This is the horror story of a girl who one day decided to paste innocuous Adolf Hitler quotes over Taylor Swift photos, attributing them to her. Her work went viral, which resulted in an army of people attacking her in the vilest ways. Sometimes, going viral sucks.
Gain more followers. Add more friends. Increase your Klout score. Get more page views. Get more likes, more subscribers. Go viral.
You want that, right? Everyone wants something like that. Or at least, establishing a strong internet presence is something we're supposed to want on the internet, and there are plenty of services that will keep track of your progress, plenty of people willing to offer or sell you advice, and an innumerable number of people constantly pumping out content with the hopes that they, too, will be one of the lucky ones. You know, up there with memes like Keyboard Cat or YouTubers like PewDiePie. You'll be famous, viral—spread far and wide, quickly. Perhaps you'll even make some money for your trouble.
And that makes sense, right? We don't create things to be ignored; that'd be silly. The places we frequent on the internet are often public forums, to boot. Still, if fame in the real world can be brutal on the stars it blesses, it should follow that going viral on the web isn't all it's cracked up to be, either.
Actually, you might not want to go viral after all.
This story begins with Emily, a teenager majoring in English who requested I keep her last name private. If you've been anywhere on the internet since the 30th of last month, you may already know who she is—or at least heard about her Pinterest board, where she put up a batch of Taylor Swift images with quotes on them. They made the rounds. It's been covered on Buzzfeed, The New York Post, The Daily Dot, The Atlantic, Smosh, and countless other websites.
Thanks to said press and the reaction that followed, things quickly got rough for Emily.
"I have been threatened. I have been told that Hitler should have killed me instead of the Jews."
"My personal Twitter became a public hellhole for all walks of life to contact me," Emily told me in an interview. "I have been called a dickhead, cunt, bitch, hog, whore, and a bunch of other things. I have been threatened. I have been told that Hitler should have killed me instead of the jews."
"I became so stressed by the attention that I barely slept for days, found it hard to concentrate, and felt very robbed of my regular existence. I could not anticipate when or which news outlets would cover my story and I was overwhelmed by how huge it got. I made international news."
All of that...because of a Taylor Swift Pinterest board. Really.
"I have been on Pinterest since like 2011 or so, back when you needed an invite to join. Pinterest has lots of people now and it's much different. On the popular page, there are tons of these 'quote' images. Most of them are Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn or something. 99% of them are untrue," Emily explained.
You don't have to look at Pinterest very long to see that that's true; it seems like teenagers like writing their personal ideologies on pictures of celebrities. Funny how something only becomes more relatable if someone famous says it.
"People say that Marilyn Monroe said some stupid quote that sounded like a tenth grader wrote it in her Justin Bieber diary. They were very annoying and got on my nerves every time I saw them. "
(Not actually a Marilyn Monroe quote.)
(Not actually a Drake quote. Here's a fun game: can you find the real Drake quotes amidst the slew of quotes that likely came from emo high schoolers?)
So Emily came up with a plan: she would take pictures of a celebrity and attach quotes from someone else to them—she wanted to see if other people would fall for the wrongly-attributed inspirational quotes. So she posted them on Pinterest
late last month in July, and after advertising them for a while on her Twitter feed, they began to spread around the Internet.
If there is one thing you can count on on the internet, based on the things people Tumble, Tweet or status-update with, it's that people love vacuous inspirational quotes. People did spread Emily's inspirational quote Pinterest board, without realizing that the board featured Hitler quotes on pictures of Taylor Swift that Emily mashed together (and later, the quotes involved figures such as Osama bin Laden and Joseph Stalin). Nobody realized they were fake until August, when the board went viral.
"I thought of Hitler because it was the most out-there thing I could think of. And I chose Taylor Swift because there are like thousands of Taylor Swift quote boards on Pinterest and those types of people are the same types of people who repin blatantly fake quotes all the time.
"I found some Hitler quotes that were tame and generic enough to be passed off as Taylor Swift and I made them look extra cute and girly so people would repin them. It was a joke, I wanted to see if people were dumb enough to believe it, and they were."
The whole thing was a prank, but an incisive one—a critique of a culture that constantly reproduces meaningless 'inspirational' quotes that are indistinguishable from one another. So much so that it literally doesn't matter who says the quote, or if the quote is real. As long as it's pretty or it sounds deep, right? The web needs its own version of Hallmark, too, and popular image board sites like Pinterest and Tumblr are there to serve that need. Understood under that light, Emily's Pinterest board is not much different than the viral wallpapers that pair captivating pictures with stupid or crass language, which also makes fun of that culture. See, for instance:
Emily definitely created a clever Pinterest board. It's no surprise that it got picked up by a website like Buzzfeed, which thrives by writing about internet culture (amongst other things).
"They took my pictures, posted screenshots (some of which I had taken myself) and never said a word to me. BuzzFeed was the pioneer in posting my Twitter for hundreds of thousands of people to see," Emily explained.
Normally, getting discovered like that is a desirable thing—but a combination of how her story was handled, plus the harassment that resulted from so much exposure makes it tough for Emily to appreciate the ordeal. It's the sort of thing that makes you wonder how much a website with a huge audience has a responsibility to contact the subjects it writes about.
"I emailed the BuzzFeed reporter and told her I was pissed off and she should have warned me because I am just a teenaged college student and my phone was buzzing off the hook. She told me she 'usually' tells people before posting. I guess she didn't care enough this time around," Emily lamented.
Kotaku contacted the author of the Buzzfeed post to inquire about this, but at the time of this writing, we haven't heard back. Emily did share the exchange she had with Buzzfeed with Kotaku, however—in it, Emily also expresses concern over being kept anonymous. A future employer might not so be fond of the whole Hitler quote thing, after all.
UPDATE - Buzzfeed spokesperson, in an email to Kotaku: "If there is information out there that is already public - and being RTed 1000 times and going viral - we definitely see it as something we'd report on."
Buzzfeed isn't alone here—the story snowballed, and other outlets handled Emily's story similarly. Not just in terms of never getting into contact with Emily, though: some even failed to credit her.
"Many of them linked to my Twitter so I got loads of unwanted traffic without understanding where it was coming from. And then on sites that I attempted to contact, many of them never got back to me or were extremely difficult to contact."
Contacting your subject isn't something outlets are legally required to do when writing about someone, of course—it's more a matter of courtesy that is especially appreciated if you're a bigger site. It can't be denied, however, that a story is always bolstered when you give the subject a chance to talk to you. That's especially important if you're writing about a sensitive matter, which, to be fair, Emily's Pinterest board doesn't seem to be at first. Who could have guessed that the purpose of her board would be so easily misconstrued? More on this in a second.
Things are further complicated when consider how some people think about Twitter. Twitter is a platform that has built-in functionality to spread and quote Tweets outside of Twitter. Even so, some people, especially normal, every day folk, may consider their timeline to be a personal space of sorts. That thinking is a far cry from the reality of the situation: it's a highly-visible platform, and unless you're running a private account, everyone can see what you say. Journalists will use Tweets as quotes like they did with Emily, which is arguably fine (we've done that here at Kotaku many times)—the issue is more that it's done without contacting the subject and giving them a chance to offer clarification, background or context. Further, for an average person like Emily, the expectation of privacy is higher than it is with a famous public figure.
The tension between being frank and open and guarding your 'brand' (or secrets) on Twitter results in accounts that are carefully manicured soapboxes. The fear, however valid, is that an outlet may "prey" on incomplete thoughts. Not everyone uses Twitter so cautiously, of course, but if you're curious as to why someone's Twitter account seems to be all-business, that might be why. We are all a few clicks away from being a subject in a news story, much to the dismay of folks who expect journalists to ask permission before writing about something.
Ultimately, it's no wonder that Emily's situation was handled the way it was: the turnaround time on content on the web 'has' to be quick; further statements or clarifications can wait. Kotaku, admittedly, publishes content like that—even so, we try to reach out for comment before publishing, and tend to update any posts with any statements given to us. Otherwise, the drawback of not following up is that it can lead to a poorer story which may not have all the correct facts on the first go.
Maybe these things seem like nothing more than academic concerns for you; things only an idealistic, navel-gazing journalist cares about. How about this: what I've described so far in this article creates a situation where only the outlet benefits. They're the ones that make the money, after all. And: consider what happens when an outlet has a huge but faceless audience that all want to be entertained and or informed, and what said outlet provided involves Hitler—a controversial figure—and Taylor Swift, a pop star with a ton of fervent fans.
If you're guessing things went awry quick, you'd be right.
Because she chose Hitler quotes, Emily been mistaken as a Nazi herself—this, in spite of the fact that the quotes aren't specifically Nazi propaganda. Some fans even assumed Emily wanted to defame Swift, when in fact Swift could easily be replaced by any other big-name starlet. Not that that matters, now, of course—in fact, Taylor Swift (or her people, at least) actually caught wind of Emily's Pinterest board, resulting in lawyers demanding that Pinterest not only get rid of the quotes, but also asked that Emily be suspended from the service—and if they didn't, Swift would seek damages. Kotaku was shown the documents demanding these actions on the grounds that Pinterest is supposed to prohibit material that is "hateful, violent, harmful, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive, defamatory, infringing, invasive of personal privacy or publicity rights, harassing, humiliating to other people (publicly or otherwise), libelous, threatening, profane, or otherwise objectionable."
Arguably an extreme reaction to a joke, but thankfully, according to documents shared with Kotaku, Pinterest stood by Emily, and responded that the images are pretty clearly humorous parody.
Still, feeling overwhelmed by her board going viral, Emily did take it down, out of fear. Then she put it back up with the following caveat:
This board critiques the hundreds of people who could not bother to do a simple web search, not the person pictured in the images, nor does this board promote the agendas of the deceased historical figures whose words are featured in this medium of satire. No political agenda has been promoted or suggested in any way. I hope this board teaches people to utilize critical thinking skills.
"I could have easily done any other celebrity, like Lana del Rey or something and people would have believed it too," Emily asserts. Still, she's gotten death threats and constant harassment.
"People from Europe and South America knew about my board. I use Twitter for fun and it was impossible to do anything on Twitter except deal with insanity. I don't have an agent or PR person, I have my single personal twitter. I am anonymous and was very, very concerned about people from real life finding out about me."
She got too big to be able to hide it from her real-life acquaintances, however—eventually, even fairly random people like her hairdresser knew about her Pinterest board. In effect, this meant that Emily couldn't just unplug from the internet and escape from her viral status...or the harassment that came with the fame.
"The most bizarre thing was how mean people from my real life were. I was essentially dealing with backlash in two different lives - real and internet. I worked to keep it quiet that I am poopcutie [her online handle], but my brother kept telling people at his school, and people can't keep their mouths shut. I had a huge mental breakdown. I was shaking and felt trapped. I felt used.
"I have never made a cent from this Pinterest and I had no idea if or when it would stop. I couldn't stop thinking about it because I was literally global news and I didn't want someone to try and dig into my background. I basically wanted to cry and throw up for about a week," Emily said.
Emily's harassment situation is not unique on the internet, but it seems to be common for folks who become viral. Boxxy, a high-pitched teenager, is famous because she caught 4chan's attention...and abuse.
In another famous case, Ghyslain Raza, or as you may know him, 'Star Wars Kid," appeared in one of the first earliest viral videos ever, which depicted a young man mimicking a Sith fighting with a lightsaber. The video went viral against his will, thanks to pranksters (assholes?) who uploaded the video.
“Every single talk show in North America wanted me as a guest. I still have Jay Leno’s invitation. A Japanese show offered me a lot of money. But why were they inviting me? They wanted to turn me into a circus act, " Raza stated in an interview with L’Actualite. Raza is not alone here: a ton of viral videos come to our attention specifically because they don't paint the subject in the best light, and the video spreads mostly out of ridicule. Rebecca Black's "Friday," for example, isn't well-known for being a high-quality music video, not that that stopped it from spreading like wildfire.
Black experienced so much harassment—including death threats—that she pulled out of school. Her career still benefited from the whole thing, of course. Whether or not undergoing harassment is "worth it" in cases like that is completely debatable. What's not debatable is that as the circus chugs along, those at the center of it all can and do suffer adverse effects.
“No matter how hard I tried to ignore people telling me to commit suicide,” Raza stated in his L’Actualite interview, “I couldn’t help but feel worthless, like my life wasn’t worth living,” he continued.
Having an intense and opinionated fanbase or audience is not new. But the immediacy and access that the internet provides the average person can certainly make things intense for anyone that dares to be a public figure online.
A harasser can email someone. Harassers can Tweet at someone. Harassers can send someone a message on Facebook or on Tumblr. Harassers can spam someone. Harassers can try to crash a website, or even hack into someone's personal info should they have the appropriate skills. Many of these things have real-world analogues, to be sure, but it's much easier to do online. The harassment can happen from the comfort of your own home, without having to go anywhere at all. And then the harassment can follow someone into the real world, too.
This is madness that we've normalized thanks to fame and going viral, but it's madness nonetheless.
The situation is not helped by commenting culture—the expectation and need to be able to throw in your two cents on anything and everything you'd like (see the little + signs next to all the paragraphs on this post?), the expectation that you can have access to a person however and whenever you'd like, even if you're being a jerk to them. We can argue about entitlement on the internet to hell and back, but to expect the average person to handle tons of attention, tons of feedback and the constant expectation/possibilities for exchange on the internet is madness. Madness that we've normalized thanks to fame and going viral, but madness nonetheless.
But just as the madness flares up, it also dies down. The news cycle needs new subjects and material to keep people interested, and they'll provide them for your enjoyment. Some viral stars figure out how to keep the momentum going, but that can often mean repeating the same schtick over and over again—I mean, hey, that's what the public wants, right? Still, you can't blame anyone for wanting to make the best of the situation and actually get something out of it, if they can. Especially not if the ordeal threatened their health in some way.
"I don't know if I want to be a writer or a comedian or a blogger type person, but I would like to try to use my brief moment in the spotlight for whatever it's worth," Emily confessed to me. "I went through so much crap that I hope it wasn't for nothing."