TWiBAlex2Alex appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Over the past few days, social media has created a celebrity. Again. In this day and age of Internet reign, we’ve got “YouTube Stars” and “Vine Celebs,” and it is a very big deal if someone calls you “Twitter Famous.” The upside of new media becoming normalized media is that people are using new ways to directly deliver content and showcase their talents.

At the risk of sounding like the old fogey that I really am deep down, shaking my cane at you kids from the front porch and screaming Get Off My Lawn!, the swift ascent to Internet Fame is generally advanced by the very young. This is fine until the relationship between notoriety and talent becomes disproportionate or even inverse, and the ascent continues based on the frenzy and youthful overuse of social media as opposed to any substance.

The latest phenomenon goes by the hashtag moniker #AlexFromTarget. #Alex is a young man who was apparently minding his business working a shift at Target when someone snapped and tweeted a picture of him bagging groceries. The picture went viral, and a sensation was born.

Pictures posted on social media go viral all the time these days, but this was unique because of how sick the virus was, and because he was a civilian (non-famous person), who was engaged in the most benign of activities in the photo. Sure, he’s cute if you’re into teenagers, but … that was it. Besides basic boy-band attractiveness, there was no salacious nudity or violence, there was no celeb photobombing or caught in public with the audacity to look like a human being, and nothing in the picture that might inspire anyone to shout “Worldstar!”

TWiBAlex1The original tweet.

Just a cute boy who literally became a celebrity overnight. All kinds of fishy things happened: after a full twenty-four-hour cycle of trending on Twitter, a media startup came forward to kinda sorta take claim for the #AlexFromTwitter movement. Dil-Domine Jacobe Leonares, founder of Breakr, took credit on LinkedIn and gave this interview talking about the details of his viral marketing strategy, even though it remained unclear exactly what he was marketing. (Target has no involvement.)

As the sun rose on Alex’s second day of fame, he was being declared a hoax. Mr. Leonares spoke of showing “how powerful the fangirl demographic was,” and I got the feeling that what he was selling was himself and his ability to sell. As corporations struggle to reach the all-important youth demographic and often make giant missteps in that endeavor, these social media strategists are a hot commodity. It seems that Breakr is a new company without much of a digital footprint of its own, but that’s part of how they operate. They watch the trends, so that they can manipulate and ultimately create the trends in favor of their clients, and the more anonymous the Internet wizards are, the better. All those social media likes and shares need to at least appear organic, and these companies don’t want their marketing showing like a lace skirt dipping below the hem of a dress.

For that reason alone, Mr. Leonares’ story never quite curled all the way over, and the false vulgarity of him taking credit was soon confirmed as people dug a little deeper. He named certain Tweeters and YouTubers who had propelled the buzz by sharing Alex’s pic and also by making up their own versions, essentially showing any arbitrary [person] at [place of employment], all of which sailed around the Internet on the wings of the massively trending hashtag. It was discovered that those social media stars either didn’t know Mr. Leonares, or did have an online passing relationship with him but stated that they weren’t “working together” on this Alex thing as he said they were.

And Alex himself set about to tell people that he’s real, and no hoax. He started tweeting frequently, straight out of the Twitter celeb handbook: more selfies and seemingly random statements to engage his “fans.” It’s cool when one has something to say on social media and says it, but in the absence of that, there will always be a large chunk of people who feel special if they can answer a question, “join the conversation,” and possibly even get a reply. Alex promised retweets and followbacks, and even posted screenshots to prove that he had.

He went from 144 Twitter followers to over 600,000 in about a day, and then came the ultimate prize: he was invited to appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show has a fun, of-the-moment feeling, and part of that is the show’s frequent showcasing of “Internet Sensations.” Appearing on Ellen is now a career path for some people. There was Internet outrage over his appearance because A) there will always be Internet outrage, and B) there are people with terminal illnesses and amazing stories of survival and social justice who’ve been campaigning for ages to appear on Ellen, and here comes this kid jumping the line for being kinda cute and going viral.

Watching the Ellen interview, I hope I wasn’t imagining the tinge of regret I thought I clocked in her eye as they spoke. It’s one thing for her to use her unfathomably influential platform to showcase a musical prodigy, child inventors, or the like, but this kid had been working at Target for three months, and a picture of him went viral. Ellen asked if he had any talents—if he sang or played an instrument or anything. When he replied in the negative, she said, “You should pick up something quickly because you have to take advantage of this. This is a big deal.”

She gave him an iPad, sent him on his way, and hopefully rethought what it means to be a “sensation.”

The most telling part of this, is that on the Ellen show website, the clip of the interview is filed under “inspiring.” Sadly, for many, that’s exactly what it is.

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