As many readers already know, I am a writer and filmmaker, and of course the goal of every aspiring filmmaker is to have their work produced and noticed. While I’ve already had several works of mine brought to fruition and hopefully more to come, my contributions to cinematic media have not yet caught fire with the general public (I’m hoping that’ll change with the feature film I have in production, but that’s a different story). That’s not to say that I haven’t become famous in other ways, however; I’ve reached or directly contributed to major viral trends. That’s right, for a few fleeting moments in my life, I’ve been internet famous!
Nowadays everyone wants to be famous, and in some ways everyone can be. They just need to generate that ever-essential fan following on social media, through regular content and growing fanbases. It’s what I’m doing right now, and you’re currently supporting that simply by reading this. Gotcha, I guess. Now I just have to think of a clickbait sentence to make you read the rest: You Won’t Believe What He Says Next!
Whether it’s YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, or any other platform, it’s entirely possible these days to become an “internet celebrity”, a term which I assume rests at a level somewhat below regular celebrities considering the usage of the first word as a qualifier. But it wasn’t always like this.
I come from the last generation to grow up knowing what society was like before widespread internet, which at times makes me feel like a relic and other times makes me realize I got to experience the ground floor of cutting edge technology that changed the world, the way things like television and cars had long before my time, and smartphones have since. So I’m a very old-school internet user; I used a 14.4k modem to dial into my first local BBS in the early 90s. Starting in middle school, I met people I’m still friends with at local meetups at the mall. I connected through Telnet to some of the earliest websites in existence, back before everyone received truckloads of AOL Free 1000 Hours CDs in the mail and had their own Angelfire, Geocities, or Tripod pages. The internet at the time was somewhere between an inside joke and a best-kept secret, and it was strictly Nerds Only.
I mention all of this because by the time the internet became a widespread trend in the latter half of the 90s and especially early 2000s, I had already long since been an experienced user. By then, Flash cartoons were on the rise, everyone had a grainy webcam, and message boards were becoming a more popular trend. Terms like “memes” and “going viral” weren’t yet part of the common lexicon, and they certainly weren’t regular occurrences. Already we’d seen trendy proto-memes like Hamster Dance, Mr. T Ate My Balls, and the Ally McBeal dancing CGI baby gif. But at the time, text slapped onto a picture was called an “image macro” rather than a “meme”, and it was from these image macros that I had my first brush with widespread internet fame.
The First 15 Minutes: All Your Base
I’m not taking full credit for this one; I have a friend named Chris who factors in heavily for my first two viral experiences. We’ve known each other since about 1999. We’ve been through a lot, but we’ve only actually met in person once. We had known each other online and talked over old chat programs like ICQ and AIM for years, but it wasn’t until I moved to Canada 7 years ago that we actually met up for a drink and a Kurosawa film festival. Both of us were users of the message boards at Something Awful, which also factors into these first two experiences. At the time there was an animated gif from arcade shooter game Zero Wing, depicting a very poorly-translated conversation. The now-infamous phrase “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” became something of an internet catchphrase, but since memes weren’t really a thing at the time, nobody thought to do much other than reference it incessantly.
Chris had his finger on the pulse though, and to my knowledge was the first person to create an image macro with the now-infamous phrase “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” on it. Before posting the one he’d made in a forum thread, a picture of ALF saying the phrase, he asked for my help in making more so that people would jump on the bandwagon. So I did. My first image, though you’d be hard pressed to find it nowadays, was the old man in the original Legend of Zelda NES game saying the phrase as he offered Link his first wooden sword. Chris posted his, I posted mine, and indeed a whole bunch of other message board posters ran with it. The trend spread to other websites, people started Photoshopping the phrase into other pictures, and then it gradually made its way into real life. Plenty has been written about it, but if there were any image macros out there that predate ours, I haven’t seen evidence of it.
Again, I’m not going to pretend to take credit for the entire meme; the badly translated game and the gif that sparked the trend preexisted any involvement by me, and it takes thousands of people across the internet in various evolutionary phases of a joke to truly make it a big deal. But it often takes the tiniest push to start a trend, and Chris and I were that push. The meme wore out its welcome fairly quickly and was used long past the point that it was still funny – if it ever was by today’s standards – but being a part of that and watching it grow to the point where I’d encounter it in real-life situations was my first taste of anything I had a hand in spreading to the masses going viral.
A lot of people will tell you there are ways to go viral, and in this case, I couldn’t tell you for sure. I think perhaps it was because image macros/memes weren’t all that common in late 2000, so it was an easy trend. Maybe we just struck a funny chord with people. Maybe it was because we stumbled upon something that was easy for other people to do – Photoshop competitions were all the rage at the time, and even MS Paint was a viable format to contribute. It’s probably a mix of all three, in addition to capturing the general internet zeitgeist of the early oughts. But for a long time, people liked it, and then wouldn’t shut up about it.
What I learned: As mentioned, I had seen things popularized on the internet before, but never really knew where they came from. What I learned is that nobody can truly take credit for one of these things. They can be the originator, they can be the spark that sets it in motion, they can be a liaison to piggyback it to another medium, but no one person is responsible for things becoming popular. It’s a case of “right joke, right place, right time”. In this case, it was something that existed years prior that people suddenly dug up and found funny. That’s a hard thing to pinpoint, and it’s why I can’t and won’t say it’s my claim to fame – I was simply part of that spark.
The Second 15 Minutes: Henry Rollins Kicked My Ass
Chris factors into this as well, though a bit more tangentially this time. For a couple years, we shared an eBay account. He had a lot of things to buy and sell, but a lot of people wouldn’t ship to him in Canada, so he’d have them shipped to me. I would then ship to him, and he’d cover the cost or reimburse me from his winnings (and send me Coffee Crisp bars since I couldn’t get them in New York). It worked well for a time, though we haven’t used it in years. In late September 2001, a few weeks after 9/11, people needed a laugh for once. Everything was deadly serious and everyone in the US was afraid. Things weren’t so great on Chris’s end either; his long-distance girlfriend broke things off. So to cheer him (and others) up, I posted a joke eBay auction titled “I will kick your ass.”
I posted the link to it in a couple places I frequented, most notably SA again. People thought it was funny, but I had no idea it would blow up like it did. I suppose some people it spread to figured it was serious, or some just enjoyed the joke, but before I knew it the auction price had maxed out and eBay had suspended the auction – but not before a whole bunch of people caught wind of it. I received tons of messages through eBay about it. Some asked if they could buy it for others, many asking (due to the timing) whether they could buy it for Osama bin Laden, and I received a lot of inquiries into whether it was a joke or not.
Within a week, I was doing radio interviews for morning shows across the US, and one in Canada. Each of them insisted on calling me first thing in the morning, so the interviews were unfortunately pretty terrible as I was very tired and had no voice for radio at the time. One station offered to fly me out to the studio to kick someone’s ass on the air, but they weren’t serious, and the shittiness of my interview probably turned them off from thinking I was entertaining in person. I had an offer to appear in a book someone was writing about strange things on the internet, though I don’t know if it was ever published.
Then, it got even bigger. Esquire and GQ Magazine published pieces about it. Radio broadcaster Art Bell did a bit on his show, and it cracked him up. I’ve never been able to verify this, but someone told me even David Letterman read it on The Late Show. Seeing what was a joke to make a friend laugh become this huge viral phenomenon was mind-blowing enough at the time, but I was in no way prepared for what happened after that.
It seems that the writers of The Drew Carey Show saw my auction published somewhere, and decided to write a subplot of one of their episodes about it. Episode 5 of season 8, titled “Hickory Dickory Double Date”, aired in October of 2002. In this subplot, the character Oswald feels guilty about something, so he hires a guy from eBay to beat him up. Later in the episode, the guy shows up at his house, played by none other than Henry Rollins. Watch the relevant clip here.
Before I proceed further, I should tell you that Henry Rollins is somewhat of a hero of mine. I listened to Black Flag and Rollins Band back in the day, and when he started touring the world doing live talking shows – a mix of standup and storytelling about his life and career – I went to his shows every time he came to town. All told, I’ve seen him live probably 6 or 7 times by now, and his show is excellent every time. I swear, without exaggeration, he talks nonstop for 2-3 hours under hot lights without a single sip of water, and is funny and entertaining the whole time. So when I got word of this episode where he played a character based on me, I had to confirm it for myself.
As a longtime fan, I know Henry Rollins answers fanmail. I sent him an email about my auction and whether it was tied to the show. Not long after, he wrote me back. “Mark- Yeah, it was totally based on your thing. They showed it to me when I arrived on set. That was truly funny.” We’ve exchanged a couple brief missives since, and I’ve seen him live a few more times since. One particular time was in Vancouver in 2012, a decade after the episode first aired. After his shows, he typically heads out back by the tour bus and hangs out with fans who know where to find him. I finally met him face to face, and he elaborated a bit on his time on the show, and his acting experiences in general. Then I told him it would make a lot of people laugh if I could get a picture of him “kicking my ass”. To my unending amusement, he was game for it.
Contrary to my last brush with viral fame, I was the sole origin of this one, and to this day I don’t know why people thought it was funny enough to be famous. I felt it was the kind of material you’d hear on morning drive radio. I accidentally lucked into it being published. But to have it blow up further and affect the acting careers of several people on a major sitcom – including one I greatly admire – is quite the humbling experience.
What I learned: Anyone can get attention, and anything can be bought or sold. That’s something I already knew on some level, what with the rise of reality TV. But it was still impersonal at the time. Nobody knew who I was individually, because this also predated social media. This time it wasn’t just a bunch of people jumping on a trend though; this was the apparent strength of my writing taking off. I had always written for myself, but this experience taught me that maybe others really enjoy my writing too. Also, I learned that Henry Rollins is a pretty cool guy in person and genuinely appreciates his fans, so there’s that.
The Third 15 Minutes: Morgan Freeman For A Day
This one is unfortunately steeped in tragedy. On December 14, 2012, a gunman entered an elementary school and shot several students and teachers. It was a vile and disturbing act, though unfortunately not a rare one in the United States anymore. I remembered what it was like to hear about the Columbine massacre years earlier and other incidents more recently, and I watched the gradual tonal shift in the country dealing with how people treat these incidents. I actually even have a brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo at a party scene in my writer-director friend Ben Coccio’s 2003 horror-drama Zero Day, about the events leading up to a school shooting carried out in a similar manner.
When I woke up that day, I read my Facebook page and saw a lot of sadness and vague details about Sandy Hook, fragments of a story and statements like “How could this happen?” and “They were babies.” I had to look it up to find the real news, but all I saw in reaction to it was people asking why it happened, so I opened up my Facebook page and started typing: “You want to know why. This may sound cynical, but here’s why.”
I pretty much stand by what I said back then, which was basically that people continue to do this because modern media glorifies mass murderers by making the stories about them instead of their victims, by making the shooting a horror movie style “massacre”, and turns serial killers into celebrities. This was a message sent out to my friends list only, as my Facebook is private and I keep it to friends, family, and colleagues.
I got a lot of positive responses, but since my Facebook was private, friends had to copy/paste in order to share it. So they did. Some tagged me in it, but their friends who also wanted to share it copied it without the tag, and some edited out lines they disagreed with. I watched as my words started becoming distorted and twisted, and I saw people react to other people quoting me in ways I didn’t intend the message to come across. A friend of mine alerted me to this as I noticed it starting to spread, so I mentioned that if I know the internet, someone’s going to eventually attribute my quote to a celebrity. This in itself was a reference to a common occurrence at the time of the internet attributing random quotes of short wisdom to celebrities like Patrick Stewart or Betty White, and there had also been a recent online Morgan Freeman death hoax the previous year.
So to prove a point to the people changing and failing to attribute the quote, my friend Johnny reposted it on his Facebook page, but at the end he wrote “-Morgan Freeman”. It left my hands after that, but over the course of the day I noticed it was starting to blow up, much like my eBay auction did 10 years before. The weird part about it this time, however, was that when friend of mine pointed out that it was actually me who originally said it, other people didn’t believe them. They 100% believed it was Morgan Freeman, because why else would it be so widespread?
My first inkling that it had gone far beyond my hands was when my friend Meagan and my then-friend, now-partner Natasha (who co-runs this site with me) told me that a girl they went to school in Alberta with had posted the quote on her Facebook page, but didn’t get it from either of them. My second was that my friends later came to pick me up to shoot a short film for my sketch group, and another guy in the car mentioned it independently, having only just met me. My other friends in the car were quick to point out that it was me.
Soon, people started catching on that they couldn’t find an actual source of Morgan Freeman saying the quote, but it was too late. Social media had run wild with it. News media already started reporting on it. It got onto several major news websites and spread all over the place. I later found out the truth: A friend of Johnny’s saw his deliberate mention of Morgan Freeman and reposted it on his own page, not knowing any better. This friend happened to be a DJ with thousands of followers. All it took was one person with a fanbase, and it exploded.
Shortly after, it reached the front page of Reddit. I personally don’t frequent Reddit, so my friend Bob wrote up a brief summary of the situation (his post contends that it was misattributed because it would be funny, though my friend Johnny’s original reason was to prove a point). It came to a head when Morgan Freeman’s actual publicist had to come out and officially state that Mr. Freeman did not in fact say what everyone thought he said. Of course what came next, rather than media attempting to find the real source, was them jumping to a one-word conclusion: “hoax”. My gut reaction to a tragedy sent out candidly to friends and family was suddenly (according to Fox News, who I was criticizing in the first place) a malicious attempt at making fun of it. To be clear, it was never a hoax. That implies deception and intent. This was more of a farce than anything; a bunch of people misinterpreting something and turning it into a giant game of telephone. I did what I could to mitigate it, but the media wasn’t swayed.
People started invading my privacy, trying to find out more about me, or simply assuming. One reporter for the Vancouver Sun basically doxxed me and found my full name and information, which she found on an old LinkedIn profile I never use, and published it without my permission. This also included an unedited screenshot of the comments on my post including my family and friends’ full names, and mention of a live sketch comedy show I was performing in the following week, y’know, in case anyone wanted to confront me in person. After writing to her scolding her for this, I received no apology, no retraction, no response at all. I probably should’ve gone over her head, but the information was already out there.
I had a pretty anxious couple days seeing the negative reactions from people due to the supposed hoax. Fortunately, it wasn’t all bad. I continued to defended myself, and got a lot of support from people telling me that they didn’t care who said it because the content of the message resonated with them. Snopes worked with me on fleshing out the facts, so I now officially have a Snopes article about me. Another journalist, who initially criticized the quote, recanted her criticism after interviewing me and made strides to paint me in a positive light in her article.
Generally, the effect this debacle has had on me long-term is that I began to trust media less than I already did. While there are always some truth-seekers out there, there are many more who don’t know the story but will report on it anyway because they have hours of content to fill. Neutral, non-partisan news media without an underlying agenda is even more scarce these days, and it’s hard to know who to trust.
What I learned: Put simply, I experienced first-hand that celebrity is more important than content. If you can put a famous face on something, no matter the quality, it will spread to far more people than if you’re just a relative unknown. This is a struggle I deal with consistently as an artist; I pour everything I have into my work, but a mediocre or flat out bad script can make it to film or television just because a famous face is involved. Hell, I’m not immune; my producer is currently working towards getting a famous name attached to my feature film so studios will put up the money to make budget. But I also learned that for many people, it doesn’t matter who says something as long as it resonates with them. I learned to appreciate those people more.
What’s strange is, if I were so inclined I could probably brand myself with these stories, promoting things like “Hey, remember the asskicker auction and the Morgan Freeman guy? He’s a screenwriter and you should check out his other stuff!” But whether it would do any good, or even work at all, is as much of a crapshoot as anything.
All of these incidents together taught me that there’s no common thread to going viral. It’s capturing the zeitgeist, it’s tapping into what people want and how they spread things, and most of the time it’s completely random. Why is bottle flipping a thing? Or dabbing, or planking, or the Harlem Shake? Why did a guy pointing to his temple become so famous? Why did everyone talk about a dead gorilla for like a whole year? None of these have common threads, aside from that they were posted somewhere, other people ran with it, and somehow they caught on. It’s entirely up to the right time, place, and joke to make it a trend. It seems that at least since the advent of social media, the trick is to involve someone famous, but even then, they all start somewhere.
Perhaps it’s simply our nature to latch onto popular trends, but as for what makes them popular in the first place, I couldn’t tell you. In many ways, even having gotten in on the ground floor and having several experiences with viral notoriety, I’m still no closer to understanding what makes something internet famous. But with 45 minutes under my belt, I can only hope to make it a full hour someday. Maybe then I’ll be real famous.