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Viral Videos and Gossip Websites Changed America and Took Down Tom Cruise

How the Internet changed the last movie star.

With gossip sites mushrooming like a nuclear cloud, Kingsley's fear tactics no longer worked — in fact, she wasn't even around to wield them. She'd spent a decade and a half shielding Cruise from questions about his religion. But as Scientology increasingly drew fire from the media, Cruise seemed to have decided to be more vocal about defending his beliefs. When he sought to promote Scientology on his press tour for The Last Samurai in 2003, Kingsley later told The Hollywood Reporter, she told him to cool it. A year later, in March 2004, he ended their professional relationship, replacing Kingsley with a fellow Scientologist, his sister, Lee Anne De Vette.

As then-In Touch editor Tom O'Neil told Variety in 2004: "Tom's sis doesn't have Pat's secret weapons. She can't nuke a media outlet's access to other A-list celebs if a journalist doesn't bathe Tom in honey." And even if De Vette did, for Perez Hilton and the bloggers, access didn't matter. They had no pretensions of scoring an interview with Tom Cruise. They wanted web hits.

When their faster, meaner formula worked, the old guard was forced to follow suit. In May, People's blog, then a half-hearted affair, ran seven stories about Tom Cruise. In June, it ran 25.

"The rise of the Internet changed how I do my job," says veteran publicist Joy Fehily, who was mentored by Kingsley. "Everything started changing at once, and the conversation moved a lot faster." Instead of having a week to handle a photo running in the next National Enquirer, suddenly Fehily could walk out of a meeting to discover that a breaking news story had spread online before she'd had a chance to shape it.

Fehily found herself spending less time coaching her clients about how (and whether) to do interviews, and more time coaching them how to live their lives. "I just remember having to explain to clients how nothing is private anymore," she says. "It's about walking down the street as a normal person because everybody has the ability to take your picture, to catch you doing something." (Political blogs, which had arisen the year before during the presidential race, had already taught candidates the destructive power of the Internet — remember Howard Dean's scream?)

By comparison, TV seemed safe. When Cruise went on Oprah in May 2005, he and De Vette surely imagined most viewers would see the show live.

"Viral video was a very difficult thing to pull off," says Andy Baio, a Portland, Oregon-based writer and coder who would go on to help build Kickstarter. Before the summer of 2005, in order to watch a clip online, you had to download it and hope it worked with the software on your computer. Most people didn't bother: Video downloads were slow and risky. What if you were accidentally downloading a virus?

Plus, there was no cash benefit to spreading a video. If a video caught on, its host could actually lose money.

"At the time, if you wanted to host a video, you had to have a server and you had to have bandwidth, and even then it could be challenging," Baio explains. "You could only host so much, and if something got so popular that you exceeded it, you had to pay per gig[abyte], and it could get really expensive." Early bloggers would stop hosting videos because they couldn't afford it, leaving the Internet littered with broken links that added to would-be viewers' frustration.

Baio's site, waxy.org, had a terabyte of bandwidth. At the end of a month, he'd see how many gigs he could spare and do what he'd call a Bandwidth Blowout, and host something that geeks would like. He found a nerd swinging a golf club retriever like a light saber and dubbed him "Star Wars Kid"; he was the first to put Danger Mouse's Jay Z/Beatles mash-up, The Grey Album, online.

Baio's uploads went viral because he realized that online video needed infrastructure: To make sure his links always worked, he set up a script connecting his content to mirror sites that would share the traffic. He was trying to tame the Internet.

But suddenly, in the spring of 2005, he didn't have to.

"YouTube changed everything," Baio says. He could upload a video to YouTube's servers and people could watch it in their browsers: no downloads, no long waits, no plug-ins, no bandwidth fears, no cost. "That was mind-blowing," Baio says. Now bloggers — like him, like Perez Hilton — could share videos without even sending their readers off their site.

Neither Tom Cruise nor Oprah was likely aware of YouTube when he agreed to tape an episode in early May. The site's first video, "Me at the Zoo," had only been uploaded a few weeks before. Even Baio didn't hear about YouTube until June 14. "Wants to be Flickr for video," he wrote on his blog.

A week later, Baio hosted another funny video he found on a private sharing site, a short mash-up of Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Cruise's appearance on Oprah, two pop culture jokes from that May. Dubbed "Tom Cruise Kills Oprah," the movie star cackles in slow-motion as he blasts the talk-show host with a jolt of Jedi lightning. Baio thought the video was "awesome." He put it online and, just as "Star Wars Kid" had before, it blew up.

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3 comments
Bradford Ashington
Bradford Ashington

yet, u gave enough of a shit to post, didn't ya? and don't believe for a sec ur turd smells like roses because it doesn't....fail

Sabrina Sutherland
Sabrina Sutherland

You have two people in this picture I could give two shits about and didn't someone flush Perez Hilton down the toilet 5 years ago?

 

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