Several years ago, it was impossible to venture onto the Web without coming across footage of an ungainly lad doing his awkward best to reenact a Star Wars lightsaber battle. The “Star Wars Kid” — as this clip became known — was one of the Web’s first truly viral videos and an incredibly popular meme. The video amassed tens of millions of views and inspired countless parodies and homages, including a particularly famous one by Stephen Colbert for his 2006 ”Green Screen Challenge”.
Unfortunately, for all of the fun and laughs that the video provided, there was a dark side to the kid’s story. His name is Ghyslain Raza, and he made the video one night as a joke, never intending it to be seen by the Web masses. But after a friend uploaded it without his knowledge, Raza’s life became a living hell. In a recent article for Maclean’s, he talks about the abuse and bullying that he received, which included people telling him to commit suicide:
Raza said he lost what few friends he had in the fallout, and had to change schools. “In the common room, students climbed onto tabletops to insult me,” he told L’actualité.
It was “a very dark period,” he said. “No matter how hard I tried to ignore people telling me to commit suicide, I couldn’t help but feel worthless, like my life wasn’t worth living.”
Raza eventually received some compensation after his family sued the families of several schoolmates in 2006. He’s now a law school student, and speaks on the topic of cyberbullying.
The Web’s anonymity makes it all too easy to forget that real people exist behind the memes, viral videos, and funny photos that we laugh at, tweet about, and share with our friends. These are people who, potentially through no desire or action of their own, are given unexpected fame and notoriety. Sometimes this can be a positive, humorous experience if those in the meme take the attention all in stride (e.g., “Overly Attached Girlfriend“). However, as can be seen in the case of the Star Wars Kid or the more recent “slut-shaming” meme, it can often lead to derision, abuse, and bullying, all of it done from the safety of our laptops and iPhones.
Chances are, you’ve done it, too. You may not have done something as terrible as tell some unsuspecting kid in an embarrassing video to kill himself, but you’ve responded to something similar in a mocking or derisive way. I used to get a kick out of visiting a blog featuring photos of random Walmart customers, but I felt convicted to stop when I realized that the only reason I went to the blog was because I enjoyed laughing at and mocking the photos and the people in them. I got a sick thrill out of them — and their poor health, socio-economic status, and/or (let’s be honest) often-unfortunate fashion choices — being paraded around the Internet.
In those moments, I was essentially a bully. I wasn’t being one to their face. No, worse… I was doing it from the comfort and safety of my laptop, where I could expect little-to-no ramification for my ridicule. I was objectifying them, and not seeing them as fellow human beings who deserved even a modicum of decency.
The next time you’re tempted to share some embarrassing video to your friends on Facebook, or tweet the latest meme sweeping Twitter, it might be wise to take a moment and think about the person(s) who inspired that meme. Do they really and truly deserve the mocking, derision, and notoriety that you and your friends are about to send their way, without them even knowing about it?