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A Twitter Mob Forced Shia LaBeouf to 'Retire.' Hooray?

Rob Walker

In a blissful but now-forgotten era that ended just weeks ago, I had no idea who Shia LaBeouf was. Since then, however, the Internet has cleared that up for me: Shia LaBeouf is the worst human being in the history of the world.

At least, that’s the impression I got as I involuntarily absorbed the story of his complete public dismantling. This began with the revelation that he had ripped off a Daniel Clowes comic in a short film distributed online, and concluded with LaBeouf’s announcement, on Twitter, that he is “retiring from all public life.”

Along the way I realized I’d actually seen LaBeouf in a movie or two, but he’d made no great impression on me. I certainly wasn’t aware that lots of people seem to find him unbelievably irritating. (LaBeouf, now 27, broke through as a teen star of a Disney Channel series called Even Stevens, and transitioned to movies, most notably in the Transformers franchise.) While he’s had some fairly rote tabloid-fodder romantic entanglements and legal run-ins, what seems to annoy his detractors is basically a pretentious demeanor. He’s dabbled in comics and directing, and evidently sees himself as a creative force well beyond acting — a sort of poor man’s James Franco, perhaps.

In any case, there was pent-up demand for a Shia LeBeouf Haterade Festival when bloggers and others online pointed out that a LeBeouf-directed short film called HowardCantour.com drew quite blatantly from a 2007 Daniel Clowes comic called Justin M. Damiano — including everything from big chunks of word-for-word dialogue to major thematic and plot ideas. LeBeouf (who’d had a prior brush with plagiarism accusations) promptly fessed up and issued a groveling apology.

It was at this point that l’affaire LeBeouf turned a weird corner. The Internet concluded that this apology had, bizarrely, lifted material from a Yahoo Answers entry on plagiarism. Everyone went berserk. “LeBeouf’s other work falters under new scrutiny,” BuzzFeed reported, as if we were discussing a significant artist or celebrated cultural figure. The examples were many, and strange, including rip-offs of everything from Charles Bukowski’s poetry to past apologies from Tiger Woods and Alec Baldwin.

With the LeBeouf ouvre in tatters, a social-media siege descended upon the actor himself. Patton Oswalt and Lena Dunham took shots on Twitter, along with many scores of un-famous people; nobody was discussing intellectual property, creativity or anything at all beyond the apparently unprecedentedly heinous nature of Shia LeBeouf.

“In light of the recent attacks on my artistic integrity,” the actor finally tweeted, “I am retiring from all public life.”

Even that turned out to be another jug of gasoline on the fire — a masterfully venomous AV Club takedown characterized the tweet as “plagiarizing the pretentious, self-aggrandizing caricature of Shia LaBeouf everyone has in their heads now.” And LeBeouf continued roasting long enough for Jim Carrey to take make fun of him during the Golden Globes. LeBeouf promptly came out of retirement to handle this as badly as possible, with some ill-advised comments about Carrey’s personal life, followed by yet another apology and a plaintive tweet: “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.”

Actually, of course, he is more famous than ever. (Indeed, his plea to the contrary has been retweeted more than 2,000 times.) So assuming that this is now, or close to being, over — what exactly just happened?

I certainly have no specific interest in defending Shia LeBeouf, whose entire career I had easily ignored before now. This isn’t exactly like losing the cultural contributions of J.D. Salinger. I think it’s uncool that LeBeouf blatantly cribbed from the artist Clowes (whose work I’ve loved since college), and I’m glad he got caught.

But at a certain point, my mere awareness of this basically irrelevant guy going down in flames started to creep me out. Was it really necessary to make this a major cultural topic? Was the endless “new scrutiny,” as if we were talking about an elected official, really adding anything? There wasn’t even a controversy: Everybody just seemed to be climbing all over each other to say new versions of the same thing. And remember, I wasn’t seeking news of Operation Destroy LeBeouf; I simply couldn’t avoid it. It was like the dumb pop songs or ubiquitous jingles of the broadcast era, completely impossible to tune out. It was ambient triviality. 

This sounds like the part where I tell you to get off my lawn. But my point is not to yearn for some simpler, earlier era before we obsessed over celebrity gossip, since I have never known such a world. But I do find it baffling that with the greatest information-dissemination system in the history of the world at our fingertips, we haven’t gotten better at using it. Public figures continue to find new ways to treat social media as gaffe-spreading implosion mechanism. And the rest of us? Clearly we’re using our newfound power to level the old boundaries between the mighty and the masses. All we need to do now is sort out the difference between the mighty and Shia LeBeouf.   

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