Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Star Wars Kid

The “Star Wars Kid” in one form or other has been probably viewed over 1,000,000,000 times. Not to mention all the spoofs, mentions in popular media (South Park, American Dad, Arrested Development, etc) and its fair to say that perhaps more people have viewed the Star Wars Kid than have actually viewed Star Wars.

The video brings up two issues:

1. Why?
2. The first instance of widespread cyberbullying and the effects it can have on one’s life.

Here’s the video:

The video was first released by the schoolmates of Ghyslain R. (who never intended the video to be seen) on Kazaa in April, 2003. Within weeks it had already been viewed millions of times. An interesting anecdote by Andy Baio at provides some background on how Andy renamed the video (originally named “ghyslain_razaa.wmv”) “the Star Wars Kid”, thus giving birth to the name its been known by for the past 1bb views.

Apparently Ghyslain was so traumatized by the non-stop teasing he began receiving that he had to temporarily drop out of lawschool and his parents filed a lawsuit against the families of the teens who had posted the original video. They settled out of court for an estimated CA$350,000. According to the lawsuit, "Ghyslain had to endure, and still endures today, harassment and derision from his high-school mates and the public at large." He "will be under psychiatric care for an indefinite amount of time."

Why did it get so popular so quickly? It doesn’t really have the talent or skill exhibited in the previous viral videos I’ve discussed. I think from the beginning people were more or less aware that this was not a video put up by an aspiring viral video producer but a video put up surreptitiously by teens in the hopes of humiliating one of their own. The reason it was watched was not because of the awe-inspiring skill exhibited but because its like watching a train wreck in slow motion. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been humiliated, or made to feel small in some way (and we’ve all probably been humiliators as well) and here was a chance to sit back and watch it done in a semi-humorous fashion without having to feel guilty or harassed.

The fact that it was Star Wars made it all the easier for it to spread. One aspect of almost every viral video is that there are natural remixes that can be done. For instance, here is the South Park remix:

Here’s a funny version of “Star wars kid Clone wars” which had me cracking up:

Clearly there is nothing more horrible for a 15 year old awkward kid who loves Star Wars to be laughed at worldwide. I can’t even imagine and I probably would’ve been suicidal if the same thing had happened to me. That said, one can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t (and still isn’t) a better way for him to recoup his “losses” now that he’s the most popular internet video ever. Think about it. For the written word, we have The Bible. Nothing will probably ever replace it. For internet video, we have “The Star Wars Kid” and it, too, will probably never be replaced. He can probably squeeze a million dollars, plus an ad split, even out of doing a sequel. Or even appearing on tv shows, etc for the next couple of years.

Here’s Stephen Colbert vs The Star Wars Kid. Colbert stood in front of a greenscreen and challenged viewers to come up with their own Star Wars Kids versions of the resulting video.

On my favorite sitcom, Arrested Development, my favorite actor, Michael Cera, did his own version of “The Star Wars Kid”. Here’s a recent interview where Cera describes his thoughts on it:

Let's talk about the Star Wars kid. What did you think when you first read that?
I knew what it was. I had seen the video. I felt bad immediately that I was going to have to do this.
Yeah, he actually had to drop out of school and go to a different school.
His friends got a hold of it and showed it to everyone right?

I don't think they were his friends. My understanding is that he recorded it and returned the video to the school and then they got it and showed it to people. It was like in the episode how it was recorded over something.
Oh god, that's so brutal.
Do you feel any guilt over having done those scenes?

I did, but then it was fun to do. I'm sure he's heard it all by now. I'm really hoping that I never have to come into contact with him and have to explain my actions.

Next post I'll look at the number two most popular viral video. It almost took a similar turn as this one but then went a different path.

-James Altucher

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Chocolate Rain

You can’t help but say, “What the…” as soon this video starts to play. It starts off with Shock elements: is that the real voice of the singer? Also, there’s this text explaining why he’s occasionally moving away from the mic: “**I move away from the mic so I can breathe in”. And the way he comes into view in the beginning of the song. Its just odd. The video has its moments of Awe: its actually an enjoyable song. These two aspects combined have created 25,000,000 pageviews so far and rising as well as numerous spoofs. But, more interestingly, the Tay Zonday phenomenon underlines the disconnect between people’s expectations of viral videos (they should be forever non-commercial) and the reality (artists like to make money. Good art is often rewarded with a lot of money). First off, here's the original:

Supposedly the song is about racism but I can’t even remember any of the lyrics other than the words “Chocolate Rain”. And if I go more than a month without listening to it, I always laugh within the first few seconds of hearing it. Like “Little Superstar” below there’s this dissonance between the perception and the actual. His voice is so deep and unusual it doesn’t seem real. Tay Zonday, the creator, was a graduate student when he made it. A “singer/composer/songwriter”. Now, 25,000,000 views later he’s selling ringtones, doing commercials, appearing on TV, mentioned on shows like “30 Rock”, etc. Although his other videos featuring original music have had up to several million views, none have come close to the popularity of “Chocolate Rain”. [Interesting note: when reading an interview with Zonday he mentioned the site was where this video first became popular. I had never heard of the site before and Zonday mentions that many viral videos have their beginnings by being posted on this message board. Worth checking out.]

My favorite spoof of “Chocolate Rain” is the Chad Vader version (Chad Vader will certainly be the subject of a future post).

An interesting question rose when Tay Zonday decided to do a Dr. Pepper commercial using the Chocolate Rain song, “Cherry Chocolate Rain”:

I actually think it’s a funnier than the original version. For one thing, a rapper makes fun of the text Zonday put in the original version about why he moves away from the mic. There’s definitely some awkward moments that seem corporate scripted (a line that goes, “this is the web and its going to murder your TV” – is this 1995?) But according to Zonday a lot of people were upset that he “sold out”. Zonday’s response was that he’s still making original music and not resting on his laurels. My feeling is, why did he have to explain anything at all? Aren’t people allowed to make money?

There’s a disconnect between “viralness” and money. The people who want to make the most money seem incapable of creating a viral video (few Fortune 500 companies are creators of viral videos despite thousands of attempts and I’m sure tens of thousands of “creative” meetings). Most of the videos that have become viral have a real authenticity to them. Someone who has an extreme passion, combined with unusual skill, comes up with that one video that evokes the feeling, “Did he really just do that?” combined with a sense of beauty (or humor) that rivals/exceeds the feeling created by $100mm+ budgets.

Its fine with me if these same people are then shuttled directly into the industrial-entertainment complex to hopefully take the work being done there to a higher level. And if they never produce anything creative again then no problem, we still have the next viral videos to look forward to.

One more video:

A heavy metal cover of “Chocolate Rain” (although I wish they had a singer in it):