At dinner Friday night someone passed around a smartphone so we all could watch the “Worst Twerk Fail EVER” video on YouTube: A yoga-pantsed lady who wriggles upside-down against a door, then falls through a candle-lit coffee table and sets her lululemons on fire. It’s funny, and a little scary, and then funny again when you realize that the twerking girl is probably OK—because if she’d been hurt, she wouldn’t have posted the video online, right?
Last night, talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel revealed that any such concerns were wasted, though. He’d staged the clip himself, with the help of a professional stuntwoman named Daphne Avalon. There was never any funny accident or hint of real-life danger. By the time he pulled the curtain back, the video had spread throughout the media and garnered more than 9 million views on YouTube. Kimmel showed a montage of TV hosts who had been suckered by his pratfall, and gloated over their credulity. “Thank you for helping us deceive the world and hopefully put an end to twerking forever,” he said to Avalon.
At Vulture, Josh Wolk suggested that the made-up video illustrates everything that’s wrong with television news. I think it illustrates everything that’s wrong with viral marketing. Kimmel’s prank is not a biting satire, nor is it a mirror to our stupid culture. It’s a hostile, self-promoting act—a covert ad for Jimmy Kimmel Live—rendered as ironic acid that corrodes our sense of wonder. If the Web provides a cabinet of curiosities, full of freakish baubles of humanity, the hoaxer smashes it to bits, then counts his money while he preens atop the rubble.
I know it sounds like butthurt to complain about the fraud, but seriously, what’s the point of Kimmel’s joke? If he really wants to “put an end to twerking,” then we can agree he’s just a jerk. (Who wants to squash a trend of people dancing in their bedrooms?) If he’s teaching us to be wary of what we find online, then his lesson comes 20 years too late, and it’s also self-defeating: A hoax like this doesn’t point to lapses in transparency, it clouds our view of everything. YouTube shows the world in all its weirdness, and gives a window on the geek sublime. When liars spread their hoggish propaganda, they mist the landscape with distrust. Think of all the other twerk fails—real ones, I mean—that have been strip-mined of their life and humor by Kimmel’s toxic hoax. Why ruin those for personal gain? Why make all online videos seem a little suspect, just to advertise a late-night talk show?
“To the conspiracy theorists on the Internet who thought the video was fake,” Kimmel said last night, “you were right. It was a fake, we made it up.” With that, he scored one point for the joy-destroying trolls who scribble FAKED or SHOPPED under everything they see online. I can assure you that our lives will not be any better off for this encouragement. “I’m also the guy who bit Charlie’s finger, by the way,” he continued, joking that one of our most precious online artifacts might also be a profit-seeking lie.
A friend who loves the hoax told me that I’m playing the part of a “fuming, veiny-templed square,” and that I don’t get the joke. It’s true; I don’t. How is Kimmel’s stunt substantively different from those of other lying members of the media we now deplore, like James Frey and Stephen Glass and the father of the Balloon Boy, Richard Heene? I guess if we’re being technical, those were frauds, not pranks, since they didn’t plan to provide an “April Fools!” moment at the end. But weren’t their goals otherwise the same as Kimmel’s—to exploit our trust and faith in furtherance of their business ends?
Some hoaxes on the Internet have some kind of social message, but most are instrumental. The “Golden Eagle Snatches Kid” clip, which got 7 million views last December, turned out to be a project for an animation class in Montreal. Every year, the school asks its students to create a scammy video in an effort to produce the greatest number of clicks possible, as a sort of trial run for viral marketing campaigns. I participated in a contest like that myself, back in the early days of viral video, and the $2,000-winner was a hoax that trolled feminists and sleazy guys with an advertisement for GPS-enabled panties. Other online ploys look just like Kimmel’s: Earlier this year, the comedian Nathan Fiedler staged a video of a pig rescuing a baby goat from drowning at a petting zoo; it got 7.3 million views, and served as marketing for a new show on Comedy Central. A few months later, Jay Leno profited from what appeared to be a staged clip of a couple singing at a gas station.
These are breaches of the public trust, yet no one seems to care. They desensitize us to what’s truly awesome and astonishing in service of a private aim, but their perpetrators go unpunished. Arguably the most famous Internet hoaxsters of all time—the creators of lonelygirl15—were hosting a panel at South by Southwest within a few months of their being outed, and went on to pioneer the use of product placement in Web videos. (Now they’re making money as social media consultants—the logical end point for any online grifter.) It’s time we raised our voices against these polluting cynics. Their pranks are ruining the Internet, and the only way to stop them is by establishing a social norm. We’ll call you out for lying in a memoir, or making up a story in a magazine. Now it’s time to do the same for online video.