Had it happened in later years, there’s a good chance Ghyslain Raza would never have become Star Wars kid.
If like today’s ninth-graders, Raza had owned a smartphone, he could have put it on a tripod, recorded himself practicing Darth Maul-style lightsaber moves with a golf ball retriever, and kept the resulting video to himself. In 2020, Raza might even have chosen to post the best take as a Snap — felt like a Jedi, might delete later. In a world filled with bizarre amateur videos, where the extremely online are proudly weird and “geek” is no longer a slur, it probably would have sunk without trace.
But this was 2002, not 2020. The iPhone was barely a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye. So when Raza wanted to try out his lightsaber choreography — not for himself, but for his actors in a Star Wars parody at his school (St. Joseph’s Seminary in Trois-Rivières, Quebec) which Raza was directing — he used the only equipment available, at the AV club studio. Raza taped himself spinning the retriever and flailing around for two minutes, then put the tape back on the shelf. Who, he thought, would even care?
There it should have stayed, hiding in plain sight like the Ark of the Covenant in its warehouse. Then in April 2003, three of Raza’s classmates discovered the tape. Without his knowledge, they uploaded it to file-sharing network Kazaa. And thus began the viral spread of Star Wars kid — which, at around 900 million estimated views, was likely the most seen video in the world, pre-YouTube. (The main YouTube version currently has 36 million views, accruing at a rate of more than a million a year, to say nothing of the remixes.)
Reconsidering the whole affair 17 years later, however, what stands out is how staggeringly clueless, even nasty, the world’s reaction was. Other internet stars knew what they were getting into: like the Numa Numa guy, they posted their own videos (or, in the case of Antoine Dodson, agreed to appear on the TV news). But Raza, a shy and serious 15 year old, was pushed into a global spotlight without consent.
Even as Raza refused all interviews and clung to his privacy, court jesters such as Stephen Colbert and Seth MacFarlane thought nothing of piling on. An air of cultural legitimacy was lent to a case of cyberbullying. The anonymity of the screen, and the absence of any details about Raza and the personal nightmare he was going through, brought out the hecklers.
The media frenzy around the video resembled the phenomenon we now think of as online public shaming, which is questionable enough in itself. But Raza had done nothing wrong. He hadn’t posted a racist tweet like Justine Sacco or exposed himself on a Zoom call like Jeffrey Toobin. His crimes had been not hanging on to the tape, and goofing around while carrying a few extra pounds.
Today, we would use a phrase that wasn’t part of the discourse in 2003: body shaming. Today, we would shame those who shamed him.
How it spread
First stop on the Star Wars kid world tour was waxy.org, a blog run by programmer Andy Baio (who would later become CTO of Kickstarter). Baio hosted the video on his site alongside the first parody version, which grafted lightsaber special effects onto the original. The two were downloaded a total of 1.1 million times in April 2003, putting Baio on the hook for 2.3 terabytes of data back when hosting wasn’t cheap. On his original post, you can see the commenters start to pile on:
I dub thee Darth Haul.
If there were more portly Jedis like that, I’d totally leave the dark side.
The little known Jedi, Luke Piestalker.
What do you mean, you’re out of Baja Womprat Gorditas? Motherfucking Tatooine Taco Bell, I’m taking your ass out!
Pretty soon Baio felt compelled to turn new comments off and delete the worst existing ones (the ones above remained). “Yes, he’s fat and awkward,” Baio wrote. “We get it. Since 90% of the traffic to these videos is coming from gaming, technology, and Star Wars news websites, I’m guessing that most of you weren’t any cooler in junior high school than this poor kid. All you geeks, nerds, and dorks out there need to think twice before trashing one of your own.”
This was a common thread in the comments, too: Leave Star Wars kid alone, we’ve all done it! But a more compelling factor for the internet, then as now, was the mystery of it all. At first, nobody knew who Star Wars kid was, or how his video had made it online. Had he posted it himself? Did he have an overinflated sense of how good his lightsaber moves were, and an earnest desire to share them with the world? It seemed likely: Wasn’t every kid desperate for 15 minutes of fame?
Two weeks after his first post, Baio had the answer: It was never meant to be seen, and uploading it was a prank. A French-speaking fellow blogger had interviewed Raza, whose answers were noncommittal. (Q: I guess it wasn’t a friend who did this, more of an enemy? A: More or less. It was someone I knew.)
The interview also revealed that Raza wanted an iPod, so Baio set about soliciting donations. By July he had raised $30,000 — far more than the cost of a 30GB iPod, so Baio also sent Raza 18 $200 gift cards. A note thanked Raza for “countless hours of entertainment” and recognized “the hardships you had to face.” Raza did not reply, nor take a photo of himself with the iPod as requested.
“They were only drops in the ocean of contempt that I faced.”
“I know that the people who sent me gifts had good intentions,” Raza said in 2013, in his one and only major media interview on the topic, to the Canadian magazine Macleans. “But they were only drops in the ocean of contempt that I faced.”
‘A very dark period’
The New York Times published a brief on the video that May, shortly after Baio’s blog revealed Raza’s identity. The headline was “fame is no laughing matter for the Star Wars kid.” It ended with Raza’s brief email to the Times: “It was not funny at all.” But the rest of the world’s media missed the memo, and Raza later described the Times article as a “turning point when media worldwide decided I was an international story.” The Raza family hunkered down, unplugged the phone, and sought the advice of lawyers.
Raza, dismayed by fellow students leaping onto tables to imitate him, stopped attending classes. The lawyers found him another high school in which to sit his exams; the school was affiliated with the psychiatric unit of a hospital, leading to rumors that Raza had been committed. In July the family sued the three kids who’d uploaded the video for $225,000 Canadian. Eventually they won an out-of-court settlement, but it didn’t even cover their legal costs.
Raza watched with horror as the video’s viral spread continued. He read comments calling him a “pox on humanity.” He saw a Quebec TV show that looped the video while guests commented, giving his name and hometown. If he had been a 14-year-old criminal, Raza noted, a law would prevent the media from broadcasting his name or image.
Both those who mocked him and those who cheered him on seemed to have the same assumption: Surely more attention will help. A sympathetic online petition called for George Lucas to give Raza a cameo in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, which began filming that year; it was signed 140,000 times and came to nothing. The video was parodied on Arrested Development, Family Guy, The Colbert Report, American Dad, Venture Brothers and South Park. “Every single talk show in America wanted me as a guest,” Raza told Macleans:
I still have Jay Leno’s invitation. A Japanese show offered me a lot of money. 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 …
A billion people drew conclusions about me from that video. It’s not something that you want to be associated with. Definitely not when you’re 15 and trying to build your identity. No matter how hard I tried to ignore people telling me to commit suicide, I couldn’t help but feel worthless, like my life wasn’t worth living.
I never tried to commit suicide, but it was a very dark period for me.
With the help of family, lawyers, and teachers to design an accelerated program, Raza made it through what he describes as a “hurricane.” He went to law school in Montreal and became president of a society that aimed to preserve Trois-Rivières’ heritage.
The release of a photo of the society’s new president instigated a new round of internet attention. “Well, I’m done feeling bad for him,” wrote one U.S. blogger and yoga instructor. His baffling argument was that Raza had “tricked” the world, because he seemed to be doing fine now. Someone claiming to be Raza, with an IP address in Canada, responded seriously in halting English. “I try to say that I moved past it,” the comment read, “but I still get reminded because people won’t let it go.”
The Macleans interview, three years later, was intended as Raza’s final word on the whole subject. He’d decided to speak out, finally, in support of Canadian legislation on cyberbullying. “Schools should offer a class on bullying,” Raza said. “Students need to ask themselves, ‘Would you say to someone’s face what you’re writing on the internet? Would you say it in public?'”
That advice has only become more relevant — for all of us, not just high schoolers. In an age of mean tweets, when every division in society is enflamed in the comments section of every controversial Facebook post, we would all do well to imagine saying everything we type to someone’s face.
We would also do well to remember that even now, even in the age of TikTok, where you can become famous for drinking cranberry juice on a skateboard while singing Fleetwood Mac, not everyone in the world is keen to go viral.
Some of us would just like to see what our lightsaber moves look like, and to keep the resulting video as hidden as a galaxy far, far away. Not for anything, not for love or money or a role in a Star Wars movie, would we wish to see our most awkward teenage moment shared with the world.