When Andy Warhol predicted that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, he got the idea right, but his time frame was way off. For the past decade, we’ve seen a democratization of celebrity; fame has become more attainable, and yet more powerful, than ever. The internet operates under a village mindset, one in which formerly isolated niches can grow into hyper-specialized global phenomena. There are pop culture deities for singing, dancing, and acting, but also for mastication, gory makeup, and even the soothing sounds of Silly Putty. But who are these everyday people-turned-blue-chip-mega-influencers? And how does this happen? We tracked a few of them down to find out.
Gavin Thomas is a 8-year-old boy from Minnesota who enjoys bacon and is preternaturally good at making goofy facial expressions. After his initial popularity on the now-defunct video-streaming app Vine, his parents started an account for him on Weibo, the Chinese counterpart of Twitter. His highly meme-able face now graces t-shirts across Asia. His mother, Kate Thomas, spoke on his behalf.
“My brother was popular on Vine, and he had a crested gecko. When Gavin was 3 years old, my brother put the lizard on Gavin’s head, and the lizard bit him. Gavin made a series of facial expressions. My brother said, ‘Did it bite you?’ And Gavin said, ‘No.’ People were taking screenshots of that photo. The headline was ‘snitches get stitches.’ I’m not totally sure why, but people see themselves in Gavin’s expressions. People called him ‘Our Son’ or ‘The Internet’s Nephew.” We try to be really careful about privacy, but sometimes we’ll go to Target and someone will recognize him. When Vine went away, we were already on Instagram and Twitter. We started to notice people in China with t-shirts of Gavin’s face. So we made a video for Weibo, and within 24 hours he had a million followers. In China, he’s actually known as ‘Fake Smile Boy.’ Gavin is in school full-time. He’s only starting to understand what a meme is. It’s going to be interesting to see how things turn out for this generation. We’re at my grandparents’ house now making caramel corn. Gavin is running around going, ‘Hey, guys, it’s Gavin here,’ trying to replicate what YouTubers say. He does that everywhere he goes.”