October 18, 2007

VIVA LA VIRAL! Fifteen Minutes of Shame

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Internet video is quickly becoming a universal experience, but I’ve never been hot on the idea of telling people that, aw shucks, Andy Warhol was right about that whole in-the-future-everyone-will-have-fifteen-minutes-of-fame thing. Nor is there a warning for pedestrians to avoid the sidewalks around entertainment industry buildings — as studio executives, facing diminishing returns against the competition of pirated and free internet material, hurl themselves screaming out of their office windows — apropos just yet.
But, to my original point, though the medium is only in its infancy, it has started making people famous. You might yearn to shine with the stars, and — failing this — end up shining like a Yankee Candle. At that point you can either hope to be cinnamon scented and put in the guest bathroom which no one ever uses, or turn to the internet.
That said, it is unfair to criticize internet video celebrities for trying to cash in on the medium as a means for personal gain. Many have found that being famous can be a real bitch. A while back The Times ran a story on Gary Brolsma, the “Numa Numa” dance kid, who fell into a sort of depression after becoming an internet sensation. The story also referenced Ghyslain Raza, the Canadian boy who became famous as the “Star Wars Kid,” after a video of Raza swinging a golf-ball retriever around his head like a lightsaber was uploaded to the internet by a few of his schoolmates. This video was so famous it even became a running gag for Michael Cera’s character in Fox sitcom Arrested Development.
Raza’s parents weren’t amused; they felt the video opened their son up to public derision. The Times reported that they sued the students who posted the video for enough money to erect a colossal statue (made out of maple syrup, French fries, and gravy) in the likeness of fellow Canadian Michael Cera on the shores of Lake Ontario.
As theorist Richard Dyer wrote in his essays on stardom, the “star image” of a film star is not just what’s presented in their films — but also their persona mediated through promotional material, what they do in their private lives and what’s written about them. That is to say, we don’t just buy into a performance. The star image is instead includes also “aspects of contemporary human existence together, laced up with the question of ‘reality’.” The star performs in the films, and actually ends up performing a “real” existence that’s also up for public consumption. In praxis, this “star image” involves alliances and battles between armies of publicists, marketers and star-centric journalists (often paparazzi).
It is increasingly more common to see the normally closed-ranks of star formation shattered by an online video. Michael Richards lost what was left of his post-Seinfeld image during the famous Laugh Factory racist-rant incident captured on camera phone; Kate Moss was caught snorting cocaine on tape.
There is something infinitely more damning about these videos than mere allegations or even photographs: in the age of publicists, paparazzi and Photoshop, it takes the raw material inherent in video to change the publics opinion about the “real” nature of a star in one fell swoop.
This power of video can work in the other direction, creating the opportunity to craft something resembling a public “image” around an otherwise normal person’s life. However, it’s safe to say that neither Raza nor Brolsma, for understandable reasons, were prepared to enter this world of image creation and micro-management.
But maybe we should all plan for this possibility. Perhaps the average middle-class family of the internet video age will employ, as well as an accountant and lawyer, a publicist. With the advent of social networking and internet video we are all constantly projecting our lives as “images” to an anonymous multitude. What happens when Little Timmy gets suspended from middle school for a YouTube video where he snorts lines of coke with British super models in the back room of a Spanish recording studio?
First, have the family publicist write press releases and pay off bloggers to report that Timmy is taking a break from school due to “exhaustion,” that his lawyers are confident that they can reach a settlement with the posters of the video, and that in the video itself you can clearly see that Timmy “sniffed” but clearly did not “snort.”
Then send Timmy to summer camp a bit early for some fresh air, baseball and methadone. Pretty soon he’s back in class, and laughing about the whole thing on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Don’t know what Matt’s talking about? Google it, silly!