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True Believers: The Perils of Internet Fame

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CN: this article contains discussion of gun violence and death

Would you shoot your partner in the chest with a handgun at close range? Probably not.

But would you do it in the name of internet fame?

Again, probably not.

This is where you differ from Monalisa Perez, a Minnesota teenager who killed her boyfriend, Pedro Ruiz III, while attempting to get more views for their fledgling Youtube channel. The couple were testing whether a book could stop a bullet in the hopes that their “experiment” would attract viewers to their YouTube channel. To this end, Ruiz held a hard-cover encyclopedia against his chest and had Perez shoot him from a foot away with a Desert Eagle – a cartoonishly oversized handgun that fires a very large bullet. The result? Ruiz died at the scene, and Perez is currently out on bail on manslaughter charges.

A quick google search could have told them that it was a bad idea, even if common sense could not. So what compelled a young couple with a three-year-old daughter and another child on the way to engage in such overtly dangerous behaviour?

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Monalisa Perez and Pedro Ruiz in one of their vlogs. Via NYMag.

“I’ve seen social media fame entice two key groups with two different motivations,” says Katrina*, a digital talent manager who works primarily with YouTubers.

“The first group want to be famous, and are using social media to that end. Without social media these people would pursue acting, music, journalism…the other group are drawn to social media fame from an entrepreneurial perspective.”

There’s a lot of money to be made from the internet and YouTube, and content creators like PewdiePie and Roman Atwood (the website’s most famous denizens) have earned millions from advertising revenue alone. It’s easy to see the pull for people like Perez and Ruiz – young parents (19 and 22, respectively), one of whom was selling beauty products to her family and friends on Facebook to get by. They’d talked about the possibility of reaching 300,000 subscribers, and Ruiz had said  he’d be ‘throwing parties’ when they did. Perhaps the couple knew the risks of the stunt but thought the reward outweighed the risks.

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Shay Carl and Colette Butler. Via Inquisitr.

But what is the reward really? Being internet famous definitely looks good. If you’re pretty or funny enough you can simply be paid for existing, so long as you capture that existence on camera. Family vlogging of the type that Perez and Ruiz were pursuing, with their “sweetly boring videos about kayaking and going to the fair, can be incredibly lucrative.

Shay Carl Butler, a former granite counter-top installer, has made millions from a channel where he documents the day to day existence of his family. On the other end of the spectrum are channels like We Are The Freemans, which has only slightly over 400 subscribers after six months of fairly regular uploads. Perez and Ruiz’s channel (La Monalisa) looked more like the latter, with not much in the way of viewership before their fatal stunt. Breaking into the oversaturated industry of vlogging is hard, and Perez and Ruiz lacked the resources – and the charisma – to do that.

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Perez and Ruiz. Via Heavy.

Even if their stunt had worked, Perez and Ruiz would have found that the life of a successful vlogger is not fun. Vlogging is a job, one that intrudes on your personal life in ways that traditional employment does not. The camera is always around  (it has to be) and it’s not unusual for family vloggers to home-school their kids or film trips to the emergency room in order to ensure a constant stream of content. When filming the everyday doesn’t work – just like it didn’t work for Perez and Ruiz – vloggers get extreme. Shooting deaths aren’t actually uncommon.

Family vlogging appears to be particularly toxic. DaddyOFive, whose gimmick was playing cruel “pranks”, had two kids removed from his care when the police disagreed that repeatedly shoving a small child into the wall on-camera isn’t funny –  because it’s obviously abuse. The aforementioned Shay Carl Butler (who has professed himself to be a Mormon family-man) recently entered treatment for alcoholism shortly after a camgirl went public about their relationship. Even worse is the case of the family vloggers who livestreamed their child’s funeral after he passed away in mysterious circumstances. It almost seems a bit much for a couple of nice young parents from Minnesota.

internet fame tweet perez
The tweet Perez posted shortly before the shooting. Via Heavy.

“I don’t think people necessarily expect the toll internet fame takes on the individual,” says Katrina. 

“Sure, there’s a lot of money to be made but there is a lot of pressure in inextricably tying that fame to yourself as a person rather than that fame being rooted in your acting roles, released music, or art. When you become a brand…you have to treat yourself as a commodity.”

But that’s the nature of the beast. In much the same way that kids once fled to Hollywood in the hopes of making it on the silver screen, young people –  people like Perez and Ruiz – are increasingly turning to the internet and the world of vlogging. You can find a hundred thousand just like them without looking too hard. And just as those star-struck Hollywood hopefuls fell prey to seedy producers and conmen, this new generation of vloggers have become victims of their own ambition, taking apart their lives for the camera in the hopes of striking it big. 

In death, Ruiz finally got what he wanted. La Monalisa currently has 17,408 subscribers and Perez’s last video has been viewed more than a million times. Pretty good for a couple of kids from Minnesota.

*Name has been changed