Gil Scott-Heron may have told us that the revolution will not be televised, but he didn’t say anything about social media.
On the morning of October 26, 2104 Alex Christopher LaBeouf, a normal, good looking sixteen year old living in Dallas went to work at his part time job at the local Target store. Like most teenagers his age he participated in social media, but his engagement was unremarkable. In fact, he had less than 150 followers on Twitter.
That afternoon, a fifteen year old girl named Brooklyn Reiff took a picture of Alex and tweeted it to her friend Alanna because Alanna had told her that Alex was cute. Then she forgot all about it, and him, unaware of the internet tsunami she had just unleashed.
Nothing much happened for a few days. And then a teenager in the U.K. with the twitter handle @auscalum, who presumably thought the boy was cute and who was very actively engaged in social media, retweeted the photo. And all hell broke loose.
Instantly the photo went viral. The hashtag #AlexFromTarget trended through the roof. Alex’s own twitter followers grew from 144 to more than 600,000 almost overnight. Alex was invited to go on the Ellen DeGeneres show where he told Ellen, among other things, that he had received several marriage proposals.
That’s all good fun, right? You be the judge.
The folks at Target denied having anything to do with the viral meme. Yet recognizing a native integration opportunity when they saw one, themselves started tweeting about Alex and the #AlexFromTarget craze.
Bags of Bliss, an Australian manufacturer of pre-packaged maternity gift bags, has a Twitter handle almost identical to Alex’s handle. After gamely posting several times that they were not #AlexFromTarget they figured if you can’t beat’em join ‘em, and started advertising their product to a suddenly expanded customer base.
An unknown social media marketing company called Breakr made the unlikely claim that they had orchestrated the entire thing to show brands and potential clients the commercial power of Fangirls. When Alex, the girls who had originally tweeted the photo, and even Target denied any knowledge of Breakr the company backpedalled, leaving them with a black eye and the specter of dishonesty.
@auscalum, the young woman whose retweet started the avalanche, got so much hate content on her Twitter feed, including death threats (!?), that she temporarily shut down her Twitter account. Ironically, @auscalum reactivated her account to deny that she knew or had anything to do with Breakr.
A number of fake Alex accounts sprang up, the most egregious being one that created the handle @acl164 (Alex uses the handle @acl163) and started aggressively procuring follows and engagement from teen girls. Whether that user is a teenage boy, a pedophile, or something else remains unknown.
And what of the fate of young Alex LaBeouf? Well, the jury’s still out. He’s still working at Target. He’s still posting normal tweets, albeit now to a whole lot more people. He still seems close with his family. But will his inadvertent celebrity help or hurt his development as a young adult? Target will profit from all this free press, but will brands embrace Alex to endorse their products, or will he slink back into obscurity when his fifteen minutes (or fifteen seconds) of fame are up?
Only time will tell. But the lesson of #AlexFromTarget is that the unintended consequences that can spring from social media should make us all tread very carefully as we are drawn to its siren song.