You may have noticed that YouTube videos and other social media have been transformational in our culture. Videos, in particular, now a routine part of supposedly serious nightly newscasts, have shifted the notions of storytelling and fame.
Those themes are explored in "Me @ The Zoo" (9 tonight, HBO), a documentary, both disturbing and fascinating, that tells the story of Chris Crocker who came to this new kind of fame by his defense of Britney Spears. (The name is inspired by the very first YouTube post.)
Crocker started posting videos on MySpace mostly as a release from a troubled existence. He lives with his evangelical paternal grandparents, which is tricky since Crocker identifies as a woman. That didn't go over well in small town Tennessee. His mother had him at 14, then went into the military and served in Iraq. She returned with post-traumatic stress syndrome and developed a drug problem. Crocker was bullied in public school, so his grandparents homeschooled him, leaving him further isolated. Making videos became his company and his way of shaping an identity.
The videos didn't garner attention until 2006 when his “This or That” caught on, generating eight million hits in six months, as well as new followers and “friends.” And then came his “Leave Britney Alone!” rant.
The film uses footage shot by Crocker and by his fans, so at times it's disconcerting to watch (for a geezer?); it's quick-cut snippets, patched together, seemingly shapeless but ultimately there's a through-line. It's just doesn't follow the typical storytelling arc.
We've seen the trajectory of reality show fame play out more often than Internet fame and although they're similar, Crocker story is compelling because Crocker is alternatively repulsive and hilarious. (He's also pretty insightful.) His neediness can be disturbing and then all of a sudden you see the depth of his heart, especially when it comes to his mother. The sincerity of his Britney rant is matched by the actuality of Britney's mental breakdown and yet both were treated dismissively. And both garnered more fame because of their acts. Fame, in this new world, is often cruel and complicated.
Now 24, Crocker still posts YouTube clips for a living. "Me @ The Zoo" shows that, in many ways, this new technology has left us behind. It's bigger than us and as we figure it out, there will be casualties and survivors. Luckily Crocker survived.