Doctored Feelgood

On the modern web, many viral videos and stories are uplifting, until they aren't

Doctored Feelgood

It seems like mere days ago that the Internet was beaming a delighted smile upon the latest feel-good viral hit: A YouTube video celebrating today’s young girls as tomorrow’s tech-savvy engineers racked up millions of hits. “Girls to build the spaceship,” the accompanying song went, “Girls to code the new app. Girls to grow up knowing that they can engineer that. Girls. That’s all we really need is Girls.”


Cut to the present, and this uplifting exercise has devolved into a bona fide bummer. The charming youngsters in this promotion for a line of girl-oriented construction toys called GoldieBlox were singing to a Beastie Boys tune called “Girls.” It turns out the Beastie Boys have a longtime stance against the use of their music in advertisements, and an inquiry (possibly threatening?) from their camp resulted in GoldieBlox launching a preventive legal strike seeking judicial blessing of its “parody” of the group’s “highly sexist” song.

The Beastie Boys responded with an open letter that expressed admiration for the commercial — but pointed out that a commercial is what it was. “When we tried to simply ask how and why our song ‘Girls’ had been used in your ad without our permission,” the note concludes, “YOU sued US.” After much criticism on both sides, GoldieBlox replaced the music on its video with a much less uplifting track.

... Yay?


Basically, there is something here to make everyone feel bad: It’s the latest case of today’s uplifting online phenomenon curdling into tomorrow’s depressing buzzkill squabble.

Partly this is a simple side effect of a real-time, social media-fueled “news” cycle that now routinely elevates alleged events into the infosphere, only to issue a belated, “Oh, wait, maybe not?” follow-up. Here’s a stirring tale of a man standing up for his gay grandson by “disowning” his own daughter. But maybe that was all fake or something? This dog climbed Mount Everest! Actually, no. Did you see that amazing video of a cat being rescued from a fire? Well, the cat’s dead now.

Years ago, I worked as a reporter at a small-town paper in central Texas, and my colleagues and I used to cackle like the cynics we were at the slogan used by another paper in a different corner of the county: “Only the good news!” Apart from basically advertising its limited utility as a source of information, this tiny media entity was endorsing a strategy that lives on through venues like Upworthy, and remains just as flawed: Invariably, some of today’s inspirational dispatches will turn out to be tomorrow’s sadly cracked illusions.

For every silver lining, as George Carlin sagely observed, there’s a dark cloud.

“Hey, social media,” Gawker impresario Nick Denton asked recently, apropos of this very subject: “What do you want, a heartwarming hoax or the dispiriting truth?” One answer is that both rack up clicks, so, great. Even when we’re not vetting “the good news” in real time, both silver linings and dark clouds draw crowds, in the short term at least.

It might help, if you can recall it, to think back to the "Kony 2012" episode, which is perhaps the ultimate act of buzzkill virality.

Act One: An online video, starring a charismatic, driven young documentary filmmaker, draws attention to African militia leader and indicted war criminal Joseph Kony, galvanizing efforts toward his arrest. The video becomes a huge viral phenomenon.

Act Two: Questions start popping up about the video and the charity behind it.

Act Three: “[T]he documentary-maker was later filmed in a naked public rant,” as PBS drily puts it, “detracting from his message.”

... And scene.

I certainly understand the hunger for the inspiring, the upbeat, the good news. But the recurring arc across this diverse cross-section of spreadable uplift is the dispiriting denouement. Maybe that’s the inevitable fallout of a hypercharged news cycle playing out in a complicated world. So be careful when you scarf down those viral treats. You never know what might leave a nasty aftertaste.