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Microfame: Why It Happens, Why It Matters

Young consumers are growing up in an age where fame is something that can happen TO you, at any time. But microfame is more about the Millennials and teens doing the talking than the person being talked about.

The #AlexFromTarget meme is microfame in action. (In case you’ve been on an unplugged vacation, Alex From Target is a young Target employee whose photo went viral in a meme spread on social media by teens, Vine and YouTube stars, and even Target themselves.) In the age of microfame, not only can anyone can become famous for 15 minutes, fame is something that can happen to you, at any time. We all have pictures of ourselves out in the world, and even if we have no wish to become well known it could happen with a little bit of creativity and a lot of social connectivity. Alex is just one example of microfame—look at hot felon Jeremy Meeks or side eyeing Chloe. Microfame puts the average person briefly in the spotlight, not for a talent, but because the internet has come together to make them into something bigger.

For those pondering the deeper meaning of Alex, or why this particular teen caught on, or how they can recreate it, we’re afraid you’re about to be disappointed. Why does this microfame happen? The simple answer is, because it can. We’ve said it before: the internet is like a giant playground. There are games, cliques, and there are inside jokes. A meme is basically an inside joke played out on a grand scale. Teens throughout generations have had them—weird, often nonsensical recurring gags that they celebrate with their friends. You might even remember some that you had yourself, and if you’re a Millennial, you might still reference those school age inside jokes with the same friends. They’re still happening, but for kids, and adults, today they can be magnified and broadcast around the world. And those friends don’t have to be people you’ve even met—as long as you find the same thing funny, you can have an inside joke with someone across the pond and beyond. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to learn from it—microfame just says a lot more about the people making that Target kid famous than it does about the Target kid. Here are three reasons it matters:

1. Creative young internet users wield a lot of social power.

When we wrote about fandoms in one of our Ypulse Quarterly reports last year, we said Millennial fan groups have taken fandom to a new level, creating active communities online that go far beyond fawning, and have real world clout. Massive amounts of content—videos, artwork, gifs, and fanfic—are being created daily by fan groups, all of which could be tapped into as inspiration for brands. A microfandom rapidly came together around #AlexFromTarget, and the content them created—playing off other memes, making tongue in cheek artwork—were the reason that Alex became “a thing.” It was the collective creativity of the girls talking about him that catapulted a grocery-bagging kid into the spotlight. They’re culture creators, their collective social power can make the mundane into a trend, and it’s that creativity, community, and inside joke weirdness that they are celebrating. Even the way that they commented on the meme was telling—they weren’t posting “I love Alex,” but “I love Twitter,” along with their Alex jokes. 

2. The next generation is growing up with this accessible, unpredictable fame as a norm.

While it’s not easy to predict the impacts just yet, the fact that young Millennials and post-Millennials are growing up with microfame as a part of everyday culture is very likely to influence them. The pessimists might say that they’ll believe that fame is theirs for the taking, and but that’s not likely. We’ve already seen that young consumers are learning from their older counterparts oversharing mistakes, becoming more savvy about privacy settings, and migrating to networks that let them share with smaller, more controlled groups of friends. They’re likely observing that microfame is fleeting, isn’t likely to lead to much more if they don’t have talent, and can’t be counted on. 

3. Brands hoping to capitalize on microfame have to move fast, be on time, and speak the language.

Target chimed in on the Alex meme, tweeting a picture of Alex’s nametag with the message “We heart Alex, too! #alexfromtarget” the morning after Alex went viral. The brand was smart to become a part of the conversation, but they might have done better to participate while it at its peak the night before, as some Vine stars did. Microfame moves fast, and you don’t know when it will peter out, so if brands are going to participate, the more current they can be the better. A general rule of thumb: if you can’t act during the zeitgeist, you might be better off not acting at all.