David felt really weird after having a tooth removed. He was loopy from the medication and, as a 7-year-old, didn’t understand what was happening. “Is this real life?” he asked his dad, David DeVore, who happened to be filming him as they sat in the car about to drive home from the dentist’s office. “Yeah, this is real life,” his dad replied.
“David After Dentist” is what we now call a viral video. David’s father uploaded it to YouTube on a whim one Friday afternoon in 2009, seven months after the video was taken. “I just wanted to share it with friends and family,” he said.
Before the recession, he’d worked in real estate, but now he was a stay-at-home dad. The family — David DeVore, his wife Tessie Guell DeVore, and their two kids, David Jr. and Will — lived in Florida, and while they were still able to make ends meet, times felt decidedly tough. Tessie DeVore worked in the Christian publishing industry and was away on a business trip when David has his tooth removed, so her husband recorded the video for her. He decided to make it public simply because it seemed easier than sharing the link with each family member individually.
So when he checked YouTube the following Sunday, he was stunned. The video had more than 10,000 views. By Wednesday, it had 4 million.
The rest is now internet history. “David After Dentist” became a sensation, and the DeVore family appeared on the Today show, The Tyra Banks Show, and Fox News. And while some people criticized the father’s parenting (“people called me a child abuser and stuff”), he still views the experience as positive. “I would do it all over again in a heartbeat,” he said.
David, now 18 and heading to college, agrees with his dad. “Now that I’m getting older. it’s just cool.” He says it took him a while to even realize he was internet famous, since his friends didn’t realize until they were older. Asked how this realization felt, he shrugs. “Interesting?” he offers, finally. “It was never embarrassing.”
The type of internet fame that David experienced — mostly supportive, humorous, and even sweet — is emblematic of the 2000s. This was the cusp of the social media era, when people regularly posted their earnest feelings on Facebook and being in someone’s Top Eight on MySpace still connoted close friendship. But the online conversation has soured since then, and blowback can be crueler. Now, in the age of doxing, trolls, and brutal Twitter takedowns, is it possible to escape viral fame so unscathed?
An internet golden age
One of the first viral videos came out in 1997, before “going viral” was even a term. Like “David After Dentist,” it wasn’t actually intended for online fame. According to a 2018 Wired article by Joe Veix, Vinny Licciardi worked at a tech company that sold security cameras, and wanted to demonstrate how they worked. He and his boss shot a promotional video showing Licciardi smashing his computer, meant to look like footage caught on a security cam. When the resulting “Bad Day” clip began to circulate through different companies via email and eventually ended up on MSNBC, he realized how wide it had spread. “There was no real precedent for this kind of thing,” Veix wrote.
This was before Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, when gaining a national audience meant having an in with one of the three major television networks. If you had a funny baby video to share, you sent it to America’s Funniest Home Videos and waited. Licciardi’s video was one of the first to break that trend by spreading to the masses online.
Then content-hosting platforms became content-sharing platforms, and everything changed. Suddenly, media could be discovered, consumed, and distributed all in one place, and the term “going viral,” entered the lexicon, connoting the uniquely quick spread of content on the internet.
A celebration of cuteness, or child exploitation?
By the time David DeVore uploaded the video of his son to YouTube, virality was becoming a bigger phenomenon. “I remember thinking, maybe this is what they call viral,” he said, when he saw the video had millions of views.
As media attention increased, so did the comments on their video. “That was my wife’s part-time job,” DeVore noted. For about a year, she spent her evenings scouring the comments and taking down anything too threatening or sexual. “We looked at it as a benevolent dictatorship.”
One common accusation was that DeVore was exploiting his son for money or fame. He finds this aggravating; he wasn’t even aware he could make money on the video until a marketer reached out more than a week after it went viral and suggested that he join YouTube’s partner program, in order to share in the ad revenue. “I don’t want to think about how much we lost in that first week,” he laughed. “But we did just fine over the next several years.”
The DeVores previously estimated that they had made about $150,000 from the video between when it launched in January 2009 and June 2010, though David DeVore declined to confirm. DeVore said the money helped keep the family afloat, since his wife was the sole breadwinner, and the kids’ private school tuition was expensive. After a while, DeVore started putting it straight into his son’s bank account. “If David had wanted to be a YouTube star, then that’s one thing,” he said. “But he didn’t.” He was just looking out for David.
But not everyone saw it that way. A Chicago Sun-Times columnist reacted with an op-ed titled “Drugged kids on video no laughing matter,” accusing DeVore of exploiting his son (for money! When he should have been protecting him!).
DeVore felt like he was being compared to people who blew pot smoke in their kids’ faces for fun. “She wrote her editorial from the perspective of the cops should’ve been called,” he said.
Though the op-ed stung, it also felt like an anomaly. “Most people weren’t like that, so it was annoying, but it wasn’t a big deal,” David explains. His father even tried making more viral videos with David’s brother Will, though none of them really caught on. “This was just a one-time thing,” DeVore says wistfully.
“Horrific blowback,” then and now
Amanda Lenhart, deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America, a Washington, DC-based think tank, says the relatively minor backlash to “David After Dentist” is what separates contemporary viral fame from viral fame of the 2000s. “The conversation on the internet has become more challenging and quicker to be cruel,” she told me. “Things that went viral early on were less likely to have that kind of horrific blowback.”
Of course, that wasn’t always true. The “Star Wars Kid” video from 2003, which featured a Canadian teenager wielding a fake lightsaber, spurred so much mockery and bullying that he eventually had to change schools.
But today, the reaction to Star Wars Kid seems almost expected. In 2017, when model Chrissy Teigen shared photos of her daughter on Snapchat, a verified Twitter user started a thread suggesting that Teigen was part of a child-sex trafficking ring. It got more than 1,000 retweets and an article in the Washington Post. Later, Teigen sarcastically responded, “Thank you, Twitter, for verifying somebody who is esentially accusing me (with pictures of my daughter) of child abuse and pedophilia to their 50,000 followers.”
The following year, when she posted photos of her son Miles in a corrective helmet, “for his adorable slightly misshapen head,” so many people accused her of child abuse that she eventually followed up: “Good morning trolls! Just a friendly reminder that you do not indeed know absolutely everything.”
A new era of kid content
Today, an entire industry has sprung up around parents posting content of their kids. Instagram moms (and dads) can make thousands of dollars on photos of their babes in sponsored streetwear. But they also have to be careful.
In 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “innocent photos of children originally posted on social media and family blogs account for up to half the material found on some paedophile image-sharing sites,” citing a study from Australia’s Children’s eSafety Commissioner.
Cyberbullying is also getting worse. In 2007, a Pew Research survey found that 32 percent of teens who use the internet had experienced some form of online bullying; in 2018, that number was up to 59 percent. The 2018 survey also found that 29 percent of girls have been sent unsolicited explicit images. The digital world is getting meaner and darker, and kids and young girls are seeing the worst of it.
Anh Sundstrom, of the popular fashion blog 9to5Chic, said she and her husband made a pact to stop sharing photos of their daughter in order to better protect the child’s privacy. “Once she started looking like her own person ... I stopped sharing a single photo of her face,” Sundstrom said.
Lenhart said these decisions were probably for the best. “We’re now getting to the point where people are coming of age with potentially a whole history of juvenilia both that they posted and that other people posted about them,” she said. “What does it mean when you’re going for your first job and there’s stuff about you being potty-trained on the internet?”
When I ask David Devore Jr. if he ever regretted the “David After Dentist” video, he said no. “There were like a lot of experiences that I had that I wouldn’t have had without it. Going places, meeting people ... it was definitely positive,” he said.
David recently wrote about the experience for his college application essay to his dream school, the University of Florida. “I for sure milked it,” he said, chuckling. He talked about what he’d learned from being on TV and seeing how the entertainment world operates. “But there’s a lot more to me than just that,” he said. “And there’s more to my future than ‘David After Dentist.’” Luckily, the school seems to agree. On February 8, he received his acceptance.