This afternoon, Twitter has been captivated by a brand new golden balls. We don’t know who he is yet, or why he did it, but he ensured Whitehall was shut down for several hours after he scaled the statue of the first Duke of Cambridge, Prince George, stripped off and performed a number of acrobatic balances atop George’s hat.
I have long been a champion of what I like to call the Fabulous Nobodies: the ordinary people who experience a meteoric ascent to fame- or infamy- in the most unpredictable of circumstances. The rise of the Fabulous Nobodies coincides with the advent of social media. The man in the street is now able to create his own heroes, and it turns out he’s often just as interested in an errant deer chasing dog, or a naked man balancing on a statue, as the latest record-company-groomed, airbrushed pop starlet.
This reveals an important truth about narratives that captivate. We are drawn to stories that resonate with our everyday experiences; the raw materials of real life are easily recognisable to us, and that is why the memes that spread online are so often the ones that strike us as human, rather than those created by committees of marketing folk. It is the inherent, addictive shareability of these stories that assures their dissemination and leads to the creation of legendary figures for the Now Economy. The bad news is you can’t make them up. The good news is they exist in every single organisation that has human beings at its heart. All you have to do is look for them. As the internet becomes an ever more ubiquitous tool in the spreading of information, shifting the focus of communications from broadcast to interaction, those that will survive and thrive are the brands that understand the power of the real stories that drive them.
In honour of the newest, most celebrated ‘member’ of my Official Chart of Fabulous Nobodies, I thought I’d run down a few of my favourites of all time: the good, the bad and the ugly.
1) Guy Goma. Remember the ‘cabbie who was waiting for his fare’ in the BBC reception? He was hauled in front of the cameras by researchers who believed he was an IT expert. Except he wasn’t an IT expert and, once the story got out, it went wild across the web, taking the truth and creating a better story from it, to the extent that Goma, who had in fact come in for a job interview, became a cabbie whisked at random into the studio. And that invented truth is the one that sticks in people’s brains.
2) Jedward. The Irish irritants from the 2009 X Factor continue to carve a semblance of a career for themselves as far removed from music as it is possible to be when one has a record in the shops. The mere fact that they survived, week after week, in the face of booing and staged derision from the shows judges, proves how viral their success had become. Jedward are the pop equivalents of puppets on children’s television – they are there to shout and gurn and be pleasingly annoying. They will last in the nether regions of the collective consciousness for a while yet, thanks to viral, net-based love.
3) Balloon Boy. The insalubrious tale of the family who sought fame with unbecoming desperation and how they exploited the fears of the world to get attention for themselves, by pretending that their six year old son had been carried off by a helium balloon they used to track the weather. The six year old was in the attic all the time that the search and rescue teams were pumping thousands of dollars into trying to rescue him. The parents’ hoax, created out of a desperation for fame after appearing on Wife Swap and Storm Chasers, in the hope that they would get a reality TV contract out of it, ended with short jail sentences for them both.
5) Terry Jones. The pastor of a tiny Pentecostal church in Florida who decided that it would be a good idea to declare 9/11 Koran burning day. Within hours, his lunatic anti-Muslim agenda was getting oxygen from the world’s media, the White House and an enormous number of furious Muslims. Now Jones has been called by the FBI, White House officials and the world’s media. There have been protests about his actions across the Muslim world and intolerance has been amplified. And this before Jones even set match to book – something he never need do at all. The desired effect, making the world a less friendly place, had already been achieved.
6) Star Wars Kid. A chunky 15-year-old Canadian who filmed himself swinging a golf club around as if it were a lightsabre and ended up posted to YouTube by friends, to the hilarity of millions. The video became a cult hit, mimicked and jazzed up with special effects and sliced into footage from films like The Matrix. The film, in all its iterations, sped round and round the globe. The kid in question claimed to want his life back, especially after early mean comments, but then a wave of love came flooding in. Eventually his parents discussed suing the friends who posted the video, but it was too late to stop the viral nature of the video.
7) Mahir Cagri. A Turkish journalist who was looking for a wife, Cagri created a website with a friend to aid him in his search. The website went viral with astonishing rapidity thanks to the broken English he employed (his catchphrase, “I Kiss You” being the most notable example) and the incredibly cheesy photos – posing in red Speedos, playing Ping Pong – that he posted. Instead of finding a wife, he found a harsh mistress by the name of Fame, and ended up releasing a single and a book. He also got a ranking on the Forbes top 100 celebrities list and made appearances on chat show worldwide.
8) Leeroy Jenkins. A World Of Warcraft player charges into a high-level dungeon with a distinctive cry of “Leeeeeeeerooooy… Jeeenkins!”, ruining the meticulous attack plans of his group and getting them all killed. Like Star Wars Kid, the online gameplay footage went global, with jammed versions putting the nerdy battle cry into the mouths of all sorts.
9) Claire Swire. Claire went on a date with a guy and then sent him an email describing in vivid detail how much she liked giving him oral sex. The email went viral to 60 million people after he forwarded it to all his friends and Claire became one of the first big victims of the lack of privacy in the new social media world.
10) JK Wedding Entrance Dance. The wedding procession for Jill Peterson and Kevin Heinz of St Paul, Minnesota, choreographed to the song Forever by Chris Brown. Popularized on YouTube with 1.75 million views in less than five days in 2009. The video was later imitated in an episode of the American version of The Office.
11) Steven Slater. From the moment JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater swore at a passenger over the PA, grabbed a beer and descended to the tarmac at JFK airport down the emergency chute, the entire internet lead the response, whilst JetBlue’s corporate arm squashed the company’s previously golden child social networking department’s ability to respond. JetBlue were caught between a rock and a hard place. The brand was powerless, trapped in the headlights of an extreme action, one which captured the global wave and birthed another fabulous internet nobody.
12) Chesley B. Sullenberger III. The splendidly-named Sullenberger became an instant hero when he landed the Airbus he was flying in the Hudson river, just next to Manhattan, after it ran into technical difficulties in January 2009. Within hours of saving the lives of all on board, Facebook groups had sprung up praising him and the web-based cult of Sullenberger flew around the globe.
13) Sarah Palin. What election will be the same in the wake of Barack Obama’s canny use of Twitter to swell support for his 2008 campaign? More astonishing still was Sarah Palin’s rise into the upper echelons of American politics, largely driven by a huge groundswell of interest on the internet, which carried her name, either in all seriousness or in satirical sideswipes. The end result was to transmute a minor, gaffe-prone politician into a national treasure of the American political right.
14) Fenton When Max Findlay took his dog Fenton for a relaxed stroll on Richmond Common, little did he realise he was about to become one of YouTube’s biggest ever hits. With 7.5million views and counting, the enthusiasm for the video of the mayhem that unfolded when Fenton ran into a herd of deer, and his owner’s desperate cries of ‘Jesus Christ…Fenton!’, is the ultimate expression of the British love of life’s eccentric bunglers. Inevitably it has generated a host of commercial spin offs, including T-shirts, mugs, and a Where’s Wally style book where Fenton runs amok at various London landmarks.