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Meme Maker: The Slater-Dodson Effect

Philip McCluskey

If you are a fame-seeker that is paying attention, you've seen that the best way to get noticed is to get on TV -- in whatever way possible -- and bypass the usual arbiters of entertainment. It is a recipe for fame without any marketable talent: simply create a situation that centers on you.

It was reported recently that Bethany Storro, a 28-year-old woman in Vancouver, Washington, threw acid in her own face. Originally, Ms. Storro had said she was attacked by a stranger who had thrown the acid in her face, permanently disfiguring her. The story had received worldwide attention, and Storro was booked on The Oprah Winfrey Show. After an exhaustive investigation, police determined that Storro had not been attacked, and when confronted she admitted it was a hoax. She had applied the acid to her own face.

It's a shocking story that clearly resonated with the public. But it wasn't real. Storro may have some mental issues, but it's also clear that she saw it as an opportunity to be in the public eye. She is, unsurprisingly, not alone in the desire to be famous. In a poll conducted by Pew Research, over half (51 percent) of young people ages 18-25 deemed "being famous" as one of the top goals of their generation. Young people have always wanted to be stars -- the fact that over half of them see it as a key goal, however, may be something new.

Part of the reason for this change could be that the nature of fame has evolved. For example, in 1988, a sex tape was blamed for nearly ruining Rob Lowe's career. In 2003, a sex tape was credited with launching Paris Hilton into a new sphere of fame, in addition to showcasing the non-military applications of night vision. She now profits from the sale of that video.

A former Taipei City councilwoman named Chu Mei-feng was filmed (without her knowledge) having sex with her married lover and resigned in disgrace. Since then, she has released a best-selling book, performed at a series of concerts (a lifelong dream of hers), and has been hired as a TV anchor in Macau. Stories of fecund infamy like this have prompted minor celebrities including Dustin Diamond -- "Screech" from Saved by the Bell -- to actively try to create sex tapes in order to make money and return to the public eye.

It doesn't need to be sex, of course. Fame comes in flashes more than ever; you no longer need a long-term plan, you just need a high-speed connection. Consider Greyson Chance, for example.

A sixth-grader from Oklahoma, Chance's talent-show rendition of Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" was put up on YouTube. The video was posted on 28 April 2010; by 11 May, he had performed on The Ellen Degeneres Show; by May 15 he had been signed to a recording contract. In a matter of about two weeks, a teenager had accomplished what many like him work years to do. He now has over 200,000 Facebook fans and has met Justin Beiber (his hairstyle doppelganger with whom he will soon compete for tween girl's hearts and allowances).

Technology, particularly social media, provide an unprecedented delivery channel for those seeking fame, but capturing the attention of the populace is difficult. If you have talent like Chance, it's a little easier. Without that talent, you may need to find other ways of creating fame.

Like getting on the news.

Steven Slater was an airline attendant with JetBlue. As has now been widely reported, he reached a breaking point after being berated by a passenger after the plane they were on had landed. After expressing his displeasure in colorful terms, he took two beers and an unorthodox exit, and he was hailed a working-class hero even as the charges were filed. Now he has been approached to write a book, and could potentially be a reality TV star.

Antoine Dodson arrived on the public stage recently as well. After saving his sister from an attack inside her home, he was interviewed by a local news station. That interview made him an Internet sensation. He now has a website, and "Bed Intruder Song" -- based on his interview -- is being sold on iTunes and reached the Billboard charts.

Both of these events took human emotions -- anger and frustration -- and turned them into fame (with the added bonus of money-making opportunities).

Were the emotions genuine in this case? Probably.

If you are a fame-seeker that is paying attention, though, you've noticed the notoriety garnered by Slater, Dodson and people like them. You've seen that the best way to get noticed is to get on TV -- in whatever way possible -- and bypass the usual arbiters of entertainment. It is a recipe for fame without any marketable talent: simply create a situation that centers on you. And then, with the spotlight on, you perform.

Of course, there is often a price to pay for such exposure (in Slater's case, there are criminal charges with very real consequences). So seeking out fame in this way comes down to a risk-reward. If the reward (fame with the possibility of fortune) is worth the risk (endless ridicule, global status as a punchline, felony charges), then why not try? And if you among the 51 % of the young population who reportedly want to be famous, how long will it take you to realize that a bold action like Slater's or a memorable reaction like Dodson will immediately make you a household name? Is it possible that the 11 o'clock news will become an audition?

Since Slater's dramatic slide to freedom, there have been at least two news items connected to his story. Not directly related -- neither have anything to do with Slater himself -- but circumstantially. One was the story of a Norwegian radio journalist Pia Beathe Pedersen who"pulled a Steven Slater" by unloading a rant on her unsuspecting listeners and then quitting because she said she "wanted to be... able to breathe." Then there was the Playboy Playmate Tiffany Livingston who tried to open a plane's door -- interestingly, a JetBlue plane -- while it was still in the air.

One of these women was fed up with her job, and the other wanted to get off a plane. There is no reason to believe that either one of them created the situations because of Slater's notoriety. But they are in the news just the same. The popularity of Slater has created a market in the media for people like him. And there are likely going to be a few more.

Getting noticed has its perks: Slater is a soon-to-be-star, and Dodson now has enough money from "Bed Intruder Song" to buy a house. Another man named Paul Vasquez has done a commercial for Microsoft. For those that don't recognize Vasquez's name, you may know him by another: the Double Rainbow guy.

A video of Vasquez admiring a "double rainbow" in Yosemite National Park was posted on YouTube, and after a link was tweeted by Jimmy Kimmel, it became a hit. It was a display of unbridled enthusiasm of someone who was genuinely/hilariously enjoying the beauty of nature. My favorite line from the video was him crying and saying "What does it mean?" in between stifled sobs of (apparent) joy.

The video spawned the usual auto-tune remix and a Neil Young-inspired spoof song by Jimmy Fallon. The web community ate it up: a little slice of actuality, a glimpse at an off-kilter personality that would never otherwise have become famous. Sure, we were laughing at Vasquez, but it was good-natured laughter. Or maybe it was a bit schadenfreude, made easier by the distance the Internet affords.

It wasn't until later that articles came out about Vasquez: that he was a former cage fighter (awesome), bred Queensland Heeler puppies (?) and that he actively wanted for his videos to get huge. He had been posting them for years, and said he was wondering: "When am I gonna go viral?" This changed the way I felt about the Double Rainbow.

I knew that he put the video on YouTube because he wanted to be seen. But I didn't think he wanted to be famous. It seems everyone is trying to be famous, so it was the not trying that made him so appealing. And if I change my assessment after I find out his intention, what does that say about me? After all, I was laughing at his video -- should it matter if he meant to make me laugh? The truth is I felt duped. I thought it was real, and it wasn't. Perhaps this search for what's real is one of the reasons people have been so fascinated by the young boy in Indonesia best known as "The Smoking Baby."

This boy smokes up to two packs of cigarettes a day, and his crippling need for nicotine -- at the age of two -- means he is dealing with addiction before most kids deal with potty training. This boy did not try to become famous. This isn't a trick he's pulling for cameras; it is a tragic beginning to what will likely be a difficult life. It makes me wonder why so many people -- people like me -- seek out videos like this (type "smoking" into Google and the first option on auto-complete is "smoking baby"). It's sad, but it is also real, and we're eating it up. A video of the smoking baby on YouTube has reached over 5 million hits, and is now prefaced by a commercial for

The reason we like Slater, Dodson, and Vasquez is primarily because they make us laugh. But it's also because they are completely unleashed emotionally -- they are essentially making fools of themselves in front of the world, and don't really care because they believe they are right. Part of us wants to do what they do -- we admire them even as we chuckle at them. Perhaps, though, as more people like them emerge, we may start calling "bullshit" more. The word "hoax" may become quite a bit more common, whether it is true or not.

The term "reality" has been co-opted by a medium that is anything but, and we may simply be trying to redefine it on our own. We are searching for things that are truly real -- that have not been formed, packaged, and delivered to us under the rubric of reality. Maybe this is part of a new wave of entertainment. Of course, simply by looking for it, we may end up creating a raft of people hell-bent on giving us the realest reality we ever saw, providing we give them a little taste of fame and fortune.

I recently watched the commercial Vasquez filmed for Microsoft. In it, he spouted lines from his now famous video like "Double Rainbow, all the way" and "full on, all the way across the sky." It was hollow, fake. And then, one line:

"What does it mean?"

I didn't laugh this time.

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