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Posted at 3:27 PM ET, 03/11/2011

Evan Emory's YouTube debacle: real vs. online community

By Alexandra Petri

This is not how the YouTube story usually goes.

The steps are usually simple: Boy makes inappropriate video, video goes viral, boy becomes able to sell merchandise with his face on it without people thinking he's some sort of weirdo. (This, to me, is a good working definition of fame in our era.)

But instead, Evan Emory is famous -- but his video's been taken off YouTube, and he faces up to 20 years in prison on child pornography charges. And forget merchandise with his face on it.

This story is much more interesting.

This is about real community asserting itself in the face of online community.

Evan Emory is a 21-year-old from the small town of Muskegon, Mich. He made a humorous video in which he spliced together footage of his singing inappropriate lyrics with footage of children reacting to different, appropriate lyrics that he'd sung to them earlier. It was supposed to be a humorous concept video -- Emory said he'd written the song when he was 16, his friends had told him it was funny, and he decided it would be fun to sing it in an inappropriate setting.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

After all, there's precedent. The quest for fame, online or otherwise, usually requires some form of outrageous behavior. Lady Gaga wandered around Manhattan dressed as an angry lamp for months before being discovered. Fortunately, she had the support of Manhattan, Spiritual Home of All Strange Dressers. Emory was not so lucky. No prophet is accepted in his hometown? Well, neither are most YouTube superstars. It's the accepted price.

But what if you manage to tick off the people you do know -- without winning the affection of the millions you don't?

Win fame and fortune, and the inevitable backlash from the people you run into at the grocery store will be bearable. Fail to win them, and you're Evan Emory, now saddled with charges of child pornography and begging to do some jail time to make it all go away.

Sure, the online community has responded. There's a tepid Free Evan Emory movement on Facebook (just 3,880 members) and several strangers have made videos expressing their indignation at "the unfortunate mess of a country he happens to live in." But this isn't much help, on the ground.

The ground is Muskegon. "I feel like a jackass," Emory said in a tearful interview with the Muskegon Chronicle. "I [defecated] on my community ... I have people who have known me since I was 4 in my community that want me dead. I sang at my graduation commencement. You can literally fit the entire town in the gymnasium. I never wanted this to happen. I'm sorry to everybody."

It would be difficult to argue that what Emory produced was truly child pornography.

True, what Emory said he was using the kids for was false, and -- well, it was pretty easy to discover this, since the video was posted on YouTube. But that doesn't make it pornography -- it's a new crime: YouTube Without Consent. Some parents have senses of humor and wouldn't mind having their children included in this sort of thing; witness the choir singing Every Sperm Is Sacred in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life." But these parents were simply appalled, so Emory faces child pornography charges and a possible 20 years in jail.

Real community's winning this round.

The Internet was once the rare glass house with padded walls. By the time anyone thought to be hurt, you were an Intercontinental Superstar. Strangers on the other side of the world suddenly thought your baby ripping paper was hilarious, while your neighbors remained none the wiser.

But how much longer? It used to be that you could hide behind an online pseudonym. But what happened to Evan Emory is in some ways a metaphor for larger trends online -- real community reasserting its dominance in the online world. The socialization of everything online has had one definite effect: It's getting harder to become famous while remaining anonymous. Want to share videos with your friends? Link your YouTube account to your Gmail account! Want to comment on a Web site? Use your real name! Yes, the end of anonymity promotes civility. But something gets lost.

They say if you do caricature your friends in your first novel, they feel insulted, and if you don't, they feel disappointed. But what about YouTube videos?

Now, when you post an article or video online, the people you know are the first to find out. Gone are the friends you made anonymously on LiveJournal. Who uses that? Now it's all about Being Yourself on the Internet. Real community is reasserting itself.

And in the case of Evan Emory, it could exact quite a price.

By Alexandra Petri  | March 11, 2011; 3:27 PM ET
Categories:  Only on the Internet, Petri, Worst Things Ever  | Tags:  YouTube, kids these days, oops  
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