Viral videos are so fun to watch that it’s easy to forget they can also ruin the lives of their unwitting subjects
Today, fame can come fast — faster than people can possibly imagine, and in ways they could never expect.
In the span of a week, Alexandra Wallace went from being an unknown UCLA political science student to vilified dropout, thanks to a politically incorrect YouTube diatribe about Asian students in the library that went unexpectedly viral.
As Wallace’s video made the rounds last week, so did one by Rebecca Black. The 13-year-old’s auto-tune song "Friday" has received more than 35 million hits and turned her into a phenom that Billboard figures is earning about $25,000 a week from track sales of the surprise Amazon and iTunes hit. It also got her savaged by critics. Billboard called her song "straight out of Auto-Tuned hell," and Rolling Stone called it an "unintentional parody of modern pop."
The list gets longer and longer: Ted Williams, the homeless “man with the golden voice,” singing sensation Susan Boyle and “Star Wars Kid” Ghyslain Raza, the unfortunate viral pioneer who was traumatized by his sudden fame but now seems to have recovered.
Most aren't near ready to handle the instant fame. For every Justin Bieber — who was discovered on YouTube — there’s an Alexandra Wallace. (Story continues after video.)
"I doubt if anybody puts something up there (on the internet) thinking they are going to be vilified for it, and that millions are going to watch it and it's going to end up on CNN,” Robert Gore, program director for the California School of Professional Psychology Ph.D. program in clinical psychology, told TheWrap. “I don't know that people have adapted to the kind of sudden mobbing that can happen internationally where a casual angry rant could dog you for the rest of your days."
Ted Williams, who was discovered after someone videotaped him and posted him talking on YouTube, ended up in Los Angeles, on the "Dr. Phil" show. And then in rehab.
And the whole world — at least the whole wired world — knows. While in Los Angeles, he was followed by paparazzi and featured on television shows. All from a YouTube video.
One of the very first viral videos was 2002's high school student Raza, who wielded a golf-ball retriever as if it were a Jedi light saber. The clip, which was uploaded without his permission, has been viewed more than a billion times and was parodied on "Arrested Development" and "Family Guy."
Raza is now a law student in Quebec and has seemingly moved on, but he was so traumatized that he had to switch high schools and later filed a lawsuit against the kids who posted the video.
Scottish spinster singer Susan Boyle may have launched her musical career on "Britain's Got Talent," but it was YouTube, where her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" ended up, that got her international attention. She lost "Britain's Got Talent," but her first album became Amazon.com's best selling album in presales.
She could not immediately handle the fame. Soon after being shot to prominence, she entered a private psychiatric clinic.
“You never know how people will react," Greg Emmanuel, deputy editor of the celebrity-obsessed Star magazine told TheWrap. "A lot of people only think about the positive reactions. People who are seeking attention and fame are maybe not, at the time, thinking about some of the negative consequences, like the ridicule."
Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, told TheWrap that UCLA's Wallace should have known better.
"You feel badly for someone like that," she said. "But it's not possible to put something out in public and not have it come back at you, so that was immature on her part."
Rutledge said there are two types of "instafame": fame based on people saying or doing something imprudent or weird, and fame based on talent. Boyle and Bieber have talent. Wallace had an opinion. It didn’t help that the aspiring bikini model uploaded her racially charged rant in the wake of the deadly earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Like Gore, Karen Sternheimer, a USC sociologist and author of "Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility," says Wallace could forever be known as the girl who ranted about Asian people.
"You wonder, will she ever be able to get a job some day?" she told TheWrap.
Sternheimer said that "we're used to thinking of the internet as having a democratizing effect, (but) you can become infamous as soon as you upload."
And she pointed out that the message "post everything now" is frequently repeated.
"The news is constantly saying, 'Tell us what you think on Facebook and Twitter,'" she said.
There are, meanwhile, the positive examples.
A 16-year-old named Lucas Cruikshank came up with a character named "Fred" that has become a YouTube sensation. In 2010, "Fred: The Movie" appeared on Nickelodeon.
And Greyson Chance, now 14, performed Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" at a 6th-grade music festival in 2010. After his shockingly strong performance got more than 37 million hits on YouTube, Ellen DeGeneres signed him to her record label.
At the very least, Wallace’s experience serves as one more cautionary tale.
“Everyone who has participated in public life online says, 'Wow! I have to be careful now,'" Wired Magazine's Clive Thompson told TheWrap. "When someone says something online and it blows up into world celebrity, it resonates with something we wrestle with in everyday life."
(Brent Lang and Tim Kenneally contributed to this report.)