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The Socialweb: Connecting you with your inner rapist.

Recently, a friend of mine sent me a link to a “crazy” soundfile. Apparently, some guy named Dimitri had left a very inept message on a girl’s answering machine, who had then sent it to a radio station. My friend is from Canada, and taking a quick look the forwarded facebook message, it seemed like half of Canada was in a discussion regarding this phone call.

I listened to it. The guy definitely has a shot at the title of biggest douchebag ever. But I immediately started feeling weird. Weird like on the day before a flu truly hits you. When you’re off in a disturbing way, yet not showing any symptoms. In short, I felt like I had just contracted a marketing virus. I just couldn’t figure out what product it was for: Call screening software? A pepper spray that works over the phone? A new Judd Apatow movie?

The History of a Meme

I went to google: Dimitri’s phone call had come a long way to reach me. The first video on Youtube dates back to June 26th, 2008. And yet, on Facebook, he was still making the rounds more than 16 months later. This idea truly travelled.

A clip from the popular Youtube magazine The Young Turks from June 27th 2008 makes it easy to see why this is perfect material for a new journalism that is living on breadcrumbs or less: It creates 2 minutes of attention. For very little money.

After being featured on TYT, Dimitri got popular. If the socialweb really likes something, it turns it into a “meme”. Which, for people who did not grow up eating pixels, is something like a recognizable thought pattern or idea, ready to be copied or played with.

Probably the most famous meme of 2009 is the keyboardcat. Originally just a video of a cat “playing” the keyboard, it is now added to other videos to signify failure in all its glory. For example: this policeman, demonstrating weapon safety rules in a classroom. Equally a meme, albeit a less meaningful one, is the notorious “Ey Marine”, racking up 3.5 million views (in just one of its many instances). Jumpcut back to Dimitri, who, while not being nearly as successful as the keyboardcat, has had his fair share of memetic success. His story was reused and reinterpreted on the web, creating buzz, the most coveted attention unit of all.

Unviralling Dimitri

On the easy side of things, some just quickly added pictures for an ironic commentary. Like this video, one of the first, from June 26th 2008, with over 500.000 hits. The poster has nonchalantly moved the location from Toronto to a “San Francisco Marina”, while he nevertheless actively suggests the authenticity of the call: “It’s legit”.

Of course, there is more: Some reenacted the recording with their own voices. There is a “musical version” set to the sound of, among others, Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker. Some actually just posted the soundfile with no images at all -- and still got 11.000 “views”. In a typical memetic turn, one Youtuber used the call to comment on something completely different: the probably equally disturbing rituals of college football recruiting.

Once a meme aquires a certain strenghth, one may even be tempted to ride to socialweb fame on it’s back. After hitting the big time with a video reenactment of Dimitri’s message on June 26th (200.000 views), radioshow host Eric Anderson created four more “Dimitri” videos – actually writing his own -- sadly boring -- material. Much more original was the idea (July 8th, 2008) to reedit the original message for a fictitious job interview in which an off-camera Dimitri applies for a position at a children’s daycare.

However, one approach is completely absent from all these responses: A solid cross-checking of the facts. Was this a real call? Or something else?

Finally on July 6th, 10 days after the initial posting, the web community stopped playing for a moment and got serious. Turns out, the call is not “legit”: Dimitri is a persona. A fictional character created by James N. Sears (Wikipedia), a former doctor who had his license revoked under accusations of being a sex offender. Sears has since started a second career as a pickup artist (PUA) and “masculinity counselor”, a Canadian real life Frank T.J. Mackey -- with doubtful ideas like: getting in touch with your inner rapist and murderer.

The information on Sears and his dangerously misogynistic philosophy was already out there, researched by members of the traditional press like the Toronto Sun and Canadian TV (see links below). But it was not on Youtube, where buzz happens. So HushUpDoc created a video called: “The un-funny truth about Dimitri the lover.” http://www.youtube.com/user/HushUpDoc. The video found a substantial viewership of more than 40.000. Regarding it came to the game rather late… a quite substantial number. It is hard to say what role this video played exactly, but soon after the interest in Dimitri fizzled out.

The Douchebag Comeback

So how come “The Lover” is still around to reach my inbox in August 2009? After all, maximum fame had peaked in June/July of 2008. Even a top spot on the Toronto Villains List 2008 did not rekindle any interest. Looking at the stats of the various videos, the number of clicks accelerate again over the last three months. How can this happen?

  • First: As a social medium, the internet is much slower than the mass media. Dimitri travelled from Canada, to the US, and then to Australia. He got big there in the beginning of 2009. From there he went to the UK and then probably back to Canada/US.
  • Second: Nothing on the internet disappears, but a lot is forgotten. Such as the facts.
  • Third: John/Dimitri actually knows how to play the socialweb. In May 2009, he created self-promotional videos and posted them as answers to all the existing Dimitri-videos. In doing this, he created traffic to his own videos, but also new traffic to the others. In a 2005 Interview by Canadian Television reporters, “Sears says even bad publicity is good for business.”

Just like any other web-savvy brand, Dimitri goes where the discussion already is. He has nothing to lose but attention. And the clicks are coming in. Not by the millions, but by the 1000s. And that means an additional 40.000 people have since listened to a total nut elaborating on why being a metrosexual is a bad idea: Because women can’t help but want to perform oral favors on Clint Eastwood. But not on Jude Law. Right.

From there it is no further than a click to six more videos, their topics ranging from how many phone numbers “The Lover” can get in 35 minutes (5!), to why women’s “biological calling is to be gang-banged on a daily basis”. Not exactly the most finely tuned masculinity at work here. After listening to this, it seems rather credible that his seminars may help men to get in touch with their “inner rapist” but not much else.

If this makes your skin crawl, it could also raise a big question: how great was the web-community’s idea to spread that fake phone message in the first place?

An old temptation – for the new citizen journalist

As we have all become media channels, we are now facing the same temptation that mass media have leered at for decades. Smut and sex are fantastic content! Whether it’s advertising dollars you’re chasing or the attention of your Facebook posse -- nothing attracts people like the lowest common denominator (You’re welcome to use my title as proof of concept :-). The socialweb rewards us for pushing potentially dangerous content around the globe, and we don’t really care. So far most of us just enjoy cavorting around in an ironic-detachment zone.

John/Dimitri, while have very little saving qualities, at least makes us realize, what excellent service regular journalism and the scarcity model of media have provided. Now, as content has gone to places that regular journalism can’t reach -- and will never be paid to reach, the job is on us.

How will we define our role as both medium and gatekeeper on a day-by-day basis. As a media, we’re allowed to be thrilled about every further person we reach. As gatekeepers we have to select from the barrage of ideas wanting to use us as their means of travel. Will the new citizen journalists go for maximizing their audience. Or will they go for local relevance and take a pass on the useless or dangerous.

Spiderman tought us that “with great power -- comes great responsibilty.” Sometimes that responsibilty may also accompany very very small powers.

Important articles:

CTV.ca, Canadian Television Website, May 4th, 2005:

http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/1115167462268_11/?hub=CTVNewsAt11

Torontoist, June 2008:

http://torontoist.com/2008/06/remember_dimitri_the_lover.php

Toronto Sun, December 31st, 2008:

http://www.torontosun.com/news/torontoandgta/2008/12/31/7891486.html

BlogTo (a Toronto blog), April 2008:

http://www.blogto.com/tno/2008/04/dimitri_the_lover_models_the_real_man/

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