Monday, 18 June 2012

How To Reap The Internet Whirlwind

How do people get away with unmitigated gall on the internet, start a firestorm and ride it to success? Find a trope that hits a lot of nerves, a story people WANT to believe, and be good-looking. It worked for Johnny Heward, the lying toerag.

The wannabe singing star has more than eleven thousand followers at the time of writing after a publicity stunt went viral. To recap, he pretended to expose military wife Taelor Vega, who doesn't exist, for trying to seduce him online. Although there are many websites, etc., and posts on his own FB page unmasking the deception, Heward's popularity is increasing exponentially. Why is this?

The exchange

 Taelor Vega: "You are so handsome! This is going to sound forward but my husband is in the Army and away a lot. Would you maybe want to hang out sometime?"

Johnny Heward: "You've got to be kidding right?"

Taelor Vega: "Nooo! lol I'm serious. Let's have some fun :D"

Johnny Heward: "So... you've got a husband willing to risk his life not only for you, but everyone in the country and that's how much respect you have for him? haha it's women like you that make me never want to get married...and if you were smarter you'd know that with today's technology I can screen shot this conversation for the whole world to see, including your husband."

Taylor Vega: "You wouldn't"

That is what's been going viral over the internet for the last few days. But what has made it and its creator so popular? Heward cleverly constructed an approach that hit a slew of major themes in a country that feels that its values are being subverted. He created a narrative that included two heroes, a villain, and a degree of slut-shaming unheard of since the days French women had their heads shaved as punishment for becoming Nazis' mistresses.

Just another day on fb...he's fighting terrorists, but the biggest one is in his bed. Everyone blow up this picture and share it so her husband finds out.

It's a masterclass in rabble-rousing that we all can learn from if we want to emulate or even surpass his success. Let's deconstruct it, shall we?

The narrative

Just another day on fb...he's fighting terrorists,

The story begins with handsome, wholesome, all-American Johnny fooling about on Facebook, wasting time, when along comes a spider Taelor Vega. He discovers to his horror that his new friend Taelor wants to cheat on
Rambo her husband. Will handsome, wholesome, all-American Johnny succumb to the succubus or send her on her way?

the biggest one is in his bed.

Hell, no. He will not only turn down the invitation to the Devil's banquet as the guest of honour, he will expose this wicked harlot for what she is in the hope that her unsuspecting husband will get sweet, sweet justice. And we can all join in.

Everyone blow up this picture and share it so her husband finds out.

He'll supply the stocks and the girl. We're to show up with the dead rats and rotten vegetables to throw at her. Everybody loves a bit of slut-shaming and we all know she deserves it, right? He's told that story, everyone has shared it, and his fame is growing exponentially as the "real man" who refused to accept stolen goods. But it's a lie.

The fan club

Johnny Heward has got many thousands of fans who refuse to accept that their hero can do any wrong even though the proof has been presented to them many times. Why is this? Why don't they get it? Why won't they get it? It's about the narrative and the underlying themes. Those commenters who know it's not true want a space to discuss those themes and Johnny Heward has given them a forum to do so. He doesn't say much, he just sits back and watches people weigh in with their opinions, presumably laughing to himself as the number of subscribers continues to rise.

The men

In a mostly-conservative country with a high divorce rate, there are many people who can empathise with the fictional husband. Many of the commenters are soldiers who have suffered the heartbreak of betrayal and they're sharing snippets of their stories on Johnny's FB page. The civilians either have been or are afraid of being cheated on. Many are divorced or have broken up with their women. Those are the men who congratulate him for saying no to Taelor because the men who played away with their wives or girlfriends should have and didn't.

The women

Many of the women who comment are military wives unwilling to be tarred with the Taelor Vega brush so they condemn her to prove that they would never do such a thing. Civilian women either think she's evil and deserves to be punished or that there's probably more to it than this. The most religious of them either call for mercy or approve of the virtual stoning.

The two sides of the coin, in glorious technicolour

 They looked at the photo of him bathed in golden light (I've drawn a copy by hand so he can't whinge about the above image) and see a saint or an angel. He looks directly at us, wearing a tight white t-shirt, his lean, muscular body on display. He's got a phial of some sort on a chain or cord around his neck and looks sincere and intense, radiating purity.

The picture he's using to represent Taelor, which is actually ballerina Carolina Neves Ribeiro (she's removed that pic from her profile, presumably after catching a lot of flack for her alleged philandering), is the profile of a carefree woman wearing sunglasses with her head tipped back. Bigger versions show her wearing an off-white string-strap vest. She looks like she's having a good time.

Juxtaposition and the Biblical undertone

Again, it's a masterstroke of presentation. I learned a lot about this in college in Media Studies. It's called semiotics. There are the meanings that the author puts in to a picture and the meanings we take out. Redundancies are built in with mise-en-scene or repetition. We've got two young, sexually attractive people which pretty much automatically qualifies them both for a bit of hanky panky. However, his soulful expression and white t-shirt trump her carefree, make-up slathered face. In harsh daylight, she is exposed. He, bathed in a soft, golden glow, is revealed.

Now add the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife his refusal to accept her offer of a bit on the side and that's the power of the choice of images. For those of you who don't know the Biblical story, Joseph was sold as a slave by his brothers (betrayal!) to Potiphar, captain of Pharoah's guard. When Potiphar's wife saw how handsome Joseph was, she tried it on with him but he refused, so she lied and said Joseph had attempted to rape her. Joseph went to prison for it.*

In the Johnny Heward version, however, it's the miscreant wife who goes to internet limbo, apparently trying to cover her tracks by setting up multiple FB accounts and trolling Johnny's FB page as would-be debunkers. So when he blocks people like me for pointing to the truth and deleting the debunking posts (he's left a few up to "prove" that he doesn't block and delete everyone who disagrees with him), he's blocking trolls and fakers who are trying to discredit him for no good reason.

The witchhunter's mentality

Let's be honest here, there's nothing quite like a good internet witch hunt. All of the ingredients are here: the goodie, the baddie, and the innocent victim. It's the opportunity to be in on the delivery of great justice that gets our blood up and that's why this is spreading. Those of us who want to expose the truth — that a wannabe Gospel singer (occasionally accompanied on an end-of sale bargain synthesizer as well as his trusty acoustic guitar) is the villain playing the innocent public for fools so he can let slip the "fact" that he's a musician and hopefully make a career off it — are being ignored because our narrative doesn't hit as deep and as hard as his does. It's that witch-hunter's mentality that will keep this guy's star rising until the story gets old.

What now?

It's not developing any further. Johnny's profile pic is now a topless young Johnny with a young blonde woman in a hat and sunglasses. He has a baseball hat on backwards and is also wearing sunglasses. They're in a car. He's starting to move on but the messages are still pouring in to congratulate him on his apparent awesomeness at saying no to floozies on the internet. A couple of minor blogs have picked up the story. Some are debunking it while others are picking up on the themes in an intelligent and heartfelt manner. It resonates so much with military families, they're latching on to it whether it's true or not because it illustrates a story they've either personally experienced or watched someone else go through.

His YouTube channels are coming up in the search results but the videos aren't getting many hits. If this was a marketing ploy it's failed. People bought the wholesome family values guy who turned down a cheating tramp, but that's all they wanted. Like dainty diners, they cut away the fat with the bones and ate only the meat. Johnny's music doesn't interest them. The story will eventually die down and become a half-forgotten meme.


The original post featuring the "screenshot" has been removed. Johnny says Facebook made him take it down. This and other posts with comments that contradict his side of the story are now gone. All that's there now are posts that lionize him and promote him as a family values man. The number of his subscribers keeps rising and falling. It also seems that some people are making fake Facebook pages pretending to be him.

What we can learn from this

If you're trying to build a career on the back of an internet sensation AND you can ride an internet whirlwind like a bronco without losing control of the narrative, even though you're being called out for blocking the people who contradict you and deleting their posts, you need to have something that the public wants. If you're an amateur and not putting heart and soul into the project you're promoting, people won't buy it. They'll stay for the fun while it lasts, then lose interest. The thousands of followers will slowly drop off as you slide back into mediocrity and become yesterday's news.

If you want to generate a viral meme that plays on a popular trope, play to peoples' hopes and fears. Create a short narrative that people can apply to themselves or can relate to on the back of their own experiences. There's something viscerally attractive about the exposure and potential punishment of a traitor, particularly if the victim is heroically laying his or her life on the line. There's a loose end that hasn't been tied up and we want to be in on the action when the cuckolded husband finds out. "One of these days ... one of these days ... Pow! Right in the kisser!"

This is why the story of Maya Nieder hasn't hit the internet as hard as the Cheating Military Wife; there's not enough in it for other people to relate to. There's no what-happens-next tension as we wait for the next chapter of the story to unfold. The app will either be returned to iTunes when PRC lose their case or SfY will be shut down when PRC win. There are no dramatic possibilities. There's no salacious gossip to be had over it. That's why PRC isn't getting a lot of heat and the story will die off soon. I just wish that a child's need to continue to be able to communicate interested people more than an online soap opera.

* He eventually became the governor of Egypt. Long story. The Tim Rice musical is pretty good and Jason Donovan is good in the lead.

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