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Virtual superstars


There are those who say that the wheel is man's greatest invention. Yet the school of believers that credit the internet as one of our finest accomplishments is fast gaining ground.

And, for a select number of individuals, the internet is arguably the best thing that happened to them.

In recent years, and thanks in part to the proliferation of social networking sites, the web has become one place where anything can -- and routinely does -- happen. The stuff of hare-brained dreams and bizarre film scripts has finally become a reality.

These days, it's not unusual for a person to be thrust into 'overnight sensation' territory as a seemingly innocent YouTube posting goes viral. What's more, it would seem that the golden hand of the cyber-powers that be can strike anyone, at any time.

This time last year, Crystal Swing was just another frost-tipped amateur family band hoping for a mere morsel of the showband pie. Spending their days writing watery country fare in East Cork, the Murray-Burke clan -- siblings Derek, Dervla and mum Mary -- posted an innocuous performance video on YouTube last January. The planets aligned and, pretty soon, the ensuing video for 'He Drinks Tequila' was airborne.

Discussion on Twitter and Facebook quickly moved from ironic jabs and cries of "who are these people?" to hearty support for the clan. The YouTube clip has been viewed almost one million times, and provided the family with a passport to a truly whirlwind year.

Between appearances on 'The Late Late Show' and selling out the Cork Opera House, the trio found time to share a sofa with US chat-show host Ellen DeGeneres. By anyone's reckoning, it was a truly awe- inspiring, unlikely trajectory.

Over Christmas, the Rubberbandits also demonstrated the power of the viral video at its best. After picking up attention on a handful of blogs, 'Horse Outside' gained plenty of traction, turning the single into a serious contender for the Christmas Number 1.

They were thwarted in the end by the pop juggernaut that is 'The 'X Factor's' Matt Cardle, but the Limerick duo have moved up the celebrity ranks from a supporting role on RTE's 'Republic Of Telly' to household names in their own right.

Elsewhere, American Ted Williams witnessed first-hand the truly transformative power of the internet. A former radio presenter, Williams was down on his luck after battling drug and alcohol addiction, and living rough on the streets of Columbus, Ohio. A local cameraman filmed him begging on the streets last month, demonstrating his dulcet tones while holding up a sign that read: "I have a God-given voice."

After the cameraman, Doral Chenoweth, posted the clip on YouTube, it was a 15-second recording that would be viewed by millions -- and turn Williams into an overnight sensation.

Within a week, a scrubbed, suited and booted Williams appeared on talk shows across America detailing his incredible journey from down-and-out to accidental superstar. "In spite of all the flames that went down my throat, my voice still retains some type of resonance," he admitted on the 'Today Show'.

An emotional reunion with his ex-wife and mother, all on camera naturally, ensued.

What's more, the job offers flooded in for the man with the gifted voice, from broadcasting giants such as ESPN, MTV, ABC, CBS and CNN. He has also been offered a full-time job as a stadium presenter by the Cleveland Cavaliers football team. Earlier this month, voice-over agent Shane Cormier said of the internet star: "We could make him a millionaire."

When she shuffled on to the 'Britain's Got Talent' stage almost two years ago, Susan Boyle seemed even less likely a candidate to become a world-class superstar. Yet after the Scottish spinster sang 'I Dreamed A Dream', the footage took on a life of its own, racking up millions of YouTube views overnight.

To date, the five-minute clip has notched up a staggering 70 million YouTube hits. And, while Boyle didn't win the talent show that she signed up for, her career since April 2009 has been little short of unstoppable.

In addition to a Grammy win, Boyle was officially recognised by the 'Guinness Book of Records' as having had the fastest-selling

debut album by a female artist in the UK, and the most successful first-week sales of a debut album in the US.

Yet Boyle isn't even the biggest beneficiary of a career boost courtesy of YouTube.

As would befit any pop star born in the mid-1990s, Justin Bieber (16) effectively sprang from the cyber-loins of YouTube. After Justin appeared in talent competitions in his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, his mother Pattie would upload the videos to YouTube so that Justin's relatives could enjoy his efforts.

The floppy-fringed tween was discovered via the website by New York-based manager Scooter Braun in 2008 (by complete accident, according to lore; he was searching for another clip on the site) when he was a mere 14 years old. Yet in order to become known by the masses, it helps to have a ringing endorsement from a massive R&B star.

Step forward one Usher Raymond, an associate of Braun's, who joined forces with Bieber's manager to create the Raymond Braun Media Group with a view to representing young Bieber.

Now worth a reported $25.5 million, Bieber saw his debut single, 2009's 'One Time', chart in 30 countries. After the release of his debut album 'My World' in 2009, Justin became the first artist ever to have seven songs from a debut album land on the Billboard Hot 100. The follow-up, 'My World 2.0', was released in March 2010 and has sold more than two million copies worldwide, debuting at Number 1 in Ireland.

YouTube has been his biggest ally (the video for 'Baby' surpassed Lady Gaga's 'Bad Romance' as the most-watched video on the site ever). He's also making good use of social networking sites like Twitter (he has 4.5 million followers). Apparently, Bieber-related tweets account for 3pc of all traffic worldwide on Twitter. And Biebermania shows no sign of letting up.

Yet sometimes, worldwide attention via YouTube is most unwelcome. In October, 45-year-old Mary Bale became a reluctant YouYube sensation after she picked a cat up by the scruff of the neck and dumped it in a neighbour's wheelie bin. The CCTV footage landed online, and soon Bale, by now known simply as 'Cat Bin Lady', found herself on news stations across the globe.

Even though the cat was eventually recovered unharmed after its owners heard its muffled meows from inside the bin, the public pledged retribution and police even had to post officers outside her Coventry home. After describing the incident as "a split second of misjudgment that has got completely out of control", Bale pleaded guilty to one count of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal and was fined £250 and ordered to pay £1,100 in costs.

Cat dumpers and dumpy Scottish singers aside, rarely a day goes by that a civilian doesn't taste the glory of their proverbial 15 minutes. Kevin Heinz and Jill Peterson became the world's most famous newlyweds for one split second after they danced up the aisle to Chris Brown's 'Forever'.

Matt Harding became an internet celebrity as 'Dancing Matt' when he danced with locals in far-flung cities for a four-minute clip. And who can forget David De Vore, the seven-year-old who struggled with the after-effects of a trip to the dentist? Not only did the youngster coin his own catchphrase ("is this real life?"), his YouTube clip became the second most-watched in 2009 after Susan Boyle's, clocking in at over 54 million hits.

According to one report, his Florida-based family have admitted that the clip has earned them a sum in the "low six figures".

With such money in the offing, a host of pale imitators and parodies have come in quick succession. All of them are hoping for a shot at internet glory, but, according to Cork-based communications consultant Damien Mulley, cracking the code is easier said than done.

"It really is a question of trial and error," he explains. "People are trying to post 'fake' virals, and some ad agencies spend a fortune trying to make genuine-looking clips that will go global. But people are becoming more cynical and can spot a fake more quickly than ever."

To shorten one's odds of internet glory, Mulley offers the following tips: "(The clip) has to have emotion behind it and make the audience angry or sad, or at least react in a strong way. It also has to be short and snappy. Then it's a question of getting it up online and out to as many people as possible so that it gains momentum. Twitter, Facebook and the other networking sites need to fall in line quickly.

"The Crystal Swing clip was online for a good while and hadn't been noticed until someone with a lot of connections noticed it. Because there's a social currency in posting these clips before anyone else, everyone wants to blog about it first, and that's how it gains the momentum."

Despite the rash of pale imitators clogging up the fibre-optic cables, don't expect this 'accidental millionaire' phenomenon to die down any time soon.

"The potential of someone, somewhere doing something interesting in the world is very real," observes Mulley. "The world is becoming more connected too, and there's a very deep well of human beings out there doing something unique. Or stupid."

Weekend Magazine