How the (bored) internet community can make or break your book or business

I can’t wait to finalize my recap of the election results (which I will put at the bottom of this e-mail) but I saw this story in the New York Times and I think if you aspire to have a successful book or business or anything else, you might want to pay attention as to what can make (or break) celebrity status. Article truncated for length:

“While political analysts spent Wednesday interpreting the significance of the midterm elections, social media pundits obsessed over the meaning of Alex from Target.

Alex is Alex Laboeuf, a 16-year-old from Texas with Justin Bieber-ish looks. He became the latest Internet sensation after a photo of him working at a Target checkout counter went viral this week and teenagers — both girls and boys — started gushing over him. By Tuesday, he was flown to Los Angeles for an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

But why did he thunder to online stardom? Was it a marketing stunt by Target? A hoax by a couple of bored teenagers? Or was it absolutely nothing at all?

“There is a whole attempt at making sense of this now,” said Andrew Lih, a journalism professor at the American University School of Communication. “But I can’t find any. The Internet is more and more like your local high school where inexplicably the crowd picks something that is not that interesting and elevates it to popularity status.”

Social media pandemonium over Alex started last Sunday when a young woman named Abbie posted the photograph on Twitter. The image acquired its own hashtag — #alexfromtarget — and Alex, who started with 144 Twitter followers, now has more than 600,000.

The Alex phenomenon became the subject of news articles on the websites of Time, The Washington Post and CNN over the last two days. The Dallas Morning News tried furiously to confirm just which Target he worked for.

Various Internet memes ensued. Some began snapping photos of other teenagers in jobs, for example: Kel from Good Burger and Kieran from T-Mobile. There were Alex imitators posted on the video service Vine.

Ms. DeGeneres was confused as everyone else by Alex’s popularity. Do you have any skills like singing and dancing, she asked?

“I can apparently bag groceries pretty well,” he said.

Late Tuesday, CNET reported that a marketing start-up, Breakr, was taking credit for Alex’s rise. On its web page, Breakr offers this opaque definition for its business: “helping connect fans to their fandom.” In a post on Tuesday on LinkedIn, the company’s chief executive, Dil-Domine Jacobe Leonares, wrote: “We wanted to see how powerful the fan girl demographic was by taking an unknown good-looking kid and Target employee from Texas to overnight viral Internet sensation.”

Breakr’s claim then set off a whole new round of articles suggesting that the whole Alex phenomenon was the product of these crafty marketers.

It also compelled Target to issue a statement.

“We value Alex as a team member and from the first moment we saw this photo beginning to circulate, we shared that the Target team was as surprised as anyone,” the company said. “That remains the truth today. Let us be completely clear, we had absolutely nothing to do with the creation, listing or distribution of the photo. And we have no affiliation whatsoever with the company that is taking credit for its results.”

Alex and Abbie, the young woman who supposedly first posted the photo of Alex, also disputed Breakr’s account and denied they were part of any publicity stunt. This caused Breakr to “update” its LinkedIn post to say that neither Alex nor Abbie were part of any scheme, that it occurred organically and the company “jumped on it” to draw attention to its services.

“I didn’t know the pic was taken or tweeted until my store manager showed me,” Alex wrote on Twitter late Tuesday.

“This just shows you it is another Tuesday on the Internet,” said Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “There is all these important things going on like the election, but some portion of the Internet is paying attention to something else.”

What you have here is a normal 16-year old handsome boy who was doing his job- and then for really no reason whatsoever the interent decided he should be made into an internet celebrity. I have no objection to Alex’s 15 minutes of fame; in fact, he didn’t even ask for it! But this shows you the power of the internet and also the problem with trying to develop a personal brand when sometimes you can just post a photo or write something and the (bored) internet users decide to give you a few minutes of fame.

This is a great Public Relations lessons because there is a difference between developing a brand and “getting lucky”- sometimes there is just chance as to what your consumers will want and find interesting. Things which seem clever or creative may win awards but not get you much traction; things which are totally boring might get you somewhere.

There is one other point to be made: take a look at the bolded comment on “the internet is like high school.” I wonder- what if, instead of spending time and effort focusing on a 16 year old Target employee, those people making this photo viral spent time, say reading? Or developing a business plan? or studying? Or taking a dance class? If authors want to increase book sales we’re going to have to convince people that reading a book is a better use of their time than hanging around the internet looking for the next fad opportunity.

Bonus Tip: Try tweeting a photo of a tuna sandwich with the hashtag #ThisIsMyTunaSandwich and see if it gets thousands of tweets and goes viral. If it does, you have to thank me.

photo credit: Abcnews.com

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