You, there. Step back from the Webcam
The Naked Generation has lived large on the YouTube-fueled potential for self-propelled viral fame. Now comes the horror of self-parody.
Corey Delaney, you're making us all look bad.
Last week, the Web became all too well acquainted with this Australian teenager and the sunglasses he refused to remove. On a Melbourne-area newscast, an anchor interviewed Delaney, 16, about the bacchanalia he'd hosted at his parents' house while they were out of town--and the $20,000 fine the police served to him. He responded with the most obnoxious flavor of awkwardness imaginable. Within due time it was all over the likes of YouTube, leaving the viral-video hordes to wonder if it was real. (It was.)
What happened? YouTube fame, Facebook groups in his honor, fan Web sites, a BustedTee emblazoned with his likeness, and rumors that reality show producers wanted to hire him. We haven't seen a lemons-into-lemonade tale like this since Paris Hilton parlayed a sex tape into international stardom in 2003. Corey Delaney, like so many of today's social-media-friendly teenagers and twentysomethings, knew exactly what he was doing.
We're, and we've forged quirky shamelessness and the potential for viral buzz into weapons for success. In just a few short years we've become experts in self-branding, using the tactics of celebrity exhibitionism with a heaping dose of clever irony as a means to propel ourselves to the top. We've accepted that pointing cameras at our faces is geeky and awkward, but that's all right, because we embrace all things geeky and awkward.
But every generation of trend-setting youth hits a moment when it devolves into self-parody. We came dangerously close with the too-Ivy-League-to-be-true Aleksey Vayner and his YouTube resume last year and came even closer with the "Halloween fairy" incident, in which a young man in the finance industry was caught red-handed faking a sick day when Facebook photos involving cheap beer and a Tinkerbell costume showed otherwise.
That brings us to young Corey. I talked about the Aussie exhibitionist with Ricky Van Veen, co-founder of CollegeHumor, one of the Naked Generation's hubs of both literal and figurative nudity (and sister company to BustedTees). "(Delaney) embraced it from the start," Van Veen said of the video. "He knew he was going to be a celebrity because he was awkward on that TV interview. There's no in-between, no uncertainty where it's like, 'should I embrace it?' He knew he was a celebrity before he even became one."
As we've seen recently, the avowed transparency that has shaped Generation Y can veer into a staged act. Corey Delaney might seem to be offering brutally honest answers to the news anchor, but he's not fooling anybody. And it's tacky. The party host's stab at instant fame makes the exhibitionist antics of videoblogging Star magazine columnist Julia Allison, Chris Crocker's much-parodied "" tirade, and every self-centered "lifecaster" look like a night at the opera.
Of course, we're still trying to figure out what to do with the potential for self-propelled viral fame. Look at the difference between two of online videos' first big stars: the Internet fame of the "Star Wars Kid," who first emerged on the Web in late 2002 as the result of a nasty high school prank, resulted in lawsuits and therapy. Two years later, Gary Brolsma's "Numa Numa Dance" video spiraled into a much bigger success than the teen could have imagined, and what happened? Media appearances, stories in The New York Times, and video contests sponsored by StupidVideos.com.
In between was 2003, the year of the Paris Hilton sex tape. It was also the year of Old School, when the drunken faux-pas of Will Ferrell's "Frank the Tank" became fraternity legend. ("We're going streaking!") This was the year that being Naked, whether intentionally or unintentionally, didn't just become acceptable; it became social capital. Last year, 18-year-old Caitlin Upton, better known as Miss Teen South Carolina of viral-video fame, parlayed her apparent lack of brains into a modeling deal with Donald Trump's agency. Bet those "U.S. Americans," as she put it, aren't laughing at her now. OK, maybe they are, but their ridicule is making her famous.
Some naysayers (you know, from older generations) continue to tell us, that our breed of ambition won't cut it in the working world. The Corey Delaney video reopened all sorts of nasty monologues about the obnoxious narcissism of Generation Y and how all these darned under-30s are going to have to grow up and turn off their cell phone cameras, stat.
That's not true. Corporate recruiters for historically not-so-creative companies are turning to virtual worlds and viral video sites to find their next great minds (Aleksey Vayner notwithstanding). They know we've got potential, and they're hoping that our success in generating mass buzz through social media will translate to the boardroom. If we can make ourselves look good and pull in a following, they reason, we can do the same for their companies.
But sometimes we could use a little bit of self-consciousness. We learned that lesson from the Halloween fairy. Call it crowd theory, or Wikipedia theory, or whatever you want to: If you live your life on the Web, the Web will find out when you're faking it. It didn't work for "Bree," the Lonelygirl15 video blogger who captivated millions with her stark honesty on camera, only to be We're all sick of him.. And it won't work for Delaney. When the first photos surface of the self-styled slacker out of character, he's toast. Actually, he's toast already.
"Being earnest, I think it's going to make a comeback soon," Van Veen told me. "You can only pile on so much irony until you've lost what you were talking about."