Creating Technology for Social Change

Thinking About the People Behind the Viral Videos

You’ve probably noticed that we were at ROFLcon all weekend. (Sorry for all the posts, but if I didn’t tweet about Nyan-Cat-flavored ice cream, the Flying Spaghetti Monster would take the keys to my Twitter account). If you want to dive into the individual sessions and keynotes, Nathan Matias has pulled together a great liveblog round-up. But some common themes and a couple of major questions stand out that I wanted to think about some more, if you’ll indulge me.

ROFLcon attempts to cover all of internet culture, but the primary focus of the panels I attended this weekend was on an emerging class of quasi-celebrity: the people, children, and animals who find themselves the focus of instant global notoriety. We got to meet, hear from, and snap photos with these people as if we were hanging out at a Best of the Internet: Volume XII infomercial shoot (which we should do, by the way). Some of the panels were pretty banal; it turns out that producing a bizarre YouTube video doesn’t automatically translate to having compelling things to say about our changing media ecosystem. But the sudden-fame experiences were surprisingly consistent:

1. Internet fame works best when it’s by accident
As an entire generation of marketers and their clients have discovered, it’s really hard to produce lightning in a bottle. Hearing a client ask, “How do we go viral?” has been the bane of anyone billing hourly for web consulting services for years now. There are always exceptions, but almost all of the amateur subjects of web fame describe their ascent into global attention as sudden, random, and entirely unexpected.

2. Notoriety does not equal profit
There was widespread admission that internet fame does not necessarily deliver wealth. Some notable exceptions have managed to pull off a book deal, sitcom, film option, or other translation into the mainstream world and its financial rewards.

A second tier of stars has been able to make a living off of their newfound identity, but only by embracing the framing the internet established for them. Antoine Dodson has profited by embracing the internet’s mockery of his ghetto persona online and on television. He was initially a bit shocked that millions of people were finding humor in an autotuned parody of his distress at an attempted rape of his sister. But it’s been worth it, in his own words, “to support my family”. He has embraced the audience’s attention in exchange for upward social mobility. He’s now attempting to parlay this attention into a sustainable career as a singer.

The viral sensations who fall short of a book deal still get to attend conferences like ROFLcon, sell some t-shirts, and accept free beers in exchange for posing in iPhone photos. Not a bad life, but not exactly self-actualization. The majority of the stars were grateful for the adventures their 15 seconds of fame delivered, enjoyed a handful of cool opportunities, and then returned to regular life (especially if they were lucky enough not to have their faces shown in the viral video, like the Leeroy Jenkins guy). YouTube’s revenue sharing scheme was mentioned numerous times as an important development in this space, but likely delivers more value for Google than David After Dentist‘s college fund.

3. Pray the global spotlight catches you at the right moment
You should hope that when the large glob of biomass suddenly trains its attention and emotions on you, an individual, you’re caught in a decent light. The network allows all of us to focus on the same person and, sometimes, break them.

One of the most common experiences of the weekend for ROFLcon attendees was meeting Scumbag Steve, AKA Blake Boston, who turns out to be a genuinely nice guy. Like Antoine, Blake has succeeded by choosing to embrace the internet’s definition of him and playing that part, not just for reward but also because he’s willing to have fun with the world seeing him this way. Savvy politicians are learning to do the same.

But even the more innocuous internet stars, like Chuck Testa, have found themselves on the receiving end of unwanted visitors, aggressive phone calls, and even death threats. Ethan Zuckerman has written recently about the ethics of attention. He argues that, as we all compete with each other for the audience’s ever-more-limited attention span, we should consider how we go about winning it.

Meeting the people on the receiving end of unsolicited global attention has made me consider that there are also ethics of attention on the audience’s side, especially when the audience is billions of people and contains individuals who make prank phone calls and death threats and everything in between. Our population has always contained these elements, but the internet certainly does allow us to focus our feelings on a single individual like a magnifying glass on an ant. Might we have some responsibility, as viewers, to consider the impact of the meme on the individual(s) involved, or even challenge the framing the meme presents if it feels wrong? Jonathan Zittrain proposed we recognize a voluntary meme opt-out system akin to robots.txt, which succeeds not because of technical barriers, but agreed-upon social norms.