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The story of Star Wars Kid is one that is emblematic of memes that dominated the early years of mainstream internet use. It’s also one of how the dark impulses of people were, and sometimes still are, tied up in those memes.
To those who simply happen upon it, Star Wars Kid is just a goofy video of an awkward teenager who has learned some choreography. You laugh, you cringe, you go about your day.
For Ghyslain Raza, who at the time of filming was a 14-year-old Quebec high school student, it was a traumatic experience that altered the course of his life and took years to live down.
Lots of memes or internet jokes can end in this kind of cruelty, even if that’s not fully the intent of the ones sharing them. So while Star Wars Kid is a classic early piece of internet culture that came to be synonymous with online humor, it was also an instructive case in how seemingly innocuous videos or images can make us complicit in cyberbullying.
The video, made in the school’s AV room in November 2002, existed in obscurity for five months before it was discovered by three of Raza’s classmates who loaded it onto the internet without his knowledge. Whether he liked it or not, millions would soon see him romping around with a golf ball retriever.
The rest is internet history.
13 facts about Star Wars Kid
1) The video was actually related to ‘Star Wars’
Hey, there are other cultural things related to swordplay. It’s possible the internet saw a nerdy looking guy pretending to duel and jumped to conclusions. Except in this case the internet was right on the mark. Raza was indeed practicing choreography for a Star Wars parody he had been planning with other students at his school for a show later in the year. The problem was that he left the tape out in the open in the studio, thinking there was no reason to bother hiding it, since he figured no one would ever bother to watch it. That turned out to be a poor miscalculation on his part.
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2) Remember Kazaa? It was the force behind Star Wars Kid
This was several years before the advent of YouTube and other similar video hosting sites. It wasn’t quite so clear how to share a video on the internet for maximum exposure. So Raza’s aspiring tormentors had to turn to the popular, at the time at least, peer-to-peer sharing service Kazaa, which was mostly known for pirating music and movies. In some cases, it also trafficked early viral videos around the internet. Star Wars Kid hit Kazaa in April 2003. By May, it had already been shared on popular blogs like Boing Boing and news aggregators like Fark.
3) Even the New York Times wrote up the video
The Star Wars Kid was so pervasive that non-other than the Old Grey Lady addressed it an entire article in 2003. Titled “Compressed Data; Fame Is No Laughing Matter for the ‘Star Wars Kid,” the newspaper covered how the video captivated the nascent web in classic Times style.
The Internet is riveted by a video of Ghyslain, a 15-year-old boy in Quebec who filmed himself wielding a double-bladed light saber in the manner of Darth Maul, the bad guy from ”Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”
Short videos of embarrassing, funny or illicit moments are common Internet fare. But this one, known as the Star Wars Kid, has traveled farther, faster and commanded more attention than any in recent memory. It seems to be serving as a Rorschach test for geek self-perception.
Many of the comments on Web sites that showcased the video are simply nasty, making fun of Ghyslain, who is not identified in the video, for being overweight or, as one comment put it, ”dweeby.” But others applaud the un-self-conscious display of physical enthusiasm by someone who is not captain of the football team.
4) The bullying Raza experienced in school was immediate and intense
In a 2013 interview with French-language Quebec magazine L’Actualite, he explained the blowback. “Everything rapidly degenerated. In the common room, students climbed onto tabletops to insult me. People made fun of my physical appearance and my weight. I was labeled the ‘Star Wars Kid.’ They didn’t mean it as a compliment. It soon became impossible for me to attend classes.” He said people frequently came up to him and told him to commit suicide. Not before long, he began thinking seriously about it and questioned the point of living his life.
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5) He left school and finished the year in a psychiatric ward
Raza’s parents contacted the school seeking protection for their son, but officials and teachers couldn’t understand the problem and didn’t grasp the internet well enough to identify how it was spreading. His parents pulled him out of the school and he did his final exams in a high school affiliated with a psychiatric unit of a hospital because that was the only place where he could get the quiet he needed.
The following year, Raza switched schools.
6) Raza’s parents sued his classmates
Unable to get help from school officials and unable to sue media outlets that were showing the video, Raza’s family sued the three classmates who uploaded the video without his consent. The harassment lawsuit for emotional sufferings and psychological damages was initially for a quarter-million dollars, but the parties ultimately settled for an undisclosed sum. Raza later bristled at the notion that the family was trying to get rich. “The media’s story was that we were greedy … It was crazy! I can’t reveal the figures of the settlement, but none of us got rich. It didn’t even cover our expenses. The point was to send a message that the media would understand…That people should behave more responsibly.”
7) He stringently avoided talking about himself
Along with a lack of desire to cash in on the phenomenon, Raza was not seeking fame either. According to him, “[E]very single talk show in North America wanted me as a guest. But why were they inviting me? They wanted to turn me into a circus act. Having your 15 minutes of fame, when you’ve done something truly worthwhile, is one thing. When you earn it for something humiliating, that’s entirely different.”
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8) Star Wars Kid was once named the top viral video of all time
Back before most everything was posted to YouTube, entire companies spent their time trying to aggregate views from different sites. In 2006, the BBC wrote about the phenomenon and said the firm the Viral Factory estimated the video had been viewed over 900 million times. The runner-up was Numa Numa, at 700 million. In the article, viral videos were declared the future of the web.
“It’s now official—with viewing figures like this, virals truly are the entertainment of the future.”
How right they were.
9) A blogger raised money for a care package for Raza
In July, a few months after the video went viral, blogger Andy Baio of the site Waxy.org sought donations to send to Raza “in return for all the trouble he’s gone through to entertain us.” More than $4,000 was raised from about 400 readers. With that, Raza received a 30GB iPod, 18 $200 gift cards to a Canadian electronics store, and a “thank you” letter.
“He’s given us a lot of amusement, so we thought we should do something for him,” Jish Mukerji, another blogger who helped with the effort, said to Wired. “There’s been a lot of sympathy donations. A lot of people see a little bit of themselves in him. We’ve all done the same thing. Maybe it was the Saturday Night Fever thing. We’ve all done it.”
10) There were riffs aplenty
Of course, people on the internet had little way of knowing how the mockery affected Raza’s life. And ultimately few would anyway. This was just a funny thing to riff on, and riff they did. Some added a complement of Star Wars effects, other put him in a Matrix context, while others just went silly with it.
11) ‘Arrested Development’ referenced Star Wars Kid
Nowadays it isn’t all that peculiar for a popular TV show to reference an internet meme, but back in the early ’00s, it was actually something of a creative risk. Even though Star Wars Kid was a huge deal online, there was little way of knowing whether a more widespread audience would get the joke from a network TV show. Apparently, the writers at Arrested Development didn’t much care and just went for it.
12) Raza now works for a hometown conservation firm
Raza made peace with what happened in high school. In fact, he said he would be able to handle it again, not that he’s looking for a repeat.
“Would I change the past, if I could? No. I wouldn’t change a thing, because today I’m happy with who I am … I’m the product of good and bad experiences. Obviously, if you were to tell me that it would happen again, I wouldn’t greet the news with overwhelming joy and happiness. But I wouldn’t look for ways to avoid it.”
He got a law degree from McGill University in Montreal and is now the president of the Patrimoine Trois-Rivières, a society dedicated to the conservation of his hometown.
13) He spoke out against online bullying a decade later
Raza emerged in 2013, a decade after his video was leaked online and made the media rounds to raise awareness of the ills of cyberbullying. He wanted to be an example to other bullied kids that perseverance is possible. “You’ll survive. You’ll get through it. And you’re not alone,” he told kids during his media tour. “You are surrounded by people who love you.”
And it’s worth noting that the United Nation’s anti-bullying day is May 4, a day that should hold significance to any Star Wars fan.