Sunday, 20 March 2011

Bully for you

Am I a bully? I'm asking rhetorically, so don't feel the need to write in and answer. But it's a question I've been asking myself in light of a number of related stories which have been dominating YouTube traffic in the last seven days.

One clip that quickly became an overnight sensation, saw an overweight Australian fifteen year-old called Casey Heynes getting all Howard Beale on his pint-sized tormentor. After three years of relentless bullying and harassment, Casey said to himself "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!". Pushed over the edge by a schoolmate, he gave the spiteful little shit the kind of smack-down that used to be a Saturday afternoon staple, back when Shirley Crabtree was still a household name. Although both boys were subsequently suspended from Chifley College in Sydney, four Facebook pages have already been set up in honour of the beleaguered battler, with 200,000 fans signing up in support.

Students in California also found themselves on the receiving end of verbal sticks and stones last week, when Alexandra Wallace took to YouTube to berate all the Asian students at UCLA for talking on their mobile phones in the college library. Every time the hard-working undergraduate was about to reach an "epiphany" in her preparations for finals week, she was disturbed by the sound of “Ooooh Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong, Ooohhhhh.” The phone users in question were, of course, waiting for news from Japan about their friends and family.

As Alexandra explained in her video, "So being the polite, nice American girl that my momma raised me to be, I kinda just gave him what anybody else would do that kinda like, [puts finger up to lips in a "shh" motion]. 'You know it’s a library, like, we’re trying to study, thanks!' And then it’s the same thing five minutes later. But it’s somebody else, you know — I swear they’re going through their whole families, just checking on everybody from the tsunami thing." The inconsiderate shits. Several hundred thousand views, and a bunch of angry videoed replies later, Wallace issued a formal mea culpa (which translates into Californian as "My bad") and announced that she was leaving the university.

But the biggest bullying story in the online world this week, concerned a wannabe popstar and a song that comes dangerously close to breaching the Geneva convention. In just seven days, Rebecca Black's 'Friday' scored an astonishing 25 million views on YouTube and rocketed the thirteen year-old into the top 20 in several territories. But they say fame comes at a price, and for Rebecca, that meant having the world's scorn heaped upon her. Like everyone else with access to a keyboard and an internet connection, I went off on one about the horrors of a song that made St Winifred's School Choir sound like Radiohead. The main focus of my ire was the awfulness of the record itself, but I couldn't stop myself from chucking a few underarm blows in Rebecca's direction.

A week after its debut, the conspiracy theories were finally put to rest, as the story behind the song was finally revealed. As many of us suspected, it was a vanity project bankrolled by an overindulgent parent, with little thought for the consequences. Apparently, $2,000 buys you an original song, studio and post-production, plus a video shoot, courtesy of the cut-price Svengalis at Ark Music Factory. Speaking exclusively to Good Morning America, Black seemed conflicted by the bittersweet nature of her success. In particular, she spoke about the fact that one commenter had advised her to start cutting herself and develop an eating disorder to make her prettier.

Now, just to play devil's advocate for a moment, Rebecca was happy enough for her Mum to spend $2,000 on something that must have seemed about as sound an investment as a Ponzi scheme. I'm guessing she figured it'd be, like, totally OMG, to have a video she could show to her friends. She never, for a moment, thought that her dreams of celebrity might actually come true. But as Pete and Dud discovered in Bedazzled, when you make a deal with Beelzebub, keep in mind that he has a better grasp of irony than Alanis Morissette.

She wasn't to know what would happen once the video was uploaded. Like all viral phenomena, there's little rhyme or reason (much like the song itself) to how these things take off. That zeitgeist is a slippery little fucker.

The internet has given us all a chance to weigh in on any topic and give a complete stranger a verbal wedgie. When my article on Rebecca Black first appeared on Sabotage Times, one commenter took me to task for my criticism of a 13 year-old girl, although even he couldn't resist taking a pop-shot at my profile picture. I learned two things from this experience - avoid ad hominem attacks, and stop shopping for T-shirts at BabyGap.

So what happened to us? When did we decide to hang out behind the internet bikesheds and start menacing other people for their iTunes money? Our online life might give us more opportunity than ever before to reach out and touch people, but sometimes it seems that we can't resist giving them a Chinese burn while we're doing it. Are we getting meaner, or is just human nature? Answers on a piece of hate-mail, please. 

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