From Cyberbullying to Veneration and Homage

Viral videos are just part of our world today. If you say something went viral, most people would understand that you meant it was something (a video, an article, a post, an image) online that spread incredibly quickly and got a whole lot of attention. Sometimes they are viral because we love them. Sometimes they are viral because we hate them (or love to hate them).

Michael Wesch discusses this phenomenon, or at least part of it, during his Library of Congress presentation An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube (starting at 1:50). He shares a video that many of us on the web encountered in 2005, dubbed The Numa Numa Guy. This video was an intentional expression of joy attached to listening, lip syncing, and dancing to Dragostea Din Tei by O-zone, a song that went viral and gained popularity around the world. The phenomenon, as Wesch describes, coincided with the beginning of YouTube and the joy spread. Gary Brolsma, the Numa Numa Guy, knowingly recorded the video and, we assume, was the one who initially shared it. He has capitalized on his fame, becoming a YouTube celebrity and having his own channel.

There are all sorts of viral videos and types of viral content. Cat videos spread widely. One wedding video went viral in an awesome way. Gangnam style spread and inspired tons of others with parodies, cartoons, etc. When twerking videos became popular, Jimmy Kimmel actually released a fake video just to see how quickly and widely viral it would go. Viral has a dark side too, though. Just like hate-reading, our attention and clicks aren’t always awesome.

[I would share the next video but as you see below, sometimes sharing is not caring]

Wesch mentions another video that went viral before YouTube but continued to spread, the “Star Wars Kid.” That video was something very different. Unlike Gary Brolsma, Ghyslain Raza had no intention of sharing the video of him wielding a lightsaber. A classmate decided to share it for him with the intent of humiliating him. And it worked. The video became famous as a whole lot of people got to anonymously watch this boy battle like a Jedi and mock him for doing so. McLeans ran an article on him 10 years later, speaking out about what happened to him and naming it as cyberbullying. Monica Lewinsky did a powerful TED talk about the price of shame which deals with her experiences in the media age and the impact that it had on her that sharing was oh so easy.


Likewise, the people behind memes have had varied experiences. The Success Kid leveraged his fame as a meme into fundraising to help his dad get a transplant earlier this year. Others could do without the fame and the mocking that usually comes with the meme.

So where is the line between good viral and bad? What messages do we need to learn about our digital citizenship out of this concept? One part would clearly be the intent to share. Ghyslain Raza did not want to share his video while Gary Brolsma definitely did. Sometimes it is about the message that goes with the sharing. The viral wedding video I shared is a moment of joy. The people who shared it mostly did so because they thought it was fun. The people who made a meme of the Hipster Barista shared his image to mock him and mock his career and lifestyle.

I used to work for Offbeat Bride, a blog on alternative weddings. The editors actually had to write a post on what to do when your wedding goes viral. That article wasn’t about the awesome wedding video I shared, though. It was about the dark side of viral, the side where people share something to mock it. Just like the spread of the Star Wars Kid video, it can be all too easy to spread something to mock it, imitate it not to pay homage and venerate but to be snarky and bully someone. Too often, we forget that the thing we mock is actually about someone real. While we laud everyone who puts down their phone and all-too-often dismiss the reality of online, Nathan Jurgenson is correct that much of what is shared online is actually real. The person in that meme, the couple whose wedding we dismiss as tacky, the vlogger who shares something, the people whose photos are hacked and leaked online, those are all real people.

The extreme example would be internet trolls. Some people delight in being cruel, treat online as one big playground for their nastiness. There is a varying degree of anonymity as some happily send death threats, others just leave nasty random comments that are easy to dismiss.

What we share matters. How we share it matters. We as people on the internet need to consider what we share, what we post. For students, that is also important. It is so easy to drop in a link, read snarky sites, whip up a quick meme with an image we find hilarious. But where is the real behind it? What is the story? What message are we sending with that medium that we didn’t consider?

Have you contributed? I know I saw the Star Wars Kid video way back. I’ve laughed at memes and only later wondered if the person in it really wanted their picture used that way. (This is why I love Creative Commons images so much, then I know!) I’ve read FailBlog and facepalmed at all sorts of things. But I’m trying to be more thoughtful, especially in what I share.

So, to sum it up with Wheaton’s Law

Wheaton's Law meme
Wheaton’s Law meme

7 thoughts on “From Cyberbullying to Veneration and Homage”

  1. Really interesting Kristen, I often marvel at the hateful comments on everything from news articles to youtube. Some of the pretty horrific things I have seen on sites like AskFM, derided and feared by many parents, pale by comparison. I have been struggling with what I could do with digital citizenship for adults in this class. Yet at the same time I think if these areas of the internet are any indication than it is sorely needed. Why? What is the point? Who are these people? What do they get out of it?

    Do you think the hate speech is simply an avenue for something many have always wanted to do but never had an outlet for? An extension of self that plays out online? Does the anon potential influence behavior?

    In watching the Numa Numa video I also thought of Ghyslain Raza whose experience was, as you outlined, much less than “joyous. Which experience is more likely? When you let your guard down online? Are we now writing selves that last forever because of the nature of social media? How scary is that.

    Real, not real, that is tough one. If privileging offline experience as more “real” assists in helping people deal with bullying because it is “just” online than I am all for it. I just wonder how well that stance works?

    My initial thought is not very well.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Laura! When it comes to trolls, I think a lot of them are pretty ordinary people. There was some news around one guy being identified back in 2012. It depends on why they are trolling and who and how. Some are classic bullies, having been bullied themselves they want to bully someone else. Others just don’t seem to think of anyone on the internet as real people. I do think that being anonymous makes it easier (but see the above article, very few people are actually anonymous on the internet). I think some are just bored and they enjoy poking at other people to watch them react. The Target Troll is an interesting example.

      As for the experience, I think that’s a mixed bag too. You might have an awesome experience. You might not. If you are female, LGBT+, a minority, your chances of a crappy experience go up. Sad but true. All the same judgements you would get in person could still happen. Then again, those who run websites are also responsible for what happens on them. (fair warning, some language in that article)

      I honestly don’t think privileging offline as more real actually works in the long run. It hurts regardless of where it happens. Things on the internet can have a huge reach (or a small one with just the wrong/right people). I think what we need to privilege is being a good human being.

  2. Kristen, I enjoyed reading your blog post and marvel at the power of technology and how quickly messages can spread … good or bad. The importance of digital citizenship is so important. I am often flabbergasted at rash decisions people make or comments they write on the internet, when it is so much more permanent than “real-word.”

    I hope we can use the power of media and the internet for the positive.

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