It may be the most legendary monument to the internet’s 15 megabytes of fame – or unintentional infamy: eight years ago, private footage of a heavy-set teenager, spinning nearly uncontrollably while wielding an imaginary-lightsaber, as if in an audition tape for Star Wars, was uploaded to the web and passed around. Within days it was well on its way to becoming the most popular viral video of all time. It’s since been viewed by over 1 billion people.
Not as many people know the rest of the story: Ghyslain Raza – or to the internet,Star Wars Kid – didn’t feel famous, or funny. He felt harassed, the victim of the most visible bullying in history. Ghyslain dropped out of his Quebec high school, was diagnosed with depression, and checked into a psychiatric ward for children.
Ghyslain and his parents would later sue the families of the three classmates who leaked the video in 2003, for around $250,000. According to the lawsuit, which resulted in a settlement, “Ghyslain had to endure, and still endures today, harassment and derision from his high-school mates and the public at large.”
But after eight years of laughs at his expense – and a few campaigns in his defense – Ghyslain is back. Now in his early 20s, he’s reemerged as the president of the Patrimoine Trois-Rivières, a conservation society that aims to preserve the cultural heritage of his hometown of Trois-Rivières.
Revenge of the Sith this isn’t, but he’s putting his litigious experience to some use, getting his law degree at McGill University in Montreal.
The vicissitudes of the internet are now well known, thanks in parts to tales like Ghyslain’s. But cyberbullying and trolling have only grown more intense since “Star Wars Kid,” due to the increasing tendency to share, the decline of privacy, and the morally-fluid culture of anonymity that has grown around message boards like 4chan.
And the impacts remain as serious as ever. As Alexey “Impossible Is Nothing” Vayner told us in our recent documentary about internet culture, “things got bad.” He received death threats and warnings that he would be deported from people he didn’t know, “and people who didn’t know me.” In the United States, cyberbullying has been tied to three suicides of children between the ages of 12 and 13.
For Ghyslain and Alexey, their characters will forever be tied up with the myths fashioned by a click-hungry internet. “i don’t think his life was ruined or he killed himself,” says a Youtube uploader of the “Star Wars Kid” video. “these are what people always tell me but where is the proof? don’t rely on wiki to get your answers. most people want to think the worst because that’s a common initial reaction. i don’t go on this account much but enjoy coming back to read all the mail people take the time to send me. as for offers on advertising sponsorship, i am still considering, i have a lot of loans to pay off.”
On the upside, just as Ghyslain is pursuing a career in law, Alexey has mined his experience to fashion himself into an online marketing expert. Impossible may or may not be nothing, but perhaps anything is possible.
Update May 10, 2013: Ghyslain has spoken out. Also see: Alexey Vayner, whose tale the Internet mocked, is dead at 29