Alex of Target is a cruel twist on an old American story

Alex of Target is a cruel twist on an old American story
Posted at 4:17 PM, Nov 13, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-14 10:25:52-05

It has been 53 years since FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow described television as a “vast wasteland.” His larger point was that TV ought to choose instead to focus on “education and culture,” as well as “decency and decorum.”

But if TV in 1961 was a wasteland, what is the Internet today?

A wasteland on steroids, perhaps? If anything, it has magnified some aspects of the American story that have been with us for a century or more, and not in a good way.

The case of #AlexfromTarget is exhibit A in this discussion. You may not have heard of this Internet phenomenon (my audience tends to skew a bit older than the teenage crowd). As the hashtag implies, Alex was an employee at Target — a 16-year-old part-timer who attended high school in Frisco, Texas. He was an unassuming, church-going young man, described by the New York Times as having a messy bedroom and 144 Twitter followers.

Then a couple of weeks ago a young woman came by his checkout stand and, thinking he was cute, secretly took a photo of him, which she posted on the Internet.

Dan Tynan, a tech columnist, wrote on Yahoo! that what happened next is the sort of inexplicable chain of events that is set in motion “when the Internet gets something stuck in its teeth.”

One day, Alex noticed the lines at his register getting longer and longer, and filling with giggling girls. The next time he looked at his phone, he had more than 100,000 Twitter followers.

We’ve heard this classic American story before. Lana Turner was 15, sipping a soda at the Top Hat Café in 1935 when the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter noticed her and launched her into movie stardom.

In 1957, Fabian Forte was watching an ambulance take away his father, who had suffered a heart attack, when a friend of his neighbor asked if he would like to sign a contract with a record company. Soon he was the object of screaming girls everywhere he went.

The story, with variations, has repeated itself from time to time with others. But unlike Alex, those stars were at least given a choice before signing up.

Years ago, as a reporter in Las Vegas, I spent an evening with Fabian. By then, he had emerged from personal problems brought on by the pressures of fame. Stardom has its ugly sides, and he wasn’t the first to discover them.

But the Internet magnifies that ugliness with a frightening intensity. It took only a matter of days before Alex was appearing on “Ellen.” The Times said he has had offers from advertisers and agents trying to get him parts in movies or as a model. He can’t eat at a fast-food restaurant because of screaming teenage girls, their photo-taking cellphones held aloft.

And then came the ugliness — death threats, vulgarities and lies about him that spread as quickly as his fame. People leaked family bank account information and Social Security numbers.

Experts say he needs to cash in now and keep the magic going before it evaporates. But evaporation may have a magic of its own — a choice Lana Turner and Fabian never got.

The Internet is a cruel meritocracy that never forgets. It instantly rewards what people seek, although this can be impossible to predict. It mercilessly exposes its victims to anonymous cruelty, and every image and comment is preserved forever in endless and irretrievable copies.

I don’t know how the story will end for Alex. I do know that parents need to tell his tale to their kids. It appears no one, neither Alex nor his initial admirer, did anything an observer might consider wrong. But it pays to tread lightly through cyberspace.

Minow was only half right all those years ago. Television has produced its share of worthwhile and uplifting programming. Likewise, the Internet has made good on marvelous promises no one knew to expect.

The decision, however, is up to us. Each user gets to choose between the wasteland and the wonderland.

Just keep in mind that the new wasteland is nothing with which to trifle.