17 of the most viral images of all time that have helped define the 21st century so far

Jeff McCurry/Cincinnati Zoo/ReutersCountless viral photos have emerged in the 21st century.
  • The concept of viral photos has only been around for a couple of decades.
  • But in that short time, countless images – from news photos to memes – have gone viral, and we selected 17 of the most viral images of all time.
  • These viral photos have helped define the 21st century so far. Some were powerful because they represented milestones or a movement. Others were just plain entertaining.
  • But one way or another, each of these images sparked conversation, or at least a meme.
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Remember “the dress”? It stumped the internet in 2015 when some people saw the dress as black and blue and others saw it as white and gold. The scientific explanation? It depends on your eyes.

YouTube/ASAP Science‘The dress.’

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Cincinnati zookeepers shot and killed Harambe the gorilla in 2016 after a toddler got into his enclosure, and Harambe became a meme. The incident sparked heated debates over whether his death could’ve been prevented, and the internet’s dark humour.

Jeff McCurry/Cincinnati Zoo/ReutersHarambe at the Cincinnati Zoo.

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This monkey, named Naruto, snapped a selfie in 2011 using photographer David Slater’s camera. Who owned the copyright for the image was disputed for the next six years. It was eventually decided that Slater owned the copyright.

Wikimedia CommonsOne of the selfies taken in 2011 by Naruto, a monkey who picked up photographer David Slater’s camera.

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At the end of 2019, this still of Baby Yoda from “the Mandalorian” went viral, too.

Disney/Lucasfilm‘The Mandalorian’ is a TV show that debuted on Disney Plus in 2019.

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Back in 2014, there was “the Oscar selfie.” It broke Twitter records and was the first photo to be retweeted more than 2 million times. It temporarily crashed Twitter.

Ellen DeGeneres/APEllen DeGeneres posted the Oscar selfie on Twitter.

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Before that, this was the most retweeted photo. It was posted by President Barack Obama after the 2012 election with the words “four more years.”

BarackObama via TwitterMichelle and Barack Obama.

Source: Twitter


A lot of celebrity photos go viral, but sad Keanu Reeves really made it big in 2009 and sparked a series of Keanu Reeves-related memes.

Splash NewsKeanu Reeves pictured in NYC.

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And in 2012, this photo of Lenny Kravitz went viral because people obsessed over his giant scarf.

Splash NewsLenny Kravitz pictured in NYC.

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Also in 2012, internet users memed this photo of McKayla Maroney from the summer Olympics. The picture was taken after she got second place, and it went viral because of the “not impressed face.”

AP Photo/Julie JacobsonMckayla Maroney placed second in the 2012 summer Olympics.

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In 2015 this “hot” mugshot went viral on Facebook. The man, Jeremy Meeks, became known as “sexy mugshot guy.” When he got out of jail, he became a model.

Stockton Police DepartmentJeremy Meeks’ mugshot went viral on Facebook.

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The “distracted boyfriend” meme was a stock photo also taken in 2015, but it didn’t go viral until 2017.

Antonio Guillem/ShutterstockThe ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme original stock photo.

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Other photos also went viral because they captured an important moment in history, like this one. “The Situation Room” was taken in 2010 during the raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound.

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Banksy shocked the world in 2018 after his “Girl with Balloon” artwork shredded itself seconds after being sold. Now titled “Love in the Bin,” it is believed to be the first piece of art created during a live auction.

Pierre Koukjian via APA Banksy artwork self-destructing after being sold at auction for $US1.4 million.

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In 2019, the US Women’s National Team won the World Cup, and star player Megan Rapinoe’s victory pose went viral.

Elsa/Getty ImagesMegan Rapinoe after scoring a goal.

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This photo of the 2017 inauguration crowd sparked a lot of controversy around crowd size. It circled the internet on Inauguration Day and the days following.

Reuters/Lucas JacksonAttendees at the inauguration ceremonies to swear in Donald Trump as the 45th president of the US.

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In 2019, Greta Thunberg became the face of climate-change activism. A lot of photos of her have gained popularity, but this side-by-side comparison led to a conspiracy theory that Thunberg is a time traveller.

Eric A. Hegg Photography/University of WashingtonThe 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and a photo from 1898 that resembles her.

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Some photos went viral because they were iconic scientific milestones, like this one, called “Blue Marble 2012.” It’s considered to be the highest-quality image of Earth.

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