Almost Fameless

After starring in a viral “fail” video, reflections on a brush with anonymous, embarrassing internet fame.

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My junior year of college, I became a minor YouTube celebrity. Kind of.
It all started in the library. A friend of mine, Mikey, and I were writing a physics lab report on a Friday evening. The place was empty and ripe for shenanigans, so we did what came naturally: something really, really stupid. We had a row of tables to ourselves, and I casually suggested that I could run across the tops of them. Mikey shrugged at the idea. He had no objections. He was either being a good friend, not encouraging me to be an ass, or he was playing a brilliant and subtle game of reverse psychology. Five minutes later I was standing on our table, checking for headroom, and taking off my shoes. (I thought that would keep things quiet. We were in the library.) I was expecting to fall lamely after the second table, but Mikey recorded with his iPhone, just incase.

The basic flaw in my plan was that it actually is possible to run across an empty row of tables. And I hadn’t even thought past the second gap (which was substantially larger than the first), let alone realized that you gain a lot of momentum as you run across a bunch of tables. There was a wall at the end of the row. I panicked. I tried to slow down. I slipped.

Genuine excitement (and adrenaline) rushed over me. I was falling spectacularly, or at least I seemed to be; the room whorled, but I was making YouTube material, and I knew it.

As I stood up, Mikey rushed over to me and made sure I was alright. (I was.) Then we watched his footage as if we were Eadweard Muybridge and Leland Stanford oggling the first empirical proof that all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground when it gallops. We stared in awe as I slammed my shin into the last table, hit three out of four of its chairs, and generally lost control of my gangly limbs. It was near choas, and we’d captured it. From the angle Mikey shot the video, it even looked as if I’d slammed my head into the wall. (I hadn’t.) It was perfect: physics, physiology, and optical illusion at their best.

That’s not to say I didn’t have reservations about the video. Was I making an ass out of myself? Obviously. Was any footage of me doing anything totally mortifying? Absolutely (I can’t even stand hearing recordings of my voice, never mind seeing video of myself). But once we’d shown it to a couple friends and gotten reactions — “Oh god, are you okay? Play it one more time… okay just one more time” — there wasn’t really a choice to be made. The situation ws already gaining a momentum of its own, and so, dutifully, we uploaded my 14 seconds of fame to YouTube.

All of my doubts vanished amidst the adrenaline (and excitement) that came with broadcasting one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done. My friends were patting me on the back as if I’d cured cancer. Viewer counts rose exponentially. Mikey and I had done it. We were going to be internet famous.

But, unfortunately, adrenaline also induces impulsivity, and Mikey couldn’t resist. He thought that the final touch our video needed was a soundtrack of some sort, that then it’d be perfect. So, he logged on to YouTube and did some last-second editting.

When I woke up the next morning, the video had been turned sideways and set to one of YouTube’s stock soundtracks: smooth jazz. Mikey had turned it into something like David Lynch’s take on the fall video: all big, odd gesture with strangely juxtaposed music. In other words, it was oddly captivating, but by no means funny. Also, the video had been featured by YouTube (which apparently means an editor hand-picked it), and we couldn’t fix it.

We assesed the damage, deleted the video, and reposted it. I wasn’t even upset — especially since Mikey had managed some brilliant camera work — but from there on out things were more homegrown. Someone posted it on Failblog, but otherwise the video became a word-of-mouth phenomenon. And, in the end, that was enough. The thing still achieved a discombobulating degree of notoriety.

So what is minor internet fame like? It is as if absolutely nothing has happened. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but there was a total lack of reponse beyond close friends and viewer counts. Now, I’ll admit that the video is blurry and that made it pretty difficult to recognize me, but it was mostly passed around on Facebook, and my friends insisted on tagging me (for better or worse). After about a second degree of separation, that didn’t seem to matter. The video continued to buzz around campus invisibly and seemingly of its own volition. In short, I’d thought “viral” was a stupid, gimmicky word, but it’s actually pretty apt: a biological virus isn’t considered a living thing, but it sure as hell spreads like one. And patient zero, that unlucky bastard who got the disease first, he gets lost in the mix almost immediately.

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Really, the degree to which the video spread was only apparent after the fact. Months later, I would show it to someone I’d just met, and she would look at me and say, “I’ve seen this! That’s you?” One close friend of mine saw it while she was abroad in Spain — and even she didn’t recognize me. It isn’t entirely clear that it’s me taking a spill, but people were genuinely uninterested in who they were watching.

In retrospect, though, this may actually be one of those instances where the internet is dissapointingly in line with everyday life. After all, YouTube really didn’t change the results. If I’d actually fallen in front of 10,000 people, no one would have chased me down, infant outstretched, screaming, “KISS MY BABY!” I may have gotten a few classic YouTube comments like, “He dide shortly after,” and, “was that a girl or a guy? i hope it was a girl. and that she cried afterward,” but no one was going to approach me on campus, shake my hand, and say, “I was hoping youd dide.” On both the internet and in real life, no one cares about the person falling. Viewers and onlookers are in it for the laughs.

So, in the end, falling in public is actually a half-decent allegory for minor internet fame: it’s mildly humliating, completely disorienting, and oddly exhilerating. Best hope you have a camera ready.

Matt Flagg is a lab technician by day but dabbles in half-finishing fiction and essays by night. As you now know, he checks this email address daily (because he still has a circa 2005 Razr that can't receive pictures), and he welcomes any questions or comments.