so he was baffled when his comment section erupted in May this year.

“I was on my day off, and then I just got like, boom, boom, boom, lots of comments saying 'reddit, reddit, reddit' and I was like, what?” he said. “I honestly don't know why it got so many likes. I mean, I'm basically just an idiot who talks about beer.”

James reacted to the situation as any Beertuber would, by drinking more beer and continuing his regular uploads. He said he was never really into posting videos for the views but will use the spotlight to keep his glass full. James hopes to build “a beer mule network” and pay his new subscribers from around the world to send him some of their regional beer.

“One of the really cool things about craft beer is that it’s so local, but at the same time for somebody like me who likes trying stuff from all over the place it’s a pain in the arse because you can’t get things,” he said. 

Malcolm Ramos, 24, from Seattle had very different plans for his channel Maximum Malcolm. He wanted attention, but from one individual specifically. In March 2017 he told the internet he would, “…make a video of myself doing a Tim Allen grunt every day until Tim Allen recognizes me and does a grunt of his own.” 

He kept this up for over a year but heard nothing from Tim. Then, in 2018, Malcolm’s video took off on Reddit. “I was excited,” he said. “That was one of the first places it got any attention.”

Uploading the grunts and reading the comments from his new following became one of the highlights of his day, and Malcolm said the attention was a huge help in getting him closer to glory. “Some subscribers who followed me because of that continued to check in all the way until the end,” he said.

After 1,000 uploads his efforts were validated when Tim Allen appeared on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’ and addressed Malcolm with his signature grunt. Malcolm says he’s now done with the daily uploads and wants to make things whenever inspiration strikes. 

Despite his recent success he remains realistic about the longevity of internet acclaim. “I think it’s just really hard to get popular on YouTube these days; the market seems pretty locked down,” he says. “I can see that being a bummer for a lot of people.”

But you never know, your upload today could be the next big thing in a decade.