Inside jokes: Brayden King’s vlog was full of them. This would explain why he giddily chanted “Gummy bearsss! Gummy bearsss!” with a ridiculous, drawn-out “s” while standing over the hefty kid’s corpse in the school library.
The video was Brayden’s latest triumph and would cement his reign as one of social media’s most-watched personalities. It’s not so surprising that people loved him, especially the eight- to fifteen-year-olds. Brayden’s blonde hair, blue eyes, athletic frame, handsome features, and enthusiastic, non-threatening demeanor ensured that girls swooned over him and boys wanted to hang out with him. Even the victims of his surgical-strike putdowns would laugh right along with him, thanks to his magnetism and chummy, enthusiastic delivery. Brayden’s videos went viral because Brayden was viral.
Most of all, every minute of his videos endeavored to keep his audience feeling like they were in on the joke. To his fans, the world’s most popular nineteen-year-old wanted them to be in on his jokes, and thusly this meant they were popular and included. They were part of the club.
Brayden’s “make them feel popular” strategy served as the cornerstone of his success, and it started with Brian “Pee Wee” Huang. Brian was the literal opposite of his nickname; he was considerably overweight for a kid his age, and suffered merciless derision for his size throughout elementary and middle school. When Brian arrived at Yorba Heights High School, Brayden, who was a junior at the time, instantly set his sights on the hapless freshman.
It started when Brayden spied Brian at the outdoor lunch tables. Brian had finished his sandwich and was now eating candy.
“Dude, check that kid out,” Brayden said to his buddies seated several tables away. “Homeboy is going to town on those gummy bears.”
His friends laughed.
“Yo, I got an idea,” Brayden said. He whipped out his phone and started videoing as he walked over to Brian.
“Yo! What’s your name, dog?” Brayden asked while pointing the camera at Brian.
“Um … Brian,” the younger boy warily replied.
“Yo, Brian, you got some size! You thinking of going out for the football team?”
“Um …” Brian stammered trying to construct a reply. This was the most an older kid had ever talked to him and the camera quickly led him to conclude the conversation was going someplace he didn’t’ want to visit. This wasn’t the first time someone had decided to haze him.
Ignoring Brian’s non-response, Brayden pressed his inquiry.
“I mean you got the linebacker frame, Brian,” he said now pointing at Brian’s midsection. “Do you think it might have anything to do with these …”
And here Brayden quickly snatched the bag of candy from Brian’s hand, reversed the camera orientation so the phone was now videoing him instead of Brian, and held the bag next to his face in the camera frame.
“ … GUMMY BEARSSS!” Brayden yelled, hissing out the emphasized “s” while shaking the bag, followed by cackling laughter from him and his friends.
Brayden uploaded the video, titled, “Gummy Boy,” to his social media accounts, shared it with his friends, and quickly forgot about it. However, within forty-eight hours of Brayden’s upload, the video had received one million views. And the “hits,” as they say, kept coming.
Now, one might chalk up the video’s viral success to the fact that not much was going on YouTube that day, or that gummy bears were enjoying momentary popularity with kids and teens, or any number of theories, but Brayden knew — at least instinctively — why the video became popular: it was poking fun at someone else.
Moreover, it did so in an accidentally clever way. Brayden never specifically called Brian fat. If anything, his comments regarding Brian’s chances on the freshman squad could easily be misconstrued as a compliment. Brayden’s cruel negging had built-in plausible deniability. Brayden wasn’t an evil genius and hadn’t planned or premeditated his oblique insult, but he had nonetheless achieved humiliation. And every single person that watched and clicked “like” on the video vicariously reveled in his bullying.
This single video served as the blueprint for Brayden’s vlogging career. He began posting more and more videos, which generated a steady stream of inside-joke putdowns that became his trademark: he addressed the school janitor as “Sweepy McSweeps;” he uploaded a regular “cool shirt of the week” video cataloging the shirts worn by kids that didn’t have a trendy wardrobe; he over enthusiastically praised a kid’s beat-up hatchback to the point it was abundantly clear he was ridiculing the vehicle; he interviewed popular kids attending a rager thrown by a cheerleader to see if they were bummed that certain dweeby students “weren’t able to make” the party. The soft-touch insults were as numerous and varied as the number of videos Brayden uploaded.
He changed his online channel’s name to “BraydensFriends” and his videos were generating so many views he was now getting a percentage of the advertising revenue. Multi-millions of views translated into income Brayden could barely comprehend. He started advertising his channel to drive even more traffic, and two months into his senior year, high school was looking less and less relevant.
By the time he turned eighteen, four media business managers had already hit him up with various pitches to grow his only business. He opted for a guy in his thirties named Chuck Novell who talked and dressed like his bros, but had the business acumen of a media industry insider. In addition to the advertising money, Brayden as inserting incredibly lucrative product placements in his videos. To his parents’ consternation and frustration, Brayden dropped out of high school, rented a condo in Santa Monica, and concentrated full time on his online business.
Within in a year, Brayden had raked in more money than his mother and father had earned in a decade. His condo became the site of daily mayhem. He tore up and down his previously quiet neighborhood’s streets on dirt bikes and in his Hindenburg-sized diesel pickup. Young women and men that looked like underwear models showed up for parties so out-of-control that they were regularly illuminated by police helicopter searchlights.
He shared it all via video with his fans. Everything Brayden did and everyone he knew only helped to generate more content because it made his fans feel even more like they were part of the in-crowd.
Even the plight of his neighbors’ downwardly spiraling property values became a regular topic in online and television news. When interviewed, an unapologetic Brayden tried to insert as many inside jokes into his replies that his comments came off as complete non-sequiturs to any casual viewer. Local news coverage of Brayden jumping up and down and yelling “Gummy Bearssssss” at a middle-aged TV reporter cursed with a classic “dad bod” paunch made his audience feel even more insider solidarity. No matter what he did, Brayden couldn’t lose.
As the money rolled in, Brayden worked to make his videos even more outlandish. He’d trade inside jokes with rappers and super models. He’d travel the world and post Paris or London editions of his “shirt of the week” videos, or point at a janitor cleaning up a public square in Tokyo, yelling “Sweepy McSweeps!” And he’d create new inside jokes, such as the week he visited Rome conducting “man on the street” interviews in which he’d deadpan an over-the-top, cartoonishly stereotypical, Italian-American accent and then act puzzled and frustrated as to why his Italian-speaking interviewees couldn’t understand him. Everything was an insult, but only if you were in on the joke.
As his fame grew, so did Brayden’s need to do more elaborate videos to expand and consolidate his fan base. He rented various vacation homes and then staged massive parties at each location to the consternation of the property owners and their neighbors. He got kicked out of Chichen Itza after mooning people from atop the main temple. He installed a fake star for “Deez Nuts” on Hollywood Boulevard for “being awesome.” He did whatever it took to generate more views, more subscribes and more money.
But the rate of return on Brayden’s videos began to diminish. Despite bigger stunts he was starting to feel the limits of his audience pen in his success, and was desperate to find something that would help him break through that envelope.
“Yo, I gotta figure out way to get more subscribers,” Brayden said to his friends while they played X Box in his condo’s loft. “This slow-down is whack.”
The four twenty-year-olds comprised his core group of friends, who all helped him shoot, edit and upload his videos, as well as maintain his social media accounts, and he often solicited their advice. They were his brain trust.
“Dunno, man,” one said.
“Sucks dude,” another said.
“You’ll come up with something,” a third said.
“Do something even more crazy,” a fourth said.
“He’s already doing crazy stuff,” the first contended.
“Not crazy enough,” the fourth replied.
“What would you know about crazy?” the second argued.
“I dunno man. I just bet he could get crazier,” the fourth maintained.
“Yeah, but how?” the third pressed.
“Look, the crazier the vlog, the more people, right? He’s gotta get crazier,” the fourth said, holding his ground.
“You’re full of shit,” the first charged.
“What the fuck would you know?” the second chided.
“Alright, alright, shut up,” Brayden interrupted before the third could have his shot at lambasting the fourth. “Look, he’s right. I gotta get crazier. The question is how?”
Before any could reply, Brayden continued: “Look guys, I gotta go out to the hot tub and think.”
The quartet kept trying to riddle each other with digital machine gun fire while Brayden soaked in the bubbling Jacuzzi. A mist of chlorinated water opened his sinuses as he let the warm summer sun beat down on his face. The concentrated heat helped the young media sensation percolate a solution to his dilemma.
A half hour later, he’d showered off and was heading to the garage.
“Dudes, get a party going,” he announced up to the loft. “I have an idea, but I gotta take care of some stuff. … Get some girls and booze! Let’s get turnt, yo!”
Roughly 45 minutes later, Brayden had parked his immense pickup just as school was getting out at Yorba Heights High School. A swirling maelstrom of adoring teens begging for selfies surrounded him, and he gladly assented, but kept peering around in between snaps, trying to notice someone in the crowd.
Finally, Brayden spied his quarry: a single, plainly dressed student, head down, shouldering a large backpack, and keeping to himself as he walked away from campus. It was Brian “Pee Wee” Huang, who was now a junior.
Brayden apologetically broke off from his fans and caught up to Brian.
“Yo, Pee Wee, wait up,” he said.
Brian turned, and when he saw who it was, the pained expression on his face spoke a thousand words that instantly made Brayden feel a twinge of regret—but only for a millisecond.
“Pee Wee,” Brayden confidently continued. “How ya doin’ my man?”
“Eh,” Brian sighed as he drooped his shoulders in defeat. There was no escaping Brayden. “What do you want? Haven’t you given me enough shit?”
“Look, that’s why I’m here. I figure I owe a lot of my success to you for that one video. It sort of got things going, you know? I wanted to find you and invite you to my place tonight. I’m throwing a bangin’ party. You gotta come.”
“Oh I don’t know. Can’t you just leave me alone.”
“Look, I’m serious. I want to make it up to you. The party’s gonna be off the chain. You gotta come. There’ll be ladies. There’ll be booze. It’s gonna be nuts.”
The instant Brian paused before his reply, Brayden knew he had landed his fish. He arranged to swing by later that evening to pick up Brian, who lied to his parents with the excuse that he was going to a friend’s house to watch movies on TV.
The party exceeded Brian’s expectations for what a wild party could be. Flashy cars lined Brayden’s street and attractive young people filled his condo and yard. During the course of the evening Brian drank for the first time, smoked pot for the first time, and — thanks to considerable pre-party arrangement by Brayden — lost his virginity. Toward the end of the night, after a police visit had required Brayden to usher nearly all of the revelers out into the night, he and Brian sat in the loft chatting.
“Yo, Brian, you are the man,” Brayden said, absent mindedly polishing a nine-millimeter semi-automatic pistol acquired from a friend with a cloth. “I’m really glad you came.”
“Thanks,” Brian replied. He was still drunk, still high, and basking in the afterglow of his newly acquired non-virgin status. That said, the gun made him nervous; he’d never seen one before. “Hey, is that thing, you know … loaded?”
“Naw man. The bullets and mag are over on the desk. Plus it’s on safety. Hey, I hope we’re cool after that video and all, bro.”
“We’re cool. It didn’t really change things all that much for me. I was already getting made fun of at school.”
“Hey, you shouldn’t let them do that. You’re a good guy. Even today I saw you off on your own. Don’t let them make you feel like an outsider and make fun of you.”
“Well … you made fun of me. You know, in the video.”
“No way. I was joking around with you, not at you. There’s a difference. Don’t forget, I said you should try out for football.”
“Look, I didn’t mean for the video to make fun of you. And if you felt bad, I’m sorry, but … you have to get people to respect you. I do it through joking around, and I guess also because I’m kinda famous now. You have to figure out a way for people to respect you, too. Don’t let them laugh at you or bully you. It’s all about respect.”
Brayden let the words hang in the air for a bit before speaking again.
“Hey, let me go downstairs to get my phone, and I’ll call you an Uber, dude. Sound good?”
“Sure thing,” Brian replied.
After Brayden helped Brian into his Uber, he headed back inside and up to the loft. The pistol and magazine had disappeared. He went back downstairs to the kitchen, ate some carne asada tacos that were left over from the party, watched some television, and then went to bed.
He slept in late, eventually waking to the sound of his phone vibrating on the nightstand.
“Hey, it’s Brayden,” he answered as he wiped his eyes and stretched.
“Yo, you seen the news?” It was one of his four friends.
“There’s something going on at Yorba Heights. Tons of cops are there. Could have video potential. Wanna go?”
“Dude. I’m all over it. Thanks for the heads-up. Get the guys. I’ll see you there in ninety minutes?”
“You got it. See you there.”
Brayden hung up, took a hot shower, and put on a brand-new outfit assembled from clothes and sneakers given to him by a few athletic brands now sponsoring his channel. He was supposed to off handedly mention them in his next video. Then he climbed into his pickup and raced across the Los Angeles basin toward Yorba Heights. Reporters on the radio kept using the term “active shooter situation.”
The red-and-blue strobe lights of police cars flashed across the front of the school as officers in tactical gear were ushering streams of students raising their arms as they rushed out of the school. Brayden took some video of the scene with his cell phone, and then texted his friends to meet up in the neighborhood adjacent to campus.
“Okay, cops are everywhere out front, but I don’t think they know all the ways onto campus,” he told them. “Let’s walk through the neighborhood, take the cut in the fence behind the baseball scoreboard, and then sneak through the portable units to the main building. If we get caught, pretend we’re students.”
“Cool,” his quarter of friends agreed.
“Right on. Okay, start taping,” he said. Once he was assured his friends were videoing him with their phones, he addressed his audience as they snuck their way across campus: “Hey, guys, it’s Brayden. ‘Sup? Okay, so, like, we usually do fun videos, but this one’s kind of serious. I’m here with the squad and we’re back at Yorba Heights High to check out something pretty uncool. We heard there was some kind of shooting, and we want to find out what’s going on.”
He narrated their progress in hushed tones as they made their way to the main building, making sure to extol the virtues of the clothes he was wearing. The high-pitched dee-dee-dee-dee and flashing lights of the fire alarms, along with the smell of smoke and gunpowder greeted them as they squeezed through a door with as much stealth as they could muster. Brian worked to control his breathing and maintain a calm demeanor.
“Okay, we’re walking past the science classes,” he whispered to his audience. “Haven’t seen anybody. The classes are empty. … Yo, check that out.” Brayden pointed to a broken window in the chemistry classroom. A couple chairs students had ostensibly used to made their escape were situated below it.
They kept walking. They turned right into the hall that led toward the English classes and confronted their first body. “Oh my God,” Brayden said. “Oh my God. … Guys, this is terrible.”
It was a girl. She lay face down in a puddle of blood with a small hole in the center of her back. A small bit of blood had stained the jean jacket she no longer needed.
“Guys, we gotta keep going,” Brayden said as he stepped past the girl’s body.
The hall led to the school library. They pushed the doors open and immediately discovered two more bodies, an older boy in a letterman’s jacket with two neat holes in his chest, and a younger boy who had been shot in the neck and back while volunteering to do librarian duties. His neck looked as though it had been chewed by tiger.
“Jesus. Who the hell did this?” Brayden wondered aloud for his audience, knowing full well who had murdered the students.
They kept exploring the library and found a third body. At first, they didn’t see it, but one of Brayden’s squad had pointed to a pair of feet sticking out from behind one of the rows of bookshelves. On closer inspection, Brayden recognized the body: it was Brian’s. Near him, the stolen nine-millimeter lay on the floor. The contents of Brian’s skull now covered the books sitting on the opposite shelves.
“Aw man,” Brayden said. “It’s Gummy.”
“Dude … he must’ve been the shooter,” one of Brayden’s friends said off camera.
“Shit man … ” Brayden paused for a long time before continuing. Then he awkwardly chuckled a small, almost inaudible laugh and spoke again. “I guess Gummy Bearsss … blew out his … GUMMY BRAINSSS!”
An awkward silence lasted a few seconds before Brayden’s friends started snickering off camera. Then Brayden started snickering. His four friends quickly fell into fits of laughter that they desperately tried to stifle while Brayden uncontrollably repeated, “Gummy bearsss! Gummy bearsss!” The noise eventually drew the attention of several SWAT officers working to secure the school, who burst into the library with raised weapons, yelling “Get on the ground! Get on the ground! Hands on your heads!”
Brayden and his friends quickly complied. “We-we’re students!” Brayden yelped. “We, uh … we found the shooter. He’s over there,” he shakily continued, pointing toward the boy who used to be Brian Huang.
A couple SWAT officers inspected the aisle where Brian’s body lay. When they had determined Brayden and his friends were not suspects, one of the officers escorted them out of the building. They were told to wait because they might need to give a statement.
“Anybody get video of the cops?” Brayden asked as he and his friends milled around the parking lot.
“You know it,” one of his friends affirmed.
“Awesome. Can’t wait to get back to HQ and start cutting,” the second said.
“This is gonna be insane,” a third noted.
“Craziest video ever,” the fourth agreed.
Brayden said nothing. He just smiled. He already knew that it would be the craziest video ever. “RIP Gummy” quickly went from the millions to the hundreds of millions of views in less than a week, and his advertising revenues followed suit. The video’s success compounded the views on his previous videos, and soon he was into the billions of total views. He’d eventually trade in his condo for a mansion, his dirtbike for a ludicrously powerful street bike, and his pickup for an exotic sports car. His financial planner and investment strategist told him he’d never have to work a day in his life if he so chose.
Sure, there was blow-back. In fact, the horrified outcry to “RIP Gummy” almost made Brayden regret his decision. Boring, basic people howled at his reaction to Brian’s body. News sites ran long articles exploring how he could be so cold and “nihilistic” (he had to Google that word). Some people remotely diagnosed him as a sociopath. He was the fodder of nearly all social media for a day’s news cycle.
His friends and even his business manager worried that Brayden might have to perform a “reputation makeover” or an “apology tour,” but Brayden knew better. The most he had to do was post a video where he said “I’m sorry if I made anyone feel bad,” but he knew people would forget.
He had learned back when his neighbors and the police first bacame irate with him over his parties that fame and infamy were the same thing. Some people clicked because they liked him. Some people clicked to see the spectacle. Some people clicked to see if he was as heartless as the experts said. It didn’t matter why people kept clicking, or why they kept watching, or why they kept following him. It only mattered that they kept doing it.
Author’s note: Thanks for reading this story! If you liked it, the biggest compliments you can pay me are to leave a comment, and to share it with your friends.
social commentary of the times – you dialogue it well
Thanks! Yeah, definitely inspired by recent vlogger kerfuffles.
I hate vloggers!
Haha! I pictured you saying that like Indiana Jones about snakes.
Great read Dave – thanks for sharing. It’s clear that socially we are more or less rudderless in understanding the intersection of tech/digital platforms with narcissism, violence, bullying, fame, etc
Collectively, I think we need to start holding tech companies (especially) more responsible for at least anticipating some of the ethical issues that may arise – not to take away from the actions and responsibilities of the actual individuals.
That is a really substantive insight, and one I’d never have come up with on my own. I think you’re right that there is some point where ethical responsibility and technical innovation meet up. I’m not sure where it is, but maybe the bio-sciences could shed some light on that. There’s a whole field of bioethics already established. The can vs. the should is tough decision-making territory. Hey, related news, Facebook announced today that it is tweaking its algorithms to prioritize friends and family posts over publisher posts. Could be that ethics are starting to creep into this realm after all!
If you have time for a substantive read, try this tome: BEHAVE (The biology of humans at our best and worst) by Robert M. Sapolsy.
Ooooh! That sounds good!