When a photograph of a young Target employee named Alex went viral earlier this month, the teenage cashier demonstrated not only how quickly a person (or a story) can be launched into Internet prominence, but also how easy it is to lose control of the situation. As the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey puts it, “Alex may be ‘Internet famous,’ but the Internet owns him.”
Almost anyone could find himself or herself in a similar situation. “Accidental Internet fame can happen incredibly easily,” writes the Guardian’s Elena Cresci. “You could be one tweet away from becoming the next meme.” The Post’s Terrence McCoy highlights a couple of examples, including Allison Stokke, a high school pole-vaulter whose photo became a relatively early viral sensation in 2007, and Caitlin Seida, a writer who published a Salon article last year about her experience involving a Halloween costume photo.
The downside to Internet fame
Stokke and Seida’s stories reveal the havoc that unsought online exposure can wreak. While she at first tried to contain the torrent of attention, Stokke soon “learned a distressing lesson in the unruly momentum of the Internet,” according to the Post’s Eli Saslow. In addition to seeing her photo spread across the web, she also had to deal with someone impersonating her on Facebook and an unofficial “fan site” that used her name as its URL—not to mention countless stares and phone calls. Seida tried to get websites to take down her photo, but she makes the important point that “once something like this spreads, it’s out there forever.”
Alex from Target doesn’t seem to be facing quite as much hostility, but his girlfriend has been the victim of abuse and threats, and he has had to change his phone number. He’s also had to deal with a company that tried to take credit for his popularity, but thankfully his employer has been upfront about the situation and asked people to respect his privacy. That’s a smart move for Target. As the Guardian’s Jess Zimmerman points out, authenticity is key for a company or brand in this type of situation. “Don’t find a real viral success and try to slap your name on it,” she warns. Adweek has compiled other helpful suggestions for the retailer.
There was probably very little that Stokke, Seida or Alex could have done to prevent their images from going viral. But having an online reputation management strategy in place would have given them some control of the situation, allowing them to mitigate negative effects and use the event to build their brand. Publishing quality content that follows SEO and Google PageRank best practices, for example, can help prevent unanticipated material from suddenly monopolizing that critical first page of search results. Having a well established social media presence allows you to participate in the online discussion. But handling social media thoughtfully is also critical, as Seida learned. “I’d posted the image on Facebook, but like so many before me, I’d failed to pay attention to my privacy settings when I uploaded it,” she writes in her Salon piece.
The Internet casts its harsh spotlight on new subjects every day. One day that spotlight may fall on your or your organization. When it does, being ready could make a world of difference.