On this day, however, someone snapped a picture of Alex — gaze averted, hair artfully gelled to the left — as he slid what appears to be a cleaning product across the scanner. And some time after that, a young woman with 14,000 Twitter followers and an eye for attractive young men of the just-post-pubescent boy-band variety, posted said picture with the enthusiastic caption “YOOOOOOOOOO.” Count them: 10 Os.
Within the space of six hours, “Alex from Target” — whose actual Twitter handle is purportedly @acl163, and who seems equally bemused and flattered by the whole thing — has become the subject not only of countless derivative memes and impersonators, but also an entire screaming teen fandom … not unlike the ones enjoyed by, say, One Direction or Five Seconds of Summer. In fact, fans of bands like One Direction and Five Seconds of Summer explain how the heck a nobody like Alex from Target got this way, to begin with.
Analysis of early tweets about Alex — the ones that that brought him to Twitter’s attention on a more mainstream scale — show the fingerprints of several outspoken teen-girl fandoms. Among them, fan accounts like @NiallWifiPizzas (so named for 1D’s Niall Horan; 22,203 followers) and @5SOSBeliefs (12,905 followers) shared Alex’s photo to hundreds of RTs. Another account — the relatively unpopular @simplyespinosax (3,681 followers) — tweeted a picture of Alex next to a picture of Carter Reynolds, the teen Vine celeb, and asked followers to vote between the two. You can imagine who won. (For the record, 3,400 retweets is more than the Washington Post commonly sees on even serious or breaking news stories.)
In fact, while it’s difficult, from a distance, to look at an inexplicably viral phenomenon like “Alex” and figure out how it happened, this sort of thing plays out within the teen fandom space more or less every week. These fandoms have enormous power over what goes viral. But because they’re usually trending things like One Direction’s latest video, or some new heartthrob’s name, the mainstream Internet tends not to take them seriously. That is, quite obviously, a mistake: The fangirl faction isn’t just young, connected, and highly motivated to tweet about its causes; it’s also enormously savvy about the way Internet communities work and what mechanisms control visibility within them.
Fandoms have become legendary for the power they exert over Twitter’s trending topics, a list of hashtags that should represent the most popular subjects worldwide — but that, frequently, represent the interests of a dedicated group tweeting the same thing over and over. A quarter of Twitter’s top trending topics in the past month involved boy band fandoms, four of them for One Direction alone.
In late September, Directioneers succeeded in trending #TheDailyShowGoneTooFar and #ZaynDefenseSquad for hours on end after a fleeting joke in a Daily Show segment mentioned the boy band. And just last week, fans of One Direction and Justin Bieber clashed in a Twitter showdown over MTV’s Europe Music Awards, each trying to game a voting system controlled by hashtags. With over a week left in the contest, both groups resorted to what my colleague Emily Yahr hilariously termed “dirty tricks” in order to win: creating fake hashtags, pandering for RTs, and making sock puppet accounts to skew Twitter’s trending topics.
The fandoms don’t confine their influence campaigns to Twitter, either. On Wattpad, a self-publishing platform, fans plugged a piece of One Direction erotica so passionately that its author got a three-volume, mid-six-figure book deal just this June. (The physical book isn’t even out yet, and more people have read “After” than have bought all seven Harry Potters.)
Meanwhile, on YouTube and Vevo, fans will compulsively refresh video pages inflate their view counts. One Direction actually coaches fans on the practice: Make sure you’re watching the right video, they advise; share the link “constantly;” and watch for at least 30 seconds before Ctrl+R-ing the page. There’s no denying that the scheme works: “Steal My Girl,” which One Direction just released just over a week ago, has already been viewed almost 20 million times.
All this goes to show that teenage girls, particularly teenage girls coalesced in fandoms, are perhaps the most powerful, and most underestimated, force shaping mainstream Internet culture. If they glom on to something, whether it be a new One Direction single or the photo of some baby-faced Target cashier, it will go viral. That’s not a prediction or a correlation — it’s a proven certainty. And Alex, in his unwitting new stardom, has demonstrated that principle yet again.
Maybe it’s worth thinking through the bigger implications of all this, though. One Direction and Justin Bieber and Five Seconds of Summer are professional performing artists and public figures — they’ve invited, sometimes quite literally, the adulation and obsession of a million salivating female fans, largely because it benefits their lives/careers in very tangible ways.
But Alex is helpless in this whole thing. He never asked for fans or followers; he’s just borne along on the backs of the hordes — his unconsenting (and legitimately creepy!) image passed around like just another over-sexualized 1D fandom meme.
Alex may be “Internet famous,” but the Internet owns him. He doesn’t own his fans … and he certainly isn’t the agent of his own enormous, newfound fame.