North Wind And Sun

Amherst Bytes: Friend or Foe: The Internet Chooses Its Own Alliances

Originally published in The Amherst Student on 11 FEB 2009

In our increasingly digital age, the Internet can either be your best friend or your most bitter and aggressive enemy.

Note the increasingly funny example of Christian Bale’s outburst on the set of Terminator Salvation. The event, leaked onto the Internet in audio form by some brave and heroic individual last week, featured a furious and bellowing Batman verbally assaulting Director of Photography (DP) Shane Hurlbut for walking back and forth behind the camera during filming. Bale, via a series of accented expletives unbecoming of even the darkest knight, lambasted the unfortunate DP for, among other things, breaking Bale’s concentration during one the film’s toughest and most heart-wrenching scenes. According to the Independent, which actually pays people to count these kinds of things, Bale said the f-word 37 times, which, over the course of his four-minute tirade, averages to about one swear every six seconds.

The Internet responded. Within days, the audio found its ways into the hearts, minds and hard drives of countless Internet users, ushering reactions from both sides of the aisle. Some, most notably famous folk like Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky, Whoopi Goldberg and Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles, defended Bale. Knowles, waxing philosophic, wrote in a post in his website, “none of us are perfect, and certainly we have all sinned to some degree. Actors, Actresses, Celebrities and the people exploited on sites like TMZ. They’re human beings that I personally feel are owed the same inalienable rights that the rest of us hold dear.”

And, certainly, if you consider ridiculing, criticizing and parodying among those inalienable rights, the Internet, in turn, graciously responded. Almost immediately after the audio found its way onto blogs and websites, a host of mash-ups, remixes and t-shirts flooded the web. Most notable among these creations were productions by musicians The Mae Shi, RevoLucian, and, likely most prominently, Stephen Colbert. What became obvious after all of this was a simple conclusion: While there were indeed fragments of support for Bale, the popular consensus was that the Welsh actor was no one’s hero.

None of this is particularly significant: The Internet has a well-known history of both making and breaking careers, for both events of greater and less significance than the Bale example. What’s interesting here, however, is the dichotomy between the Internet’s reaction to the year-old tirade and its reaction to a more recent moment of shame �” that of 2008 Olympics superstar Michael Phelps.

At the end of January, Phelps was photographed taking a gold medal-winning hit of marijuana from a bong. The image, appearing first on the website for the British tabloid newspaper News of the World, spread like wildfire across the Internet. Phelps soon admitted to the veracity of the image, apologizing for his “regrettable” behavior, which, he said in a press statement, “demonstrated poor judgment.”

Poor judgment indeed. In the wake of the scandal, Phelps lost his contract with Kellogg’s and was banned from swimming competitively for three months. With Phelps likely facing criminal charges, his innocence hinges on the hope that the particulars of the image �” i.e. where it was taken and whether he was really smoking marijuana �” are never found out. (Curiously, Phelps better hope that the photo wasn’t taken with the Sony’s GPS-CS1 which, via a technique called ‘geotagging,’ attaches GPS data to images for easy compatibility with applications like Google maps.)

Though Phelps was legally very much in the wrong, his unfortunate consumption of weed has had a bit more unexpected effect �” uniting weed smokers and supporters of marijuana legalization. After it was announced that Phelps would be losing his contract with Kellogg’s, notorious libertarian, former cannabis salesman and Canadian Marc Scott Emery created a Facebook cause titled “BOYCOTT KELLOGG’S FOR REPUDIATING MICHAEL PHELPS.” As of February 6th, the cause has seventy-one supporters. Similarly, filmmaker Lee Stranahan created a petition on PetitionOnline.com. Stranahan’s petition, while is ultimately tongue-and-cheek, has nonetheless fetched 82 signatures.

While these particular petitions point to an online reaction of a much smaller scale than the one that Christian Bale’s outburst elicited, the relationship between the two events is nonetheless interesting. Bale, a celebrity and hence by default an object of scorn and ridicule, was, minus the few souls noble enough to defend him, instantly maligned. Phelps, in contrast, was given the benefit of the doubt, likely owing to the nature of his offense �” being a normal guy caught smoking weed.

But that’s the Internet. Play your cards right, and you will no doubt have the backing of countless Reddit and Digg users fighting for your cause and defending your honor. Do something stupid, however, and prepare for the most intense, protracted and hilarious multimedia response that you’ve ever experienced. You will be lionized for your bravery or reviled for your cowardice, memorialized in the form of 4Chan memes or lost to the rapidly-moving digital river. You’re either Josef Fritzl or Mark Bunker, Souljaboy or Rick Astley.

Whatever your cause is, just don’t ask 4Chan for help �” as everyone knows, they are not your personal army.

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