Grumpy cats, kids making faces, and an unwitting guy named Alex who works at a Target store all share the unpredictable embarrassment of riches of having become famous overnight thanks to having their picture strike hashtag gold.
Before you try to make sense of what makes a viral internet sensation, like #alexfromtarget, or try to make a picture of your own kid go viral, it might help to understand the truly random nature of viral images, and the part young people in particular play when it comes to viral success.
The odds of having a grand piano fall on your car during a July snowstorm in Phoenix might be a hair better than those of having a cute picture of your kid go viral when you want it to do so.
“Alex from Target” doesn’t seem to have much more to recommend him for instant fame than a single photo shot and shared on Twitter by a total stranger, according to media reports. Alex was bagging someone’s purchase when a customer shot the image and posted it. Just 12 hours later, Alex was a top trending topic, a news item all over the planet. He had gained 274,000 followers on Twitter, as fake Alex social media accounts proliferated.
What Alex really had going for him seemed to be a young woman with a crush, a camera, a Twitter account, and 50k like-minded followers. From reading the comment threads on the posting, it’s easy to see how starved some Twitter followers are for eye candy. Of course, it is worth pointing out that in today's world, where many Twitter accounts are run by computers, and some users buy followers like candy, the young woman could simply be the face of a fake account. But the picture, and its subsequent popularity, is real.
Perhaps the funniest part of the Alex fame story is the reaction of his employer, Target’s social media team.
Being just as baffled as the rest of the world, Target’s Twitter feed made the wise choice of just going with the flow by jumping right on the runaway bandwagon with the post, “We heart Alex, too! #alexfromtarget”
However, as a journalist and a mom, it’s never easy to have inexplicable things out there ready to turn your kid’s life upside-down with the click of a picture posted by a stranger. The image of Alex made me wonder about all the times someone’s child became unintentionally instantly famous online in a negative way.
As a parent, understanding how it happens is the first part of being able to come up with a strategy or rules to help your child avoid unwanted, instant, fame or, in this case, manage their new found online popularity.
To get some insight I turned to a very handy resource in my own home – two teens and a 10-year-old.
As my super Internet-savvy teenage sons, Avery, 15, and Ian, 19, sat on the couch, school canceled for Election Day, they were free to simultaneously surf the Net and practice for a Smash Bros video game tournament. I asked them to explain the viral phenomenon. My youngest son Quin was watching their progress in the game.
“Was it on Reddit?” Avery asked as he attacked the final boss on screen. “If it was on Reddit that basically explains it. Stuff just randomly goes super viral from there for no reason at all – other than it’s Reddit.”
I told them it was from a tweet.
“It probably made the leap to Reddit, powered-up and went back to Twitter,” said Quin sagely. “Think of it like that movie [“Apollo 13”] when the astronauts decided to use a free-return trajectory, powered by the gravity power of the moon and the earth.”
After recovering from the shock that my 10-year-old knows what a “free return trajectory” is, but can’t pronounce “meme” properly [he still says “Mee-Mee”] I asked the boys for more insight.
As the controllers clacked like Morse code messages being sent from a WWI war room Ian added, “It’s the Internet. As soon as you try and understand it you’re missing the point.”
Apparently, at that juncture, I took on the look of a baffled cat meme, to the point where Avery took pity on me, put down the controller, and came over to explain further.
“OK, have you ever been on Facebook and seen someone randomly posts a picture of a potato with the comment ‘Like this potato for no reason’? And people ‘Like’ the potato because there is no reason. And that’s the reason. The end.”
For the record, my adult friend-base does not include any random potato “Likers.” Memo to me: spend more time reading my teens’ walls in order to gain social context.
At least in the case of Grumpy Cat – the viral meme of really grumpy looking cat – I can see that it was funny and so it took off.
In fact it’s taken off to the point of being the basis for an upcoming holiday movie according to Rolling Stone Magazine. Internet meme Grumpy Cat (whose real name is Tardar Sauce) will star in her own Lifetime movie, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever, which airs November 29th at 8 p.m. EST.
Perhaps teens have the most practical grasp of how today’s instant fame works by seeing it as a wild, untamable gift horse. As long as it doesn’t kick you as it goes by, you can have a short, exciting ride that can really take you places.