Social Media Web Culture

5 People Who Became Memes, And How They Reacted

Brad Merrill 06-04-2015

The Internet has made it easier than ever for ordinary people to become famous, and sometimes it even happens by accident.

These five people are great case studies for what happens when you go from Average Joe to Internet Meme 5 Internet Memes That You'll Never Be Able To Forget The best memes out there were some of the worst Internet accidents we'll never forget. They are often absurd. Yet, you can't seem to get them out of you're head. Read More overnight. Let’s take a look at each of their stories and how their newfound fame changed their lives — for better or for worse.

Ghyslain Raza (Star Wars Kid)

In 2002, Ghyslain Raza was a typical 14-year-old high school student in Quebec. He was shy, but he enjoyed making videos. One such video, little did he know, would soon go viral 20 of the Best Viral Videos of 2014 You Really Need to See In terms of online videos released in 2014, for every entirely forgettable damp squib there was a gem that stood out from the crowd. And here are just some of the latter. Read More — giving rise to one of the earliest and most widespread cyberbullying 5 Reasons You Really Don't Have To Worry If You're Cyberbullied [Opinion] A lot of cyberbully "gurus" tell kids about making online posts - that what you post online you can never take back. The thing is, that's not entirely true. I'm here to give you a... Read More attacks of all time.

The video — embedded above — shows Raza’s clumsy impression of a Star Wars Jedi knight, wielding a makeshift light saber and acting as if no one was watching. And as far as Raza was concerned, no one was watching. But in 2003, his classmates posted the video online without his knowledge, and in no time tens of millions of people had seen it. This was quite remarkable for 2003 — two years before YouTube was founded.

The reactions were far from positive, though. Online, death threats flooded in and people insisted that Raza should commit suicide. Offline, he was bullied so badly by his peers that he became depressed and dropped out of school to go to a children’s psychiatric ward.

Raza maintained his silence for a long time. But in 2013 — a decade later — he spoke out.

Now a law school graduate from McGill, Raza said he wanted to tell his story because too many cyberbullying cases — which have become more and more common — end in suicide.

“What I saw was mean,” Raza told French-Canadian journalist Jonathan Trudel. “It was violent. People were telling me to commit suicide.”

It was a “very dark period” of his life, 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.”

“You’ll survive. You’ll get through it,” he said. “And you’re not alone. You are surrounded by people who love you.”

Laina Morris (Overly Attached Girlfriend)


Surely you’ve seen this face before.

It’s the face of Laina Morris — also known as Overly Attached Girlfriend. The popular meme began in 2012 with a video of her twist on Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend”:

“I wouldn’t call it jealousy, just looking out for you / Reading all your texts / Watching everything you do.”

The video itself went viral after it was picked up by Reddit, racking up more than 170,000 views the first day. But perhaps more far-reaching are the countless screencaps of Morris’s face with white block letters spelling out various quotes you’d expect to hear from — you guessed it — your overly attached girlfriend. Most of them are funny, but — like so many other memes Keep Calm: This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, Internet. Read More — the Internet has really beaten it to death.

Unlike Raza, Morris initiated her own Internet fame, and she has embraced every bit of it. In 2012, she rode the initial wave to raise over $22,000 for charity, and has since established an entertainment career for herself. She has amassed more than 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube to date and puts out new content every week. While some of her videos still include the OAG persona, she often branches out to perform as herself, branded simply as Laina.

Zeddie Little (Ridiculously Photogenic Guy)

5 People Who Became Memes, And How They Reacted photogenic guy 640x425

On March 31, 2012, computer programmer Will King took the above photo of runners at the Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, South Carolina. Three days later, he submitted the photo to the /r/pics subreddit with the caption “My friend calls him ‘Mr Ridiculously Photogenic Guy.'” Before long, the post had generated more than 40,000 upvotes.

This led to fun edits like this gem from Redditor chehov:

photogenic guys

The next day, the Charleston City Paper identified the man as Zeddie Little.

On April 16, 2012, Little conducted a Reddit AMA where he described his reaction to his unexpected fame:

I got a call from Redditor friends about 4 hours after the image was initially posted on the internet. They were saying I was number one on Reddit, and gave no explanation, so I assumed whatever it was was really bad, but I was racking my brain as to what it could have been.
When I finally saw the photo I laughed for about an hour. It was just surreal. It’s still surreal.

As one of the few people to become accidentally famous for something positive, Little seemed to really enjoy the experience. When asked about the best thing to come from his overnight fame, he responded:

I have to say, I really enjoy being part of such a good joke. I was noticed by an older woman around 70 or so in the grocery store on Saturday and she was ecstatic, saying, “I saw you on my TV!”
As well, I’m completely honored to be approached by the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health to run the NYC marathon. Any way I can promote healthy living and such positivity is really humbling.

Alex Christopher LaBeouf (#AlexFromTarget)

alex from target

It started as a normal work day for Target employee Alex Christopher LaBeouf. It was November 2, 2014, and the 16-year-old cashier was bagging groceries as usual. But things would soon take a turn for the weird.

Without his knowledge, a customer snapped his photo and posted it on Twitter (along with the caption “YOOOOOOOOOO”), somehow making him an instant phenomenon among all the teenage girls of the Internet. He was famous by the end of his shift.

The hashtag #AlexFromTarget quickly became a thing, with more than a million mentions in the first 24 hours. And when someone uncovered Alex’s Twitter handle (@acl163), he jumped from 144 followers to more than 200,000. (He has over 700,000 followers at the time of this writing.)

A couple of days later, Alex appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show to discuss his newfound fame These 5 People Got Really Famous Just By Using Twitter There's tons of celebs who got famous and then made their way onto Twitter. And there's a few who did it the other way around. They got on Twitter, and then got famous. Read More :

But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies: Alex’s Internet fame came with a dark side.

Thousands of people took to Twitter to criticize the young cashier — calling him names, fabricating stories about him, and generally claiming that he doesn’t deserve so much attention. There were also a number of death threats on social media and in private messages, including one that said, “Alex from Target, I will find you and I will kill you.”

Alex said he was bullied when he was younger and has, as a result, developed a thick skin — though, he said, some comments have proven difficult to ignore. It has been especially difficult for his parents.

“The biggest concern for myself and my wife is some of the negativity we’re seeing online,” Eric Fooks, Alex’s father, told The New York Times. “Our concern is making sure he’s safe.”

In addition to death threats, people reportedly leaked the family’s personal information, including Social Security numbers, bank accounts, and phone records, online. The local police have been in touch with the family, for obvious reasons.

Justine Sacco (#HasJustineLandedYet)


Justine Sacco’s story is a far more sinister case of public shaming and cyberbullying — all because of one stupid tweet.

Sacco was headed from New York to South Africa to visit family during the holidays in 2013. Throughout her journey, she tweeted bits of travel-related snark to her 170 Twitter followers. Some of those tweets included:

  • “‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’ — Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”
  • “Chilly — cucumber sandwiches — bad teeth. Back in London!”
  • “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

That last one made her famous, in the worst possible way.

While Sacco was sleeping through her 11-hour flight, her Twitter feed was blowing up with hate. “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” “In light of @JustineSacco disgusting racist tweet, I’m donating to @care today.” “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.”

Then her employer, IAC, jumped into the conversation: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.”

This turned everyone’s outrage into amusement. “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.” #HasJustineLandedYet soon became a worldwide trending topic. “Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can’t look away. Can’t leave.”

The buzz continued for the entire duration of Sacco’s flight.

“I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours,” she said in her one and only interview, with The New York Times. “It was incredibly traumatic. You don’t sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are.”

Sacco had to cut her vacation short, because hotel workers were threatening to strike if she showed up. She lost her job. Relationships with her relatives in South Africa were damaged because she “tarnished the family,” they said.

“Only an insane person would think that white people don’t get AIDS,” said Sacco. “To me it was so insane of a comment for anyone to make. I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.”

It was supposed to be an ironic comment — a satirical jab at white privilege, never meant to be taken seriously. But apparently many people did take it at face value — and their reactions were enough to completely upend her life.

With that said, she is now working in communications for an undisclosed company, and she’s doing her best to stay out of the spotlight.

Think Before You Start Piling On

5 People Who Became Memes, And How They Reacted 3556803658 45263381ca o 640x426

If you’re looking for Internet fame 10 Internet Fads That Took The World By Storm...Briefly Poodle skirts could become a fad in the 60’s when there was no Internet. Today, the World Wide Web helps a fad go ballistic within a blink of an eye. We capture it on smartphones... Read More , sometimes all it takes is being in the right place at the right time. But even if your face makes the front page of Reddit, there are a number of drawbacks to finding yourself in the digital limelight — especially if you’re put there for less-than-desirable reasons.

So what can we learn from this?

I think a key takeaway, particularly from Justine Sacco’s story, is to think before you pile onto someone’s public shaming. It’s all too easy to get into a groupthink mindset and forget that on the other side of the computer is a real person with real feelings reading your words and being affected by them. Do you think thousands of people would’ve set out to bully 14-year-old Ghyslain Raza in person? Unlikely. But because they were so disconnected from him, it was easy. He was just the subject of a viral video, after all — not a real person.

On a happier note, memes can be fun, and going viral on the Web can be a big opportunity — to advance your career, to help people, and perhaps to make the world a better and more interesting place.

What do you think about these stories? What other memes would you like to know more about? We’d love to hear your thoughts — share them in the comments below!

Image Credit: Pixabay, Christian Haugen

Related topics: Meme, Reddit, Twitter, YouTube.

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  1. Dave Matthews
    February 27, 2018 at 6:17 am

    Yeah, I was the forever lonely booth guy. What can I say?

  2. Bradley Vans
    November 21, 2015 at 5:18 am

    Justine Sacco is a great example to study but the take away isn't just about mob mentality.

    The anger towards her was not because, as the article said, her comment was taken at face value.

    She lost a pr job and she lost friends, because those people didn't think Aids, racial injustice, and life threatening poverty are something to make a quick, light hearted joke about.

  3. Tony
    May 10, 2015 at 2:49 am

    I keep putting on FB along with others that those who do the death threats and all that need too just plain grow up! There is no reason in the world for that, especially against the Target Kid. Overall the worlds society still needs a lot of growing up and realize they are no better then anyone else.

    • Brad Merrill
      May 31, 2015 at 10:04 pm

      Well said. Thanks for the comment, Tony!

  4. James Chanbonpin
    April 20, 2015 at 9:34 am

    This is why the internets can't have nice things..

    • Brad Merrill
      June 6, 2015 at 10:30 pm

      Haha - yep.

  5. Deere
    April 7, 2015 at 6:45 am

    Well, it proves one thing: there are some people, who enjoy sending death threats because of anything.

    • Brad Merrill
      May 31, 2015 at 10:05 pm

      That seems to be the case, unfortunately.

  6. Sashi
    April 7, 2015 at 3:22 am

    This is very disappointing for me because the only classic example I see here is the Star Wars Kid. Where's Chad Warden? Where's the Angry German Kid? I would love knowing what their reactions were to getting big.

  7. mcsey
    April 6, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    Think before you pile on? How about think before you tweet, especially if you claim to have some expertise in public relations. Yeah... a jab at white privilege, apparently she hired a real PR person to come up with that.

    • Common Sense Is Dead
      April 7, 2015 at 5:48 am

      And that excuses the deplorable behavior by people? No, I think not.

    • Common Sense Is Dead
      April 7, 2015 at 5:52 am

      This teaches us that people can be particularly cruel, especially when they are "anonymous." Well, to you types of depraved folk, I just want to tell you that there is One who knows who you are and what you do--God. You are not anonymous to Him. And unless you change your ways, you will only find complete unhappiness, more so than the unhappiness in your life that is obviously the catalyst for this sort of behavior.

    • spgoetze
      April 7, 2015 at 6:55 am

      Everyone says something stupid some time. And if you tweet, you will tweet something stupid at some point. That's human!

      Are you familiar with South Africa? The (supposed) mindset of whites? I've got some (non-white) relatives there... Taken in that context, I can see how Justine came up with her tweet.

      Your "PR person" comment is exactly the kind of cyberbullying this article is about!

    • Brad Merrill
      May 31, 2015 at 10:07 pm

      Well said, spgoetze.