Everything You Should Know About Your 15 Minutes of Fame Before It Happens

Everything You Should Know About Your 15 Minutes of Fame Before It Happens
Photo: Denis Makarenko, Shutterstock

We’ve all heard about Andy Warhol’s old declaration that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes — except that wasn’t really something Warhol said. The late artist has been famous for decades because of his work, but that quote had real staying power, too, and that’s how these things work: People become well-known and even infamous all the time, as the misattributed prophecy foretold, but often, it’s thanks to a quip or action that was taken out of context or is otherwise not wholly rooted in the truth.

Viral videos are a great example of this. With an upload to Vine (RIP), Twitter, or TikTok, a totally average person can rocket to the top of the trending topic list. The public becomes very interested in that person very quickly, despite really only knowing a few seconds’ worth of information about them. Naturally, inquiring minds start looking for more details about the day’s main character, which can feel pretty invasive to the Regular Joe at the centre of the furor.

Here’s what to know before your inevitable 15 minutes of fame.

How does viral fame work?

Sometimes, viral fame is wholesome. Yesterday, a young man in Manhattan became a sensation on Twitter after calling the police when he saw the suspect in a mass shooting walking by his job site. That man, Zack Tahhan, was swarmed by press and fêted online. Almost immediately, though, there were other calls online for people not to ruin the good vibes by digging into Tahhan’s past or character. We’ve all seen it happen too many times: Someone unsuspectingly ascends to their moment in the limelight only to have some subjectively icky fact about themselves come out, “cancelling” them. There’s even a term for it, which itself stems from an old viral tweet: When this happens to you, you’ve been “milkshake ducked.”

What is wholesome can quickly become less-than-wholesome, all because instant notoriety guarantees Internet sleuths will start looking for more information about the subject. Hoping to get in on the action and score those sweet, sweet clicks, digital media sites lead the charge, publishing “five things you need to know about” mundane, regular people who just happen to be trending, culling job histories from LinkedIn and biographical facts from other social media sites, as well as publicly-available information elsewhere. The person may be asked to appear on the news or give an interview — and can end up saying the wrong thing, continuing the news cycle in an unfavourable way.

What’s more, viral fame doesn’t always even start out wholesome and take a turn for the worse. Consider the case of West Elm Caleb, a young man who used dating apps in New York and was vilified online in January because he…dated multiple women at once. Numerous New York-area women made videos about their experiences with him, which included being sent playlists and finding out, from other videos, that a man who wasn’t their exclusive boyfriend was acting like he wasn’t their exclusive boyfriend. It didn’t take long for social media users to find his real name and start emailing his bosses. Like Tahhan, he trended on Twitter.

If you find yourself trending, don’t panic. You’re not the first person to be in this position. Learn from what others have done here, starting with…

Say nothing

Don’t start responding to mean tweets maniacally. The first thing you should do is nothing.

“Shutting up can be the best approach, honestly,” said Mitchell Jackson, head of PR and media training firm BCC Communications. “If you’re in one of these situations and you don’t want it to define you, if you don’t have access to a publicist or media trainer, it may be better to say nothing.”

The easiest way to say nothing is to avoid even seeing anything you might want to respond to. Nivine Jay, a social media influencer who went viral last year after posting a video Ben Affleck sent her demanding to know why she unmatched him on a dating app, told Lifehacker, “You just have to not really read any comments.”

That’s easier said than done, of course. Jay was written about in big-name gossip outlets and, despite her advice against reading the comments, found Reddit threads and other social media posts about herself.

“People found photos of me when I was like 14 and were like, ‘Wow, she got a face transplant. Look how ugly she was.’ They made fun of my slightly crooked teeth and made threads about how much I suck,” she recalled. “I still have my inbox flooded with really terrible messages. I just don’t even open them anymore.”

Make a strategy

After completing the first step — which is, again, saying nothing — you need to figure out what you want to do next. Do you want to try to harness this viral fame and milk it for all it’s worth, or do you want to ride this out in silence and wait for it to stop? Think of people like “Octomom” Nadya Suleman or even Monica Lewinski. There are varying degrees of success you can hope for if you choose to parlay brief infamy into some kind of income source, but it comes down to more than hope. You have to work — and spend money.

Unfortunately, your financial and social backgrounds may play a role. Jackson pointed out that someone who comes from money or has grown up around media and public relations will have an easier time securing representation or media training than a regular person who accidentally fell into the spotlight. Public relations is a referral-based business, so if you’re “in the know,” you’ll know someone who knows someone who can help you. If you’re a regular person from Nowhere, USA, it might be harder to figure out where to start; Jackson cautioned that if you just search for “crisis PR,” you’re bound to find scammers. If at all possible, hire a publicist. Jackson said, “The big mistake a lot of people make is they hire someone when it’s too late. If you find yourself going viral, you should hire someone within a second.”

You also need to consider your existing life. Would your employer be upset at you for becoming a public figure, even briefly? Do you have something substantial to lose? Not everyone can be like Kim Kardashian, turning one bit of negative publicity into a decades-long career. Plenty of the temporarily-famous stick to their anonymous desk jobs (and may find that a relief). Be sure whatever you do doesn’t impact your ability to reenter your normal life.

If, for whatever reason, you do want to ride the wave a while, you’ll need a publicist and media training. Communications professionals could book you on a morning show, for instance, but when the cameras are rolling, you need to be prepared. Jay was able to harness some of the unexpected publicity she received last year into brand deals, but that takes work, even — or especially — if you’re attempting it on your own.

“Was it worth it? Absolutely,” she said. “I got so many opportunities after going viral and made more money that year than ever before from brands wanting to work with me.”

If brands start reaching out to you with deals, read everything carefully. Getting a free shirt in exchange for posting once on Instagram is relatively simple, but brand and influencer deals can be tricky. Consider getting a lawyer to read through anything that seems even a little confusing.

Prepare in advance

You may not know when your 15 minutes will come for you. West Elm Caleb didn’t, for instance, and neither did hero du jour Tahhan. Jay has always been active on social media and used it to make money, but even she didn’t anticipate that her Affleck video would blow up the way it did. Whether you’re seeking out a little fame or just being cautious in case it accidentally happens to you, you should always be ready.

If you have no real and immediate likelihood of going viral, maybe don’t hire a media trainer for no reason. (Or do — it can’t hurt to learn the art of tactfully answering questions without revealing too much.) What you can do right now, though, is clean up your social media profiles. Delete your vulgar old tweets. Make sure your Facebook is private and only friends can view it (though, of course, they can screenshot your posts and rat you out to get a slice of their own public attention). Do you need all those sloppy party pics on your Instagram? Probably not.

“Before you post things that could go viral, go through your social media profiles and make sure there is nothing old on there that you wouldn’t want people seeing now. The Internet is ruthless and can be unforgiving,” said Jay. “People will literally dig into your past to find any reason possible to hate on you.”

Enjoy your 15 minutes of fame

Whether Warhol said it or not, the idea that brief fame is coming for us all isn’t that far off. Provided you don’t get milkshake ducked for genuinely heinous things — like being a racist or a fraud — you might as well sit back and enjoy your turn.

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