It’s the viral countdown: 10 stories that took over in 2015

22 Dec 2015

From debating about politics to crying freedom for llamas, to arguing about the colour of a dress – here’s what got the internet talking in 2015.

These days, we don’t need to lurk by the office watercooler to chat about the news. With billions of users on social networks, topical conversation has become boundless, and even a local llama in Arizona can gain worldwide attention if the story is shared fast enough.

Sometimes, a story is primed to get the whole internet talking, and sometimes all it takes is a hashtag to open up a broad discussion on a theme. Other times, a story can occupy our social media timelines for days having come straight out of the blue – or should that be white?

This year’s viral news stories show the depth and breadth of our online chatter. This is about politics. This is about feminism. This is about our differences of perception. This is about exploring the farthest reaches of our solar system.

This is about freedom for llamas.

10. Hugh McElvaney

In a special episode of RTÉ Investigates earlier this month, the national broadcaster delved into standards in public office, uncovering fraud, undeclared assets and unethical behaviour among public representatives. Using undercover cameras, the investigative journalists captured local Monaghan County councillor Hugh McElvaney apparently soliciting a financial reward in return for his influence on the local council. McElvaney’s brazen behaviour – which he claims was part of his own trap for the journalists – got us talking, all right, and it also inspired video remixes and even a new dance craze.

9. UK general election

From campaign to vote to verdict, this year’s UK general election delivered plenty for social media to feast on. All of the major party leaders got their fair share, even sad Nick Clegg. For a while it seemed as if then-Labour party leader Ed Miliband couldn’t move or emote without creating a new meme, but, in the end, it was this guy that topped the polls.

All in all, the UK general election mania provided a perfect primer for when we have our own general election in 2016. Can’t wait for our Boyz II Men remix.

8. Donald Trump

Sticking with politics, one potential world leader in particular has been grabbing constant headlines this year. US presidential hopeful Donal Trump is divisive, outrageous, vocal on Twitter, and has hair that can be easily imitated by cats. (This is the internet, after all, so that last one is incredibly important.)

A photo posted by Donald Purrump (@trumpyourcat) on

A contentious contender for the throne in the US, Trump has inspired countless memes and endless online commentary – just look at his extensive entry in the internet memes database, Know Your Meme.

7. Piggate

Christmas came early on Twitter this year when an extract from Lord Ashcroft’s unauthorised biography of UK Prime Minister David Cameron appeared online with some hamning allegations. Using hashtags #piggate, #Hameron and #BaeofPigs, users roasted Cameron on the back of claims he engaged in a bizarre initiation rite with a pig’s head back in his college days.

6. Escaped llamas

For me, this was the real Twitter Christmas of 2015. Though, coming in February, we were all probably too fresh from the festive holiday to realise what a gift we had received when two llamas ran wild in Arizona.

One white and one black llama got loose during a visit to a retirement home, resulting in a hugely entertaining Benny Hill-style chase from their handlers, local police and some helpful onlookers.

It was an evening’s entertainment this side of the Atlantic, and I imagine there was a significant drop in productivity among our US counterparts while we all watched intently as the llama chase played out online. At the peak of the llama drama, Twitter reported 3,084 tweets per minute with the hashtags # llamawatch and #teamllama proving the most popular.

5. #WakingTheFeminists

The Abbey Theatre’s centenary programme for 2016, Waking the Nation, was intended to be a unifying call to Irish citizens, 100 years since the Easter Rising. Instead, this entirely male-dominated run of plays sparked a fire and gave rise to the #WakingTheFeminists hashtag.

In response to the uprising, a debate was held at the Abbey Theatre and the institution’s director, Fiach Mac Conghail, conceded, “This experience has presented a professional challenge to me as a programmer and has made me question the filters and factors that influence my decision-making.” The strength of the movement continues, and has become one worth watching as it gains momentum in 2016.

4. #iLookLikeAnEngineer and #distractinglysexy

This summer, Twitter was awash with female scientists and engineers smashing stereotypes in 140 characters or less, as two trends one month apart prompted a reality check from women in STEM.

In June, Nobel prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt resigned from his post at University College London after his bafflingly sexist comments about women scientists, claiming, “three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and, when you criticise them, they cry.”

Thankfully, this harmful sentiment was transformed into something positive when the scientists of Twitter started sharing just how #distractinglysexy they were in the workplace.

Hot on the heels of distractingly sexy, Inspirefest 2016 speaker Isis Anchalee created the #iLookLikeAnEngineer hashtag in August to challenge established gender constructs in engineering. The hashtag became an overnight phenomenon, but this is not where Wenger’s story ends. Seeing the reaction to the campaign, she was prompted to start building a safe platform to continue to share stories and experiences relating to diversity issues in tech.

While two separate movements, #iLookLikeAnEngineer and #distractinglysexy fervently – and humorously – tackled the same issue, and are inextricably entwined.

3. Pluto

NASA has had a pretty epic 2015 and its biggest triumph this year was the New Horizons Pluto flyby. Seeing, for the first time, detailed images of the lovelorn dwarf planet and its tattooed heart made many online regret that we ever demoted Pluto’s planetary status. The outpouring of love and empathy for a distant rock on the edge of our solar system was extraordinary, and timelines were teeming with Pluto tributes and fan art.

View post on

2. The Dress

Do I even need to remind you of The Dress? Its prominent appearance on this list should be as clear as black and white… or black and blue… or white and gold? Whatever colours you’re seeing yourself, it’s definitively a black and blue dress (and, from my experience, once you see the blue and black, you can’t go back).

The Dress

Original image via swiked/Tumblr

Whether you were exasperated, exhilarated or driven to existential questioning by the great dress debate of 2015, you simply cannot deny the ubiquity of this story. And, if you’re among those who believe that a poor-quality picture of a dress is not newsworthy, consider the number of people around the world who have now gained some understanding of the intricacies of colour perception and chromatic adaptation.

1. #MarRef

Ireland accomplished something incredibly important this year, being the first country in the world to introduce same-sex marriage by popular vote, and an awful lot of campaigning to vote Yes for equality took place online.

Memes reminded us to register. Businesses and public figures put their weight behind the Yes vote with viral video campaigns. And, as the big day approached, a newly heartwarming hashtag – #hometovote – proved the lengths Irish citizens were prepared to go to ensure that equal marriage rights, regardless of sexuality, became enshrined in law.

#MarRef was the chief topic of conversation on Twitter in Ireland and a bold statement was made to the rest of the world, with #LoveWins following shortly after in the US.

What this and many other entries on this list proves is that ‘viral’ doesn’t mean throwaway or flash in the pan any more, and rapid surges of interest in a story can have a very potent effect on the world.

Main image of social networking via Shutterstock

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.