The Surprisingly Hollow Experience of Going Viral

MTV called my 5-mile run “the jog seen ‘round the world.” By the time I got back, the video had already been viewed over 24,000 times.


Originally published on http://www.relevantmagazine.com.

MTV called my 5-mile run “the jog seen ‘round the world.” By the time I got back, the video had already been viewed over 24,000 times. My friends and I went to sushi and watched on our phones as the count rose by the tens of thousands.

Before long, my phone was buzzing with interview requests, Facebook marriage proposals and thousands of social media followers.

It soon felt like little burglars were running through the halls of my cyber house, scouring the web for all they could find about this new viral sensation. Every picture on my Facebook was ripped and reposted on dozens of websites; every tweet I had posted weighed on some subjective scale of judgement.

The pressure to measure up is tremendous.

It is at once jarring and flattering to have thousands of people commenting on my videos and photos, almost all of whom have never met me. To watch people speculate about my sexual orientation, grooming habits, religious views, preferences in women, and every other possible topic. I almost wanted to reply to every comment, correcting their mistakes and assumptions and thanking them for the compliments.

Then the rumors came out, declaring my friends and I bigoted homophobes for operating an outreach ministry in a gay neighborhood. (We actually worked all over Chicagoland and one neighborhood happened to be Boystown.) This kindling fueled the fires of hundreds of angry responses, heaping hate on me—who they had never met—all thanks to some spotty journalism.

Since the night my run was captured on the news and distributed around the Internet, I have been hit on by the reporter from TIME magazine, named “The Sexiest Man on Earth” by CBS, and featured on many other major news sources. Nervous admirers and sheepish husbands (“It’s for my wife”) approach me for pictures. I have been invited to lead a Bible study that Justin Bieber and the Kardashians sometimes attend. I was offered my own TV show and nominated for The Bachelor.

From an outside perspective, it would certainly seem like I was on top of the world. And it certainly was fun for a while.

But while I became Internet famous, but what I did not become was known.

Humans have this innate desire for fame and recognition. We crave an endless amount of fawning and attention, and in this digital age, where “likes” are the measure of our worth, this is exponentially more true.

Receiving a sudden flood of attention reminded me that our desire for these things is misplaced, though. The masses were in love with me, but I still felt empty. It turned out that Ecclesiastes 1:8 was right; the eye never has its fill of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing, nor the Twitter its fill of retweets.

Donald Fairbairn once wrote that the most “insidious effect” of America’s celebrity culture is its “constant, subliminal message that we are not really important.” If celebrities are the gods of the modern age, what does that make the rest of us “normal” people? We take selfies with the famous to attach ourselves to something of significance—someone who will let us feel like we have meaning.

Perhaps what we really crave, more than praise from ten thousand mouths, is intimacy—truly being known.

Yes, millions of people in the world now know my name, but they don’t know me. They don’t know what makes me laugh. We don’t have inside jokes, or a history of crazy stories together. They’ve never held me when I cried, and they certainly don’t know if I’m worth marrying.

No amount of media attention or Instagram followers will ever fill this void within us to be known and appreciated. The Bible tells us about the incredible nearness of God to His people. He knows us better than we know ourselves.

In fact, the Bible says the relationship of God to His people is like that of a husband to a wife. No amount of Insta-fame could compare to this sort of intimate knowledge. Our hearts pine to be known in ways that can’t be displayed in an interview or a social media profile.

Rather than attaching ourselves to celebrities, we should attach ourselves to the One who truly is significant, who truly is glorious, and who knows us with a kind of intimacy that frees us from our soul’s desire for fame.

Unsurprisingly, Tim Keller puts it best:

We want someone of ultimate glory loving us. Not just love in general. What we need is this ultimate assurance of who we are, ultimate assurance of our worth. We need someone like that loving us like that. We need someone we think the world of thinking the world of us. We need the praise of the praiseworthy.

When we lock eyes with the one who created the very idea of “attention,” the obsessions of our own hearts are unbent from years of crooked crowd-seeking. “We love because he first loved us.” When we know what this means, we can focus on the people around us, rather than the distant A-listers.

Even when the attention from “going viral” recedes, I know I can focus on the Lord, who knows every one of us better than our best friends.


15 comments on “The Surprisingly Hollow Experience of Going Viral

  1. Perhaps all the attention was leading up to this message. Very well said, and probably seen by many whom, without your fateful jog that day, would not have had the opportunity to hear from you. I know my God and my friends, even without the ‘validation’ of that little ‘like’ symbol popping up in front of me when we speak. 🙂 Keep sharing and reaching out; you have a gift for it.
    God Bless

  2. What an honest and eye opening post. I am not surprised by what you’ve written but it strikes me as one of the most universally appreciable posts I’ve seen you write. No I don’t know you and yes I started reading your blog because you went viral but I would never imagine I knew you in any real way, and would therefore never judge you, because we have never even spoken. I am intrigued and will continue to follow your journey because you have some good things to say… Be well. 🙂

  3. Kate Lukomski

    This was very eloquently put. Thank you for this.

  4. Well said. Keep on soldier. Sharing the truth, in love, with a bold courage. Prayers for you and God’s mission for you on this earth.

  5. Wow Ethan! This was awesome! With a following like yours, how would someone like me (a brother in Christ) be able to fellowship with you??
    Praise the Lord Buddy!


  6. Amen …. Do you follow the writings/posts by New Orleans Saints player Benjamin Watson? If not, take a look at his Facebook page. It gives Christian single women hope that there are more men like you and him – and that your unashamed love of living for Christ will influence more people to stop playing the games and get “real.”

    God’s continue blessings to you …

  7. Absolutely love it Ethan, it’s so true, God sometimes let’s us experience things to find answers, this was to you like when Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert and told him I would give you all of this things “riches an d so on” if you worship me. And your heart is strong you didn’t succumb to the temptation. I knew you were a good man, you can tell, so keep preaching the good word. God bless you

  8. Reblogged this on Catherine Vaughan's World and commented:
    I n t e r e s t i n g . . . .

  9. Love this! Silly are we to seek love, attention, and affirmation from others when we have all of that and more from God. Focusing on God first is a trial sometimes but when we do all our desires are given to us by Him. Even the one we will fall in love with and marry! Blessings.

  10. After all the attention faded, one thing is certain: things happen for a reason. And now people can reas about the One that matters and get a chance to get to Him. I’m glad I got curious enough to follow you and read your encouraging posts, they make me think, grow, connect more with God. I pray He continues to bless you, talk to you and you speak to a huge audience with wisdom and experience, leading them to our Saviour.

  11. Absolutely love this & all of its vulnerability! To be fully known is so incredible. SOOO cool.

  12. Yes. I’m so glad to hear your reflections post-first wave fame.
    I recently met a guy who has 1000+ instagram followers. He posts a lot of selfies, self-made model shots. One of those photos has over 800 likes. I asked what would mean more to him, those 800 anonymous insta likes, or one person who genuinely likes him face to face. He chose the latter and his colleague chuckled at him…because isn’t that the conundrum? It’s true that the fame is hollow, but still we seek it out, although it leaves us empty.

  13. I’m one who first heard of you because of the interview. I checked your Twitter out of curiosity, but I STAYED because you are not ashamed of Jesus. I find that even more beautiful than a nice chest in a December rain.
    I do not read ANY blogs, but I’ll be checking in on yours! You are the type of person who will keep me focused on Jesus!

  14. I new since the beginning Ethan that you were special. God does not put us in good positions just because we are pretty, but because we can help others. Keep writing and being you, you have a strong character, another person would have been broken with all this crazy media opinions that some are so horrendous, crazy and people are so quickly to judge

  15. Noel Quilao

    Great read, Ethan. Hang in there.

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