“That teenage cute boy at the target now has 450K twitter followers so why are any of us even trying?” An adult friend Gchatted me this on Monday afternoon. Now “Alex From Target” has 664,000 followers, fallout from the simple fact that, while at his job bagging groceries at a Target store in Texas, a girl took his picture and said he was cute. Other girls agreed, the picture went viral, and now Alex has been featured on the websites of CNN and the Washington Post. Ellen DeGeneres tweeted at him. Five million people read a BuzzFeed post about him.
All this, literally, because someone took a cute picture of him while he was looking the other way.
At the height of the #AlexFromTarget panic, there was even a false flag: Breakr, a social-media marketing firm based in L.A., claimed responsibility in a LinkedIn post and interview. But Alex and the girl who first popularized his picture both said they'd never heard of Breakr; apparently, the organization had taken advantage of the fact that, amid rapidly spiraling #AlexFromTarget gossip, nobody could disprove the claim. “That’s how terrorist groups work after bombings,” another adult friend noted. Let us pause, now, to note the sheer number of adults who were, by this point, circling #AlexFromTarget in search of an explanation. News outlets initially seized and repeated Breakr’s boast, perhaps because a hoax perpetrated by a shadowy cabal of marketers is, on some level, more palatable than the truth: We live in an age of uncontrollable fame, when a mob of strangers on the internet can turn you into the next Justin Bieber or the next public enemy without any effort on your part. You could go to bed one night your regular self, and wake up to find you are an icon — but you won't get to decide what you represent.
Alex from Target is, on the whole, a positive story. Everyone seems to like him; he seems to be enjoying his fame. But for every randomly beloved Alex, there is someone who wakes up one day, without warning, on the pitchfork end of an internet mob: Compare Alex’s plight to that of video-game developer Zoe Quinn, who became patient zero in the hater-heavy Gamergate movement when an angry ex-boyfriend wrote a blog post villainizing her sex life. His post went viral, and months later, Quinn still wakes up every morning to a misogynist mob of haters who threaten her, ridicule her, harass her family, campaign to destroy her career, distribute nude photos of her, and vow to kill her. She has described herself as “the internet’s most hated person.”
What Alex and Zoe Quinn have in common is that the public acts that first drew mainstream attention to them were not their own. Fame has always been fickle; but in the past, ascending to internet stardom involved at least some effort on the part of a fame-seeker. Justin Bieber was singing at a talent show in the YouTube video that caught Usher’s eye. Alex wasn't even looking at the camera.
Just a decade ago, “famous for nothing” referred to a genre of celebrity we now view as a legitimate career for the hardest-hustling women in Hollywood: the Kardashians, the Hiltons, and all those oxymoronic “reality stars” who build profitable empires by sheer force of personality. There may be “nothing” at the core of their fame — a perceived lack of talent — but turning nothing into a multi-million-dollar industry is, well, something. It takes time and energy. Today’s “famous for nothing” flash points expend time and energy dealing with their celebrity — Alex did a photo op with Ellen — but they do so in a state of triage after rising to fame. Zoe Quinn worked for years as a video-game developer, and enjoyed a modicum of renown commensurate to her work: People in the game community knew her, and she was once a reality-TV hopeful. But she was nowhere close to a household name until she became a flash point in debates about misogyny and the video-game industry.
Fame has always been a reflection of some cultural need — we project our hopes, fears, dreams, and nightmares onto celebrities. They become props for discussions that, ultimately, have nothing to do with them. Gwyneth Paltrow lets us talk about corporeal discipline. Anne Hathaway lets us talk about female likability. But those people, at least, put themselves in the line of fire by choosing careers associated with celebrity. Whether the level of scrutiny they face is fair remains, of course, debatable. But at least they knew that being turned into a symbol was a possibility.
When technologists first lamented the internet-hastened end of privacy, they rightly concluded that everyone would someday be a tiny public figure — Andy Warhol’s “famous for 15 minutes” became “famous to 15 people.” Missing from that calculation, however, was who would create the fame and whether there would be any way to avoid it. In the future, we will all be made famous by 15 strangers, for any reason, at any time, with or without our own participation.
Now compare Alex and Zoe Quinn to “Fine Felon” Jeremy Meeks, who was sitting in jail following an arrest for gang activity when a reporter informed him his mugshot had been deemed so attractive that TMZ and the Daily Mail had posted it. If Alex is enjoying a sort of fever-dream idyll of fame — and Quinn is suffering a nightmare version — then Meeks’s experience was somewhere in the middle. He became a flash point in discussions about criminality, superficiality, race, class, and the penal system. He got a modeling contract out of it, but his wife — who is also the mother of his two children — was reportedly “furious. Her man is in there and people are taking it as a joke, thinking it’s funny.” The humor, meme, and discourse were all created by people who knew nothing about the situation. The rapidly expanding gulf between those who lived in Meeks’s world and those creating a second world, which quickly engulfed his public image, was beyond Meeks's control.
Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I believe the internet operates in a similar fashion: For every adorable Alex, there is also a tortured Zoe Quinn. The pendulum goes both ways, and in between are a thousand Jeremy Meekses. But on the internet, the pendulum’s swing is actually growing larger — the internet gets bigger and faster every day, which means the fame-pendulum swings farther and faster, too. To enjoy fans, you must endure haters. To have your faith in humanity restored, you must first have it destroyed. This is an extremely gloomy note to end an article about a wholesome kid who works at Target, though, so instead I will leave you with this tweet from Alex. It has been retweeted more than 40,000 times since Sunday:
Am i famous now?— Alex Lee (@acl163) November 2, 2014
Yes, Alex. You are famous.