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The Wreckage of Virality
A teen influencer might be dead. Who's to blame?
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Today’s post was originally much more lighthearted - tales of silly internet drama from niche communities. That post is still coming later this weekend for paid subscribers, but the breaking news of Lil Tay’s potential death has left me with a lot more questions than answers. There are things we don’t talk about when we talk about viral sensations, and today I think it’s time to talk about them.
(Author’s edit, 2:36pm ET - A few hours after publication, TMZ confirmed that Lil Tay is in fact not dead. There are also a number of other confusing details in that article, including Lil Tay claiming that her name is not Claire Hope (her name has been widely reported as Claire Hope by dozens of mainstream media outlets). I think the strongest possibility for what’s going on here, given the parties involved, is that this is some kind of publicity stunt. I’m glad that the young woman in question is still alive, but think the article’s central argument makes even more sense with this news.
Lil Tay might be dead. Who’s to blame?
Lil Tay, real name Claire Eileen Qi Hope, described herself as the ‘World’s Youngest Flexer’. She hit viral fame in 2018 with social media posts talking about her money, cars, and clout despite being only nine years old. She would make videos talking about how her closet was full of Versace and Gucci, and claim that her toilet cost more than your rent. She was part of a wave, a new type of influencer who sought fame via the grade school equivalent of being a shock-jock. She wasn’t black, but talked with a black accent. She’d never had a job, but talked about her ‘hustle’. She wasn’t even in middle school yet, but swore like a sailor. For this new type of influencer, the route to fame, riches, and importance was paradoxically to present oneself as already being famous, rich and important. And for Lil Tay, this formula worked. In an astonishingly short period of time she gained millions of followers and collaborated with major celebrities like Chief Keef, Jake Paul and Rick Rubin. Howard Stern wanted to interview her. She appeared on Good Morning America.
If all this seems weird, gross and exploitative to you then you’re not wrong. Lil Tay isn’t just famous as a young personality. She was also at the center of several allegations of abuse. Tay’s brother at one point accused her father Chris Hope of abusing Tay physically and mentally, as well as stealing her money.
So maybe that’s what we’re talking about here - a classic case of Hollywood abuse by a parent to a child star, just transformed for the internet age.
Lil Tay might be dead, and unfortunately, the story here isn’t as simple as blaming her abusive father. While there are abuse allegations against father, there are also counter-allegations against her mother and brother. This profile from The Cut is worth reading in its entirety, but I’ll quote some of the most relevant parts here:
Although Chris Hope has joint custody of his daughter, his ex-girlfriend Angela was Claire’s primary caretaker, and he felt he couldn’t do much to stop the making of Lil Tay. Only days after he learned of the meme’s existence, Chris says, Angela told him she wanted to take Claire to L.A. to pursue her career and needed his permission to leave the country. They’d be gone for only “a few days,” Angela said, according to Chris, and he agreed. The trip might give Lil Tay the chance to transition toward something more professional, like music or acting, he thought, “not just flexing on the internet.”
Weeks later, he couldn’t get a straight answer on when they’d return home. His daughter was missing school and eventually racked up 72 absences for the year. Chris watched the videos of her at a concert with Chief Keef; hanging out with adults who appeared to be smoking weed; the Bhad Bhabie fight; the carrot joint. He lists them over the phone in a voice soft with the shock of it all, as if the more quietly he speaks, the less true it all becomes.
Chris, a lawyer, realized that L.A. wasn’t turning into an opportunity for Claire to broaden her pursuits. He got a court order requiring his daughter to return to Vancouver and close down the account. On the evening of June 3, Lil Tay and her entourage were back.
This profile tells a different story - a story about a father trying to protect his daughter from people who were taking advantage of her newfound fame. Tay’s teen brother Jason is highlighted as the ‘man behind the curtain’. No nine-year old can become famous on their own. Jason, in this telling, was a fame hungry high schooler whose attempts to farm clout online mostly failed. But he found a hack - take his amateurish material and have his younger sister perform it. Have the nine-year old girl be the one who is ‘flexing’. And the hack worked incredibly well.
Tay’s mother also appeared to be in on it. Those fancy homes in the videos? Those were real estate listings from her mother’s job as a Vancouver real estate agent. Her mother, according to some reports, would end up losing her job for inappropriate filming inside of client’s homes.
In this version of the story, Tay’s father (who is not married to Tay’s mother but has joint custody) is trying to protect his daughter from relatives who are using her for their own purposes. The abuse allegations that Jason levelled against Chris Hope can be seen as retaliation for his demands for basic structure in her her life. Perhaps that’s who we blame - the brother and mother. This isn’t just idle theorizing - one of Tay’s former managers once said he had to derail a plot to falsely accuse Tay’s father of sexual abuse.
Since her father took control, Lil Tay’s career seems to have fizzled. She hadn’t posted on her official Instagram account for almost five years before the shocking death announcement. Perhaps she had gone back to being Claire Hope instead of just Lil Tay. Unfortunately, I don’t think the story is that simple either. The same post announcing Lil Tay’s death also claims that her brother recently died.
If true, this would be horrific. But is it true?
Lil Tay might not be dead. Both her father and her former manager Harry Tsang, when contacted by the press, have refused to confirm the news that she had died.
"Given the complexities of the current circumstances, I am at a point where I cannot definitively confirm or dismiss the legitimacy of the statement issued by the family," Tsang told Insider in an emailed statement Wednesday. "This situation calls for cautious consideration and respect for the sensitivities involved.
To be blunt - this seems like the kind of statement you give when you’re aware something fishy is going on. Vancouver police, when contacted, said that they had no reports of her death and were not investigating. A post that is supposedly from her mother’s Instagram (I can’t verify this is real) says that the news is fake. Other pages claiming to be Lil Tay also claim the news isn’t true - but none of them have taken the simple step of posting a new video to verify she’s alive, so they might also be fake. There’s a significant chance that the original Instagram post is a hoax, and it wouldn’t be out of character for the people around Lil Tay. There’s also a significant chance that it’s not a hoax, and that she’s actually dead.
Frankly, there are no good options here. One of two things is true:
A 15 year old girl and her 21 year-old brother have both died
Someone in Lil Tay’s orbit thinks that a fake death hoax is a great way to re-launch her career with some sort of ‘back from the dead’ narrative.
Whichever story is true, the narrative of Claire Hope’s life up to this point involves an enormous amount of exploitation. And once again, I’m thinking about who should be blamed here. It’d be easy to point the finger at her fame-hungry brother, at her parents fighting over custody. But I think that lets the rest of us off the hook too easily.
Why did Lil Tay exist?
On a banal level, she existed because someone shoved her in front of a camera at nine years old, gave her a script, and told her that acting a certain way would make them all into famous stars. Blame her brother Jason, perhaps, as he seems like the most obvious candidate for who was doing the scripting.
But the problem with this narrative is that Jason wasn’t wrong. He really did make her a star. And whose fault is that? Perhaps, dear reader, it’s your fault.
You’re now 1400 words into an account of a nine-year old’s social media career. You clicked the link. You’re the one consuming this content. You all, in the collective sense, are the ones who make these children famous. You’re the followers, the commenters. You’re the ones who can’t get enough of dramatic stories, online beefs, and shocking social media antics. You provide the incentives for Lil Tay to exist. If Claire Hope hadn’t become Lil Tay, someone else would have. So maybe the blame lies on you.
Even more uncomfortably, maybe the blame lies on me. I write a blog dedicated talking about social media. One of my goals in writing this blog is to do serious analysis of social media phenomenon, and I think I’m frequently able to do that. But I also talk about gossip. I talk about whatever the craziest online trend is. Who’s blowing up on Instagram, what’s the wildest TikTok this week, who did a stupid tweet? I’m not just a consumer of this content, I’m an amplifier. If you’re all the drug addicts who can’t get enough internet drama, I’m your dealer.
I love internet culture. I’ve grown up on the internet, and lived through its many iterations. I write this blog because I genuinely enjoy keeping track of the trends, analyzing them, and discussing them with you. But one of the things I worry about is that I’m contributing to a system that ruins people’s lives, and I don’t have an easy answer how to resolve that dilemma. If Lil Tay is dead, maybe the problem wasn’t just her abusive family. Maybe you and I are to blame.
We can see the wreckage of Claire Hope’s life pretty easily. She was a nine year old girl when she became famous. She was pushed into fame without having any idea what it would do to her. She was pushed to perform a role that obviously wasn’t who she actually was. She was exposed to terrible influences, used for clout, fought over as an asset rather than a person. Just a few years later, she might be dead. And even if she’s not dead, this still isn’t a happy story. It’s nearly as fucked up if her brother or some other enabler is pushing her to do a fake-death-hoax in front of tens of millions of people in the same year she should be a freshman or sophomore in high school.
All of this is pretty easy to document. But for every person who gains social media fame, there are hundreds or thousands who tried and failed. The nature of modern social media systems is winner-take-all. A tiny group of people will become unbelievably, unfathomably famous. A much larger group will try for fame but fail. Claire Hope’s life might have been lost in the wreckage of virality, but that wreckage extends far further than we can see. How many other teenagers have ruined their lives in ways small and large trying to go viral? How many families have been torn apart by fights over how to seek fame? How many potential careers discarded, friendships ruined? And how much of that wreckage has happened without the victims having even a little bit of success to make it worthwhile? The answers here are much larger than I’m comfortable with.
The first entry ever posted on this blog was Posting is the Most Powerful Force in the Universe. I described posting as the One Ring from Lord of the Rings. This is not a comparison meant to make posting look fun or cool. The One Ring is a deceiver that poisons the mind of whoever wears it. Even if you know it’s lying to you, even if you know how dangerous it is, the One Ring will still convince you to use it. You just can’t help yourself. That’s posting on the internet. For so many people it’s self-destructive and obviously a terrible idea, but they do it anyways.
To me, this is the story of Lil Tay. For so many people, posting is simply too alluring to avoid. And it’s not a benign force - it can be used for good, but it can also ruin your life. And while it’s easy to stick the blame entirely on the people making dumb choices, those people wouldn’t exist without us. We’re a gigantic crowd encouraging them at every turn, incentivizing their self-destruction, cheering them on. I don’t really know where to go with this information - it’s not like it’s feasible for us to stop being online, or to end all celebrity culture. But maybe we can and should try to be a little more thoughtful about how we’re encouraging that culture, especially when it involves nine year-old girls.