Star Wars kid, Chad Vader, Leroy Jenkins, Lonelygirl15. There are people on the web everyone has heard of. I’m quite interested in some of these people. How did it happen? What did they do to win the adulation (or at least bemused interest) of millions the world over?
We begin on our journey with Maddox, a prolific blogger (if indeed you could call him that) who started his site in 1997 and has kept it going strong. While he isn’t as recognizable as, say, the crazy frog, he makes up for it by being a much more consistent and accessible celebrity. Although he apparently gets “800-900” emails every day, when I emailed him, his reply was very prompt and polite. He even answered some questions for me.
I asked him about his site’s growth. “My site started out with fewer than five readers per month about 10 years ago, and slowly grew by word of mouth to the juggernaut of badass it is today,” he says. “I tried to bust out an article once a week. Back in the day I didn’t care as much about research or writing in-depth pieces. These days I could spend weeks on one article.”
I was anxious to know whether or not Maddox’s life had changed much due to his fame, as well. “I quit my job back in 2004,” he says, “and now I spend most of my time taking meetings, writing, researching and working on other projects. I’ve put a lot of work into my online store, which is my primary source of income now – I spend most of my time fighting the system.”
In many ways Maddox has achieved the thing that many of us could only dream of: making a living on the internet. Indeed, his site draws in over a million unique users per month, which is absolutely astonishing. So, it’s success story for Maddox. He apparently has “huge plans” for the site in the future, too, so he might just stay in peoples’ memories longer than most. “Possibly a forum at some point, if I can figure out a way to make it not suck like every other forum out there. Stay tuned.”
Existing almost perpendicular to Maddox is Tom Anderson, aka Tom, the creator of MySpace, everyone’s friend. As long as your definition of “friend” includes “cannot be reached via email or MySpace message.” When I attempted to contact Tom for this article, my missives weren’t able to penetrate News Corp’s iron curtain, but I’m sure Tom’s a great guy and is really down to Earth. Regardless, his ubiquity can’t be denied.
There are others who have become famous over the internet, and often not in a good way. The Star Wars kid, for example, was massively popular on YouTube; the infamous video has been viewed nearly 5 million times since it was originally posted in 2003. These, however, are not the people that make up the internet, but rather just flashes in the pan, things that everyone sees once. People like Maddox and Tom are universally known and omnipresent.
But in terms of true omnipresence, look no further than Anonymous, a hacker group that rose to public prominence in 2007 after Fox News ran a TV spot on them.
Their name comes from the websites on which they congregate, the *chan image boards, most famous of which being 4chan. 4chan on its own is not so bad, but the utter filth of the internet is concentrated on the “random” image board, also known as /b/. (Don’t go there. Seriously. You can’t un-see some things.) It was on /b/ that the Anonymous identity developed.
They operate now on “/i/nvasion” boards to plot attacks on websites they believe have somehow wronged them. This is mainly done in the name of “lulz,” a corruption of “lol,” roughly translating to us normal people as “kicks.”
The entire Anonymous situation has to do with the cult of the incognito, the idea that if you give a man a mask, his true personality is unveiled. Anonymous can be said to represent the darker, feral side in all of us – they lash out with the slightest provocation, and they are many against few. Their own credo is they do not forgive, they do not forget and they are legion.
It is the deepest insecurity within us that comes to the surface when we gain anonymity – all respect vanishes, and paranoia sets in. This is the reason for their utter lack of pity, their persistence, never stopping until it’s time for the next /i/nvasion. Who says the next “Anonymous” won’t be one of your friends, or worse, your enemies?
Whenever we think about fame on the web, we have to remember all the flashes in the pan, all the videos we all saw once. Though there are those people who become very famous, most are just one-hit wonders without an identity or an agenda. It’s an affirmation that we live in a culture where people can be famous just for being famous. But they can also be exceptional, whether for good or evil. Between the two extremes is everyone else, just a YouTube video away from all the fleeting glory in the world.
Richard Thomas is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.