"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” — Attributed to Andy Warhol
If your name is Karen, I’m sorry. The internet has not been kind to you over the past two years. You’re probably at the point where you hesitate before you tell people your name. And it’s not your fault that your name is meme-famous for being synonymous with bitchy white privilege.
The odds are that you’re a nice person. I know several Karens, and not one of them is a “Karen.” On the other hand, I do know a few “Karens” (as my Facebook adventure from last week makes clear) and not one of them is named Karen.
But that’s the way memes roll. You’re not at the wheel. The trolling masses have claimed your fate and you just have to go along for the ride. That’s true for Karen, where there doesn’t seem to be an actual “Karen” to which the meme can be attributed. But it’s also true when the meme starts with an actual person, like Rebecca Black.
Remember Rebecca Black? No? I’ll jog your memory:
Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday
Today it is Friday, Friday (partyin')
We-we-we so excited
We so excited
We gonna have a ball today
Yes, that Rebecca Black, star of “Friday,”, which for many years was the most hated video in YouTube history (it still ranks at number 15 according to Wikipedia).
Admit it, when you remembered Rebecca Black, you did not do so fondly. But you know nothing about Rebecca Black. Memes seldom come bundled with a back story. So here are a few facts about “Friday” you didn’t know.
Although Black was put front and center into the onslaught of negativity the video produced, she had very little to do with the finished product. She was just a 13-year-old girl who was hoping to become a professional singer.
Suddenly, she was one of the most hated and ridiculed people in the world. The trolls came out in force. Unsurprisingly, they were merciless. But then mainstream media jumped on the bandwagon. Billboard and Time magazines, CNN, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and more all heaped ridicule on Black.
That’s a lot for any 13-year-old to handle.
To understand the impact a meme can have, take 11 minutes to watch this video about Black from Vice. Black seems to have emerged from the experience as a pretty well-adjusted 22-year-old who is still hoping to turn the fame she got into a positive. More than anything, she’s just trying to regain control of her own story.
The fame Rebecca Black found may have turned out to be the caustic kind when she found it, but at least she was looking for it. Ghyslain Raza never asked for it and never wanted it. He became a meme by accident.
Ghyslain who? Allow your memory to be jogged once again. You probably know Raza better as the “Star Wars Kid.”
In 2002, Ghyslain Raza was a shy 14-year-old from Quebec who liked to make videos. One of those videos was shoot in the school AV room while Raza was “goofing around,” wielding a makeshift light saber he made from a golf ball retriever. That video fell into the hands of a classmate, who -- with all the restraint middle schoolers are known for -- promptly posted it online. Soon, a torrent of cyberbullying was unleashed on Raza as views climbed into the tens of millions.
The online comments were hurtful enough. More than a few commenters suggested that Raza commit suicide. Some offered to help. But it was no better for Raza in his real life. He had to change schools when what few friends he had evaporated. At the new school, it got worse. “In the common room, students climbed onto tabletops to insult me,” he told Canadian magazine L’actualité.
Imagine for a moment yourself being 14 and dealing with this. Hell, imagine it at the age you are now. Life would be hell. It certainly was for Raza.
In an interview with Canadian news magazine Maclean’s, he said, “No matter how hard I tried to ignore people telling me to commit suicide, I couldn’t help but feel worthless, like my life wasn’t worth living,”
Both Black and Raza survived their ordeals. Aleksey Varner wasn’t so lucky. The over-the-top video resume he made in 2006, “Impossible is Nothing,” also became a meme when it was posted online without his permission. Actor Michael Cera was one of the many who did a parody. Like Black and Raza, Vayner battled to get his life back. He lost that battle in 2013. That’s when he died from a heart attack that a relative said was brought on by an overdose of medication.
In our culture, online seems to equal open season. Everyone -- even celebrities that should know better — seem to think it’s okay to parody, ridicule, bully or even threaten death to someone featured online. What we conveniently forget is that there is a very real person with very real feelings on the other side of the meme. No one deserves that kind of fame.
Even if their name is Karen.