In 2006, a Yale undergraduate named Aleksey Vayner was looking for a finance job after college. So he made a video about his rules for success, featuring footage of assorted athletic achievements. He then sent the video, along with his resume, to UBS. A copy-paste later, and the video was on its way to bankers across Wall Street.
Days later, it landed on YouTube, and turned Vayner’s over-the-top vanity film into a meme, “Impossible is Nothing.” Coupled with Vayner’s Wall Street ambitions and his dry, studied delivery, the video and Aleksey’s koan became a cultural marker for male braggadocio, a symbol for the gladiatorial hunger of America’s best and brightest, and, well, unintentional hilarity.
Vayner, a driven athlete who emigrated from Uzbekistan and settled in New York City at a young age, was just being himself. In a matter of days, he had gone from being an ambitious college kid with a penchant for tennis and weightlifting and martial arts to the laughing stock of the web – the target of endless barbs, parodies (including one by Michael Cera, and many questions about credibility – on the giant playground of the Internet.
“I felt kind of like that Star Wars Kid,” he says, referring to Ghyslain Raza, the Canadian boy who had to seek therapy after classmates began spreading a mocking (but also admittedly hilarious) video of him across P2P services. “I hit rock bottom,” says Vayner.
What the Internet giveth it also taketh away, sometimes in the cruelest ways. Vayner and Raza are only two of the most prominent victims of the Internet’s bullying tendency, but there’s a lot more viciousness where that came from. After Kony 2012, the most viral video of all time, got kicked around by skeptics also posing questions about credibility, the video’s creator lost his nerve on a San Diego street corner. That led to another, different kind of viral video; Russell ended up seeing psychological help. That same week, we had another reminder of the vicious power of the web, when a jury in New Jersey delivered the guilty verdict in the spy-cam-suicide case of Tyler Clementi. Sometimes the lulz aren’t very funny.
“We grew up with the Internet, but that doesn’t mean the Internet’s grown up,” the digital anthropologist Sherry Turkle says. We’re learning to cope with the era of YouTube and Facebook bullying much as we’re learning to cope with everything else that’s digital. Stringent defamation and cyber-bullying laws might help, but so will learning to parse the digital version of ourselves from the in-real-life versions.
It’s not easy. “You’re going to be in shock for a while, when you see what people have written,” Scumbag Steve wrote in an open letter to Annoying Facebook Girl last year (those names given to them by the Internet, of course). “But the most important and self-preserving thing you can do is know that it’s not you. You can’t take this personally. I’ll say that again, you can’t take this personally. Hell if I did… well let’s not go there.”
“The part that will suck though is that there will always be those people that somehow think YOU did this, that you made the meme, and that you could stop it if you wanted to,” writes Scumbag, aka Blake Boston. “The internet birthed you and they’ll decide when you (the meme) will die.”
Six years after his video leaked, Aleksey lives with his wife in New York City, where he’s started his own company, worked in financial analysis, philanthropy, and, yes, internet marketing. When I interviewed him at ROFLcon in 2010, a few years after the whole fiasco, Aleksey said he’d been humbled by the experience, and learned valuable lessons about Internet culture, and how it takes to big egos, self-promotion, and inauthenticity. Aleksey’s best advice for those who actually want to achieve Internet fame: “Take what is useful, discard what is useless, and make it essentially your own.” It’s a paraphrase of Bruce Lee’s, but what works for excelling at martial arts is also the foundation of all meme-making. (To me, “Impossible is Nothing” was a pretty good IRL remix of Max Fischer’s inspiring yearbook montage in Rushmore.)
The great irony of the Internet’s “Impossible is Nothing” ridicule is that, just a few years later, self-promotion has become one of the cornerstones of social media. Of course, the Internet can also be good at spotting fakes and calling out duds. “You need some solid ground and performance before you try to become famous,” says Vayner. “You can talk all you want, but if you don’t have the substance, if you don’t have the performance behind your words, then it’s meaningless.”