Sam Rosenberg: The pitfalls and triumphs of YouTube fame

Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - 1:08pm

Several months ago, I wrote a piece for The Michigan Daily about “the Damn Daniel dilemma,” a phenomenon in which ordinary social media users become overnight Internet sensations, like the two high-school aged guys behind the Damn Daniel clips. After their video went viral on Twitter, they received a special mainstream media treatment: a guest spot on Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show, an appearance at a movie premiere and a lifetime supply of white Vans.

Their spontaneous fame made me ponder: How is it that the online community becomes so obsessed with ordinary people doing strange, funny things? But digging even deeper, I ask myself: why do some people go viral and become famous right away and others don’t?

Of course, this idea of “short-term” versus “long-term” fame isn’t a new concept. It traces back way before social media became the catalyst for celebrity. When YouTube was created in 2005, it was just a rudimentary video-sharing site, gradually churning out clips of Rick Astley singing and shrill-voiced oranges that garnered thousands of views. But with the rise of social media and expansion of the Internet’s accessibility, YouTube started to function as a well-oiled business for inspired content creators waiting to be discovered. It’s where people like Bo Burnham, Rachel Bloom and Issa Rae all got their start.

Still, it’s hard not to see how absurd it is that some people, such as the Damn Daniel duo, get accidentally recognized by all of social media. Is there some sort of natural selection algorithm for their rapid success? Is it because they’re attractive? Young? Wealthy? Clever? Talented?

It’s possible that people who receive short-term fame embody all of those qualities. But sometimes, it all depends on luck, timing and relevance. Having a social media account would also be greatly beneficial. You could make the world’s funniest video, but no one would see it unless you uploaded it to YouTube, Vine or Snapchat and shared it incessantly over Facebook, Twitter and any other interactive social networking site.  

Take, for example, “Gangnam Style,” the unexpected 2012 viral hit from K-pop star PSY. It began to spread virally through the virtual stratosphere when rapper T-Pain linked the video to a Twitter status in July 2012. Slowly but surely, “Gangnam Style” gained traction and soon, more celebrities like Katy Perry, Tom Cruise and Britney Spears saw the video and encouraged others to do the same. As it garnered an impressive two billion views, the video sped up to the most liked video on YouTube, which also earned PSY a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

An online celebrity was born and, as with every Internet sensation, PSY was immediately thrust into America’s version of fame. His song topped the Billboard charts. It spawned imitators, spinoffs and mashups. PSY even got a Pistachio commercial out of it, for Pete’s sake. And all of this fame, fortune and notoriety was because another famous person tweeted about his song.

PSY attempted to make another hit with his 2013 single, “Gentleman.” Though the music video racked up to almost 1 billion views, it failed to reach the monumental viral heights of “Gangnam Style.” Thus, the name PSY became a distant memory and now it seems as though the South Korean pop star has found himself in the virtual void of other forgotten viral clips. Trends come and go. America laughed, danced, sang along and now, we’ve moved on.  

But the question still lingers: What is it about Damn Daniel, “Gangnam Style” and other popular videos that make them go viral? Bo Burnham, Issa Rae and Rachel Bloom all are immensely talented people, but somehow it took longer for them to achieve the same level of success. They were definitely well-known among the YouTube community, garnered a healthy amount of views and developed loyal fan bases, but they never got the same treatment the Damn Daniel guys received.

That may have been for the better, though, considering that each of their individual journeys to stardom were ultimately worthwhile in the long run. Bloom won a Golden Globe for the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”; Burnham created three acclaimed live stand-up specials; Rae just got her big break as star, creator and writer of the HBO comedy “Insecure.”     

Then again, there could be multiple reasons behind what dictates the duration and lasting effect of an online person’s fame. Perhaps it’s sensationalism created by mainstream media or our generation’s constant yearning for the spotlight. It may be as simple as how silly and strange the video is and how willing we are to share with our friends.

Who’s to say who gets to be famous on the Internet and who doesn’t? Are there Virtual Powers That Be that exist? Is this the work of the Illuminati? Sometimes, short-term fame can sustain for a bit, especially given that the Damn Daniel dudes are still somewhat active — they recently partnered with LG USA to star in a cutesy, R&B-tinged commercial that nods to their infamous catchphrase. But for the most part, online fame is fleeting. Yet, it still happens all the time.

The Internet is a strange and infectious place, a virtual expanse that has redefined what it means to be relevant, to exist beyond and transcend the barriers of celebrity. It’s within our nature to discover and obsess over something fun and interesting, but we also possess the power to either keep it fun and interesting or let it falter into the cracks of utter nothingness.