The first YouTube video I remember sharing with my friends was that Evgeni Plushenko figure skating routine. I was 14 or 15—this was back when YouTube was just a pixilated box with a green play button and thirty seconds minimum of buffering time. Once it loaded, Plushenko flew across the ice in a padded muscle-suit dancing to Tom Jones. It combined all the things that made great Internet ephemera: a weird physical activity performed in a strange outfit set to a bizarre song that didn’t leave the distinct impression of being either intentionally ironic or entirely sincere.
This was nearly a decade ago, when the Internet was a lot more fun for me than it is now. The Internet has become my job, and I am required to stare at it all day and push stuff inside of it and have important conversations on it.
The last few Internet weeks have been exhausting. If it wasn’t another woman alleging abuse from Jian Ghomeshi, or the back-and-forth about whether Lena Dunham molested her sister, or details about the shooting in Ottawa, it was more on feminism and war and nightmares and destruction and how absolutely sure I am that I have all diseases because I can Google them and replicate the symptoms and, come on, be honest, does it look like my jaw juts too far into my neck?
But then, from teen-heaven, where no one has ever heard of bootcut jeans or Mitch McConnell and everyone is sexting (probably), came a beacon of light in the form of Alex from Target.
Who, exactly, is Alex from Target? He is exactly what he sounds like. He is a hot teen that works at Target of whom someone took a picture, after which he acquired a few hundred thousand new Twitter followers. It is precisely what we all needed: look at this stupid thing the Internet made happen.
Unlike other memes or online trends, though, this was one of the purest in recent memory. It wasn’t the Hot Mugshot Guy, with whom there were all sorts of violent associations to negotiate, or doge, which was borderline inexplicable and ruined an entire breed of animal for me. It was the doing of a gaggle of teenage girls with a bunch of hormones who found a picture of a cute boy in a common place that made them feel that maybe they, too, could have their groceries bagged by Alex From Target. He has super-cute hair, he seems pretty unassuming, he has a job, and his shoulders are relatively broad for a teenage boy. It was the perfect distillation of how the Internet at its best can distract you from the very real, very awful things happening around you, if only for a second.
The whole thing is, of course, very stupid, which is why I find it so delightful. It felt like a throwback to what the Internet once was for me: a platform for silly things you shared with your friends, things that became huge and important for days or seconds at a time to a specific element of the online world, and then eventually became too dumb to bear, and were forgotten about. Not that these things don’t exist anymore—we had “spoopy,” we had the sign bunny meme, we had and will have all sorts of fun and silly Internet junk. But that’s not all the Internet is anymore. Those memes in particular didn’t live in a brooding, floppy-haired vacuum: they were quickly sucked into the daily morass and used to augment all of these horrific online discussions. They became indistinguishable from the Serious Internet. Because that’s what so much of the Internet is now: serious. It’s full of important things. And no matter how hard you try, you just can’t go home again.
(I have been sitting here chewing Bubblelicious for the last 15 minutes, trying to rekindle that old flame as well, but it turns out this gum tastes like an antibiotic and quickly takes on the texture of rubber cement after a few bites. Was this more fun when I was younger or was I just fooling myself?)
But Alex from Target is different. He is just pure light, pure brightness, taking us back to the old days of the Internet where something can feel incorruptibly dumb and fun. Even attempts to out him as a marketing ploy couldn’t ruin what he is: a perfect Internet oddity impervious to the taint of corporate interests or online sniping.
I was raised with the Internet. I don’t remember ever not having a computer, and I barely recall a time when I couldn’t get online. My whole life was Dumb Internet: I came of age on the web before we realized we could use it to be assholes to each other and before I was interested in reading the news. I was 11 or 13 or 16 and Googling “Shane West + mouth” or finding videos of different French braid patterns or playing games and watching animated Hillary Clinton videos on Miniclip. I’d wander onto Shockwave and lie about my age so I could watch those Bikini Bandit videos and feel both remarkably uncomfortable and entranced by these near-naked women with guns and eyeliner. The Internet was nothing. It was a wide-open space of nothing, and I liked it.
The Internet is still full of nothing, but I’m acutely, upsettingly aware that there’s much more to it than that. Now if I want a true distraction from the world, I have to unplug, rather than dive in deeper. And when nearly everything in your life is connected, from your job to your friends to current events to how you make your dentist appointments and do your taxes, it’s easy to feel that at the end of it all, the only good thing left in the world is some cute-ass boy working in a Texas big box store, bagging the groceries of your dreams.
And I’ll tell you what: I bet Alex from Target could braid the shit out of my hair.