Friday, April 08, 2011

Stand-up comic declares war on the internet!

Chris Gethard is a stand-up comic and comedic actor. He's currently making the rounds of the comedy scene in New York City through stints at the UCB Theater, appearance in internet videos and guest star spots on TV shows.

However, Gethard hasn't caught my attention for his acting. He's caught my attention (and the attention of a few others including Dan O'Brien at this morning) for his curiosity about how internet anonymity brings out the worst in people and his creative attempts to be proactive about it.

One of the commenters on his IMDB page decided to post something really nasty about Gethard and Gethard tracked the commenter down and flew him to New York for an interview on his YouTube channel:

Chris Gethard is a comedian by profession, but in this video, he's not going for humor. He's acting as a social scientist, and perhaps with this video he's creating an artifact of Web 2.0, that seems as valuable to me as any book put out there by 98% of professors who lecture in media, new media, technology and culture, sociology, and the like.

In another similar "sociological experiment" Chris did a comedy routine on's video feed in front of a live audience in which he talked about his experience with commenters on the website. The fact that he performed it in front of a live audience is significant here. Comics like to point out the deficiencies of the world around us so their act often demonstrates how dumb a person is or how dumb a group of people are

In the video, he's making the live audience laugh by pointing out how dumb the commenters are and because the live audience isn't really the target of his jokes, it works comedically. But his larger audience is the people watching his routine through and he's downright attacking them. He goes on to provoke them further at the end of the routine to give them his worst and he'll even go on the message boards themselves and respond to it.

I checked the message board myself and the fact that Chris called them out didn't alter their behavior that much. These people, who might be perfectly civilized adults in real life, knew that this comic was going to read their comments and they still posted terrible things. It's to Chris's credit that he directly showed me how these people really had lost it. It's also to Chris's credit that because of his experiment, I understood how bad it would feel to read all these hurtful comments and how cruel people can be to anyone who gets put involuntarily or voluntarily put in front of any kind of spotlight where they're exposed to strangers. If Chris had a PhD in front of his name, he might be published somewhere for something like this. Who knows?

How much Chris is personally affected or bothered by the problem isn't something I'm sure of but there are some stars who aren't particularly geared towards fame and act rather unusually towards some of its trappings. Some people (3 very very random examples: Kanye West, skier Bode Miller in the 2006 Olympics, Greta Garbo) don't react to media and fame in ways that their press agents would be proud of. They get caught up in what the public at large thinks of them and trying to rebel against it. Chris, in a way is one of those rebels. He's not just answering the media's questions
(even though the media isn't news outlets) about him but daring viewers (like that live audience) to be critical of the media itself.

For example, I specifically remember several years ago, being on an internet message board and discussing on Tina Fey's page whether someone like Tina would read about what we were writing in the IMDB message boards. It seemed inconceivable that even though imdb is the easiest place to look up information about films, that she being famous would use it. She probably has her own version of imdb (and the internet for that matter) and wouldn't ever use the same website as us commoners, and therefore wouldn't ever see any messages we'd be writing about her or her show on the web page.

Ironically, this was parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch in which Sigourney Weaver is obsessed with what everyone's saying about her on imdb.

This is ridiculous to us because of sheer numbers. It's not that Sigourney Weaver or Tina Fey aren't able to look up comments people have made about them to imdb, but even if they did directly address some of the people who were commenting about them, it would be such a small ripple that most of their fan base will never personally hear from her.

Because of the vast scale of with the thousands upon thousands of forums, only a few message boards (usually, the just-released films, ongoing TV shows and main message boards) get any traffic at all. Because Gethard's show business career is very small at this point, only four people have ever bothered visiting Gethard's message board and posting something which doesn't make for very much active discussion, so he's very likely to see it. It would be very easy for commenters to not consider that difference between Tina Fey and Chris Gethard and voice their opinions of both the same way.

The difference between the ordinary person and the famous person used to be much larger, especially with twitter, and I think because Chris Gerhard is currently on the bottom of the rung of fame that he's in a unique position to be at the center of this discussion and I think it's been a good discussion to have so far.

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