Update: Two days after this story was published, the New York Times' Nick Bilton published a new report on Alex Lee, revealing that his family had received death threats and had his Social Security Number, family bank account information, and phone records revealed on the Net. The family has been in contact with local police.)
Ah, Internet fame. So fleeting, so inscrutable, so potentially life-altering.
This is a little story about Alex from Target and his unwitting partner in Internet meme creation, a 15-year-old girl named Brooklyn. And it’s about what parents can learn from both of them.
For those who haven’t been following along, here’s the recap:
Early last week, a photo of a handsome 16-year-old Target employee named Alex went viral in a big way on Twitter. It was retweeted more than 800,000 times under the hashtag #alexfromtarget. Alex’s own follower count went from a few hundred to 725,000 almost overnight. He appeared on Ellen. (He did a great job.) He is, if the tabloids are to be believed, now getting some interest from Hollywood.
Why did this photo get so much attention? Maybe it was a slow news week, or election fatigue, or Mercury in retrograde. Take your pick. The point is, it did. We followed the news, and readers ate the story up. We also followed the erroneous report that the whole Alex from Target phenomenon was just a publicity stunt cooked up by an obscure Internet marketing company. That story was popular, too.
Then, a family friend of the girl who took the original photo got in touch with the writer of our stories, Alyssa Bereznak, to dispute the claims from the Internet marketing weasels. This led to Alyssa’s interview with Brooklyn, the high-schooler who snapped the spontaneous picture of Alex and tweeted it to her friend, starting this whole mess.
We ran that story Friday, along with a photo of Brooklyn. For a while, it was the biggest story on Yahoo. The fascination with these two thoroughly normal teens appears to have no end in sight.
Oh yeah, life goes on
And here I am, writing about them again. Why? Two reasons: my children.
My son, a photogenic 18-year-old who works in a hardware store, could be Alex from Target. (Personally, I think he’s better looking, but I’m biased.) My daughter, a 15-year-old who can only be separated from her smartphone with a crowbar, could easily have been Brooklyn — though I very much doubt she would randomly snap pictures of cute guys and post them on the Internet.
So I asked them about it. My son had not heard about the Alex from Target phenomenon until I mentioned it to him. He thought it was all “pretty weird,” not to mention an invasion of Alex’s privacy. What, I asked him, would he do if he were Alex?
“Nothing,” he said. “There’s no point. It’s already on the Net.”
My daughter said it was all everyone at her high school was talking about. Rumors were flying that Alex got fired because too many people were coming into his store to gawk at him. (Not true.) She was genuinely angry about what happened.
“It should be illegal to post a picture of someone else without their permission, especially if they are underage,” she says.
Sage words from the 15-year-old. However, nothing Brooklyn did was illegal. Had she tried to use Alex’s photo for commercial purposes, he might have some kind of legal claim against her under Texas’ Right of Publicity law, notes attorney Bennet Kelley, founder of the Internet Law Center.
Had the photos been of a Jennifer Lawrence-style intimate nature, Alex might also have been able to assert some privacy rights, Kelley adds. But he was in a public place, where his expectation of privacy was nil.
And then there are Brooklyn’s free-speech rights to consider.
“Just about any kind of speech on the Internet bumps up against the First Amendment at some point,” Kelley says. “The Internet is great at protecting copyrights. People, not so much.”
Hold onto 16 as long as you can
Brooklyn never intended this to become a viral sensation. She was just sharing a photo of a cute boy with a friend. The problems that this single action kicked off were just what happens, sometimes, when the Internet gets something stuck in its teeth.
A few details of this incident accelerated this meme. One thing, of course, was taking the picture without telling Alex, let alone getting his permission.
The next thing: Using Twitter to share the photo. Twitter has fewer filters than any other social network. Unless you make your account private, anyone can follow you, there’s no limitation on the number of followers you can have, and any of them can retweet whatever you share. It’s built for exactly this kind of virality. Had Brooklyn shared Alex’s picture on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, or Snapchat, to name a few examples, we’d all be talking about something else right now.
The third issue: oversharing. When your normal audience is your family and your classmates, it seems perfectly natural to use your real name on social networks and share information about your life. But when the world suddenly starts watching, using your real identity can be dangerous.
I was concerned the photo we ran of Brooklyn would inspire creepy guys to crawl out from under their rocks and start Twitter-stalking her. And I was right, though there were fewer than I had feared.
Dude you’re what, 30? Stop creeping on the 15-year-old and get a life. (Redacted/Twitter)
No harm, no foul … this time
In this instance, nobody got hurt, no one’s reputation got destroyed. Judging by his Twitter timeline, Alex seems to be enjoying all the attention he’s getting. And who knows — maybe he will become his generation’s Brad Pitt.
(I guess not. See Update, above.)
As for Brooklyn, getting hit on by Internet creeps isn’t the end of the world, so long as none of them show up on her doorstep.
But this is an object lesson in the unintended consequences of posting something on the Net. It’s also a perfect starting point for a conversation with your teenagers, who may be more Internet savvy than you but far more naive about the real world.
I’d talk about what they would do if they were in Alex’s or Brooklyn’s position, and the responsible way to handle photographs of themselves and their friends online. Both you and they need to understand the differences among the social networks, and the best uses for each.
I’d also encourage kids to cover their tracks on social media. Discourage them from using their real names (regardless of what the services’ terms of service may tell you), or revealing where they live, go to school, or other information that can be used to identify them while they’re still underage.
As the Alex from Target phenomenon shows, no one can predict what will become the next viral sensation, or who will be swept up in it. Once you get swept up in the Internet meme machine, bad things invariably happen.
Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.