Unsuspecting teenager shoots to online fame

It was an ordinary Sunday at work for Alex Lee until a chance photo rocketed him to Twitter stardom as ‘Alex from Target’. Should we be alarmed by social media’s power to transform our lives?

Just two weeks ago, Alex Lee was an ordinary teenager who went to school, played football and lived with his parents in the small town of Frisco in Texas. He had 144 followers on Twitter.

Then one Sunday, when Alex was at his part-time job, working at the checkout of retail store Target, a young girl took a photo of him unawares and uploaded it onto the social media site Tumblr. A British girl then stumbled upon it by chance, and thinking Alex was ‘cute’, she posted it on Twitter.

Within minutes, thousands of users had reposted the picture and the hashtag ‘#alexfromtarget’ started to trend. Alex noticed something was strange because the queue for his till was unusually long and giggling teenagers were taking his photo. When his shift ended, he turned on his phone, checked Twitter and found he now had 100,000 followers. ‘Am I famous now?’, he tweeted. Over 120,000 people retweeted or ‘favourited’ it.

In the fortnight since then Alex has become a global celebrity, with TV shows and Hollywood agents desperate to meet him. He now has 730,000 followers and last week fans were googling his name more times than Justin Bieber.

This unexpected fame has a darker side. Alex says he feels ‘kind of scared’ to go out in public and an unscrupulous marketing company tried to claim credit for his meteoric rise. More worryingly, his family’s private details and social security information was revealed online. Threats like ‘Alex from target, I’ll find you and kill you’ regularly appear in his inbox.

Alex’s story highlights the extraordinary power of social media and its potential dangers. He remains unaffected despite the fame, and continues to go to school and work at Target, albeit in the storehouse. Undaunted by sudden celebrity, he plans to help trafficked children in Asia.

The dangers of fame

Some people are unnerved by the way social media can launch unsuspecting people into the public eye. In 2012 someone posted a picture of a Sikh woman, Balpreet Kaur, on Reddit to mock her facial hair. Balpreet then went online to explain that she values thoughts and actions above physical appearance. While she showed great dignity, the experience could have left another person devastated.

Yet for others, rising to fame on social media has been on balance a positive thing. When Japanese blogger Asuko Sato’s dog unexpectedly featured in the ‘doge meme‘, she was pleased that it gave her the chance to promote adopting dogs from animal shelters. A picture of 11-month-old Sam Griner became the highly popular ‘Success Kid’ meme, much to his mother’s surprise. Sam has since starred in advertisements and received opportunities he might otherwise never have had.

You Decide

  1. Is unexpected social media fame overall a positive thing?
  2. ‘There is no logic to what becomes popular on the internet.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. In pairs, imagine a friend of yours has suddenly and unexpectedly shot to fame through social media. Make a bullet point guide advising them on how they should handle the situation.
  2. Creative writing: write a story in which your main character becomes world famous without having appeared to have done anything to deserve it.

Some People Say...

“Fame means millions of people have the wrong idea of who you are.’Erica Jong”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why are people so interested in Alex?
Alex was initially launched to stardom because he appealed to teenage girls. Since his initial rise, Alex has become even more famous because internet users are fascinated by his rise and the power of social media. Even if you are not interested in Alex as a person, more significant is what his rise tells us about the age we live in.
How do people usually rise to fame on social media?
Many savvy young people rise to fame by using social media to show a particular talent. Highly successsful fashion blogger ‘Zoella’ has millions of followers, and comedy duo ‘Smosh’ started posting Youtube videos 11 years ago. At various times they have hosted the most subscribed to channel on the site. Yet in some case like that of Alex, people can rise to fame accidentally.

Word Watch

Credit
The company called Breakr bills itself as a social media manager, and says that Alex’s photo was Tweeted by someone working for them. However, the company’s claim is spurious at best.
Social security
In the US, the social security number is essentially someone’s national ID and is important when a person registers for work or is paying taxes.
Doge meme
A meme is a picture or catchphrase which spreads across the internet. The ‘Doge meme’ involves various short phrases written in colourful writing surrounding a dog of the ‘shiba inu’ breed.
Shelters
Asuko’s dog, a shiba inu called Kabosu, came from an animal shelter. Asuko said ‘If I’m being honest, I felt frightened by the net’. She later came to terms with her dog’s fame.
Surprise
Sam’s mum posted the picture to her Flickr account in 2007. Only years later did she see her son was being used in a meme. At first the meme involved Sam being angry, but it morphed into being a celebration of success, which made his mum much more comfortable. Sam does not remember the time before he was famous.

Subjects

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