Amy Brown always craved fame. At Wendy's, she learned to be careful what you wish for.
January 2, 2017, was a Monday, technically a holiday, and I was working from home. Sort of. I was mostly just watching TV in my pajamas, truth be told. Though I ran social media for Wendy's for four years, I'd been promoted two years in. For the second half of my tenure, it had been someone else's job to reply to people on the Twitter and Facebook accounts. I was just keeping an eye on things because it was a holiday. Somebody had to, even though the office was closed.
And then I saw an extremely dumb tweet, which any active Twitter user will tell you is par for the course. If you give anyone with an internet connection the ability to spit stream-of-consciousness thoughts into the universe at random, most of it will be garbage. The guy who sent this particular dumb tweet took issue with the line “fresh, never frozen,” a claim Wendy's makes in its advertising about its beef. I don't blame him for being skeptical; consumers can and should question what major advertisers are telling us. But if you paid attention to the news at all that week, you know how my dude actually worded his question:
“So you deliver it raw on a hot truck?”
I yelled for my boyfriend to come into the room, “Look, look how dumb this tweet is.” We laughed; I wrote back something snarky about refrigerators. The whole thing took five minutes and minimal brainpower on my part before I turned my attention back to the old episode of Law & Order that I hadn't even bothered to pause.
And that's how a stupid tweet I wrote from my couch in my pajamas changed my life.
Once people started to discover that I had a hand in the Great Wendy's Twitter Roast of 2017, they started to ask me lots of questions. Strangers, friends of friends, a coworker of my ex-boyfriend's friend's wife (who once called me “unimpressive” but still name-dropped me just the same after the Twitter war went viral)—they all wanted to know: Where did you learn to do that? Was it a college course? Can you loan me a book or something? But it's a lot more difficult to explain than that, because there was no formal learning process for me. I just know how to do this stuff because the internet is my home. It used to be, anyway.
Before I ever had a firm grasp on what I wanted to do for a living, I knew that I had to be famous. Not because I wanted attention, though—I've always been painfully shy. I just thought fame meant everyone would like me. As a child, I did not yet know that there's no worldwide consensus on anything, that you'd be more likely to get two strangers to fight to the death than to agree on even the most innocuous topic. I tried singing, but I wasn't very good. I tried acting, but my role as a chorus member in a community theater production of “Brigadoon” didn't propel me to stardom. I had no preternatural gifts; I was stuck in Miami County, Ohio.
I was singularly focused on stardom because, frankly, things there sucked. We weren't poor, really. I always knew I'd go to college, and we had relatives with money who could've bailed us out if we really needed it. But my parents lived paycheck to paycheck, and most of my clothes came from Goodwill. There wasn't running hot water in the bathroom sink of the house where I grew up. The kitchen ceiling partially caved in one day; my mom swept it up, and we all went about our business as if nothing had happened. And then there were the fleas. We had a collection of indoor-outdoor farm cats, and my mother treated their fleas with natural remedies, which did not work. I learned how to pick fleas off of cats and crush them between my fingernails, which I'd idly do to keep my hands busy while watching TV, the way some people knit. My wildest dreams weren't actually that wild. I wanted Abercrombie jeans, a canopy bed and a kitchen floor that didn't get damp when it rained.
Academic achievement came naturally to me. I easily got A's in almost everything, even though I never studied. And if it hadn't been hard enough being the only Jewish kid in a rural Ohio town, I had to be the nerd too. I desperately wanted to fit in, even though I pretended it didn't bother me when my classmates covered my junior high locker in handwritten notes that said “FREAK.” I'd come home from school every day, dejected and lonely, to my stepfather's dilapidated house and activated the dial-up internet on our massive desktop computer.
I joined the earliest incarnations of social networking sites: Diaryland, Livejournal, Friendster and then Myspace. As Myspace started to gain popularity in the area surrounding my hometown, I realized it was easier to connect digitally with people I'd like to know in real life—I was less scared to introduce myself; I put up fewer walls. I started adding anyone who looked interesting, but who didn't already know I was a social pariah, to my friends list. A major feature of the profile was the top eight friends; eventually the site made this section customizable, but in the early days it displayed friends chronologically by sign-up date. I'd joined the site early enough that I often showed up there. And as I began to appear in others' top friends sections, people in the next town over started to know me. Recognize me. Remember me. Someone asked to take a picture with me at Walmart. I knew these people weren't my friends, exactly, but it felt good that someone finally cared I existed.
The hours I spent in front of my computer as a teenager became my professional training. The first brand I ever built was Amy Brown From Myspace, the cooler, more desirable me. Inevitably, I outgrew the persona and the website (as we all did) and deleted the profile when I left for college, eager to start fresh. I think my mother was relieved—she's told me that she worried about the amount of time I spent on the internet, that I was isolating myself and ignoring my schoolwork. Who could have foreseen that one day I'd channel all I was learning into a career path that didn't even exist yet?
To be clear, I'm not famous. I'm not even the first Google search result for my own name. That honor still lies with the Amy Brown who draws pictures of fairies. But there's a teenage girl in my Facebook messages asking if she can meet me and take a selfie. I'm mentioned by name on the Know Your Meme entry for Wendy's (it's like Wikipedia, but for memes). Even the positive attention has been a bit overwhelming, especially considering my main method of exiting social situations is to leave without saying anything, and that I once did it at my own birthday party.
For the most part, I spent my four and a half years at Wendy's doing things that nobody outside the company noticed. I sat in my cubicle. I sat in meetings. I sat on airplanes flying to exotic places like Kansas City. I worked tirelessly on projects that I had a lot of trouble explaining to my parents, like making sure Twitter's API (“What's an API?”—my mother) worked flawlessly with the software in the customer service center, because 50 percent of our social media interaction was complaints. I know this because part of my job was to measure the percentage of complaining.
I don't know who first took notice of the Jan. 2 conversation, but I know it really started to blow up when a writer at Upworthy, the website almost singlehandedly responsible for clickbait headlines, took a screenshot and published it to her popular personal Twitter account. From there, things moved pretty quickly. People retweeted and shared and aggregated the conversation. Anderson Cooper re-enacted it on air, a sentence I still can't believe is real. YouTube channels made videos of people reading and reacting to Wendy's tweets. A Facebook friend told me she'd seen it on the news in Tel Aviv. We received more tweets in 24 hours than we had in the previous month; my two colleagues and I managed the account in rotating shifts. We tried to lean into the momentum, all of us interchangeably trying to give the people what they wanted: more snark, more snappy comebacks. Nobody slept.
I figured, “This is probably the coolest thing I'll ever do,” so I gave two interviews about it to The Daily Dot and Mashable. And those two interviews got aggregated and recycled into countless other pieces of interchangeable clickbait. Did you know George Takei has 10 million Facebook fans? I found out pretty quickly when his page shared one of the articles about me. Suddenly, the story wasn't just about Wendy's anymore. I accidentally thrust myself into the spotlight. Things have yet to return to normal. Sometimes I wonder if they ever really will.
Lots of people outgrow their childhood dreams; I realized years ago that I probably wouldn't like being famous. Even positive attention makes me uncomfortable. I like when people recognize the work I've produced, but I hate when people recognize me. But boundaries have shifted as technology has advanced.
Remember when someone took a photo of a cute kid working at Target, which was then tweeted, then posted to Tumblr, and then that kid went on Ellen, and now that kid has 1.6 million Instagram followers? What are the ramifications of living in a society where you can achieve fame for just showing up to scan groceries? The default assumption is that fame is good, something to be aspired to—that if you make a person famous, you're making all their wildest dreams come true. And on some level that's true. With increased attention comes opportunity. Doors open more easily. But there's also increased scrutiny, a loss of privacy. People start to feel like they own a piece of you. People you don't even know begin to expect things from you.
As the kid who posted five photos of my face to his Instagram told me excitedly, “You're part of the meme now!” Because that's the thing about memes: You don't get to choose whether or not you become one. And though I can't speak for Alex From Target, who experienced viral fame on a much larger scale than I did, it was a shock to my system.
As my number of Twitter followers increased exponentially, I became increasingly paranoid. I caught the attention of the alt-right, a group not known for its love of Jews or liberal women. Someone found an address for me. It was accurate information, though outdated, and it scared me so much that I vomited. My direct message inbox filled up with anti-Semitic threats and cartoons, pictures of genitals, graphic descriptions of what sex acts the writer was imagining us performing on one another. Someone started a message board discussion: “Would you have sex with Amy Brown? The girl behind Wendy's Twitter account.”
Then I crossed the aisle and accidentally sparked outrage among the far left over a tweet that was, essentially, a stream-of-consciousness musing about corporations, language and feminism that I never should have attempted to condense into 140 characters. What would have gone relatively unnoticed prior to January sparked a firestorm of tweets that continued long after I deleted the initial offending statement; the conversation was largely split between men telling me corporate scum deserve harassment and men telling me to get a real job. Only one person wanted to have a conversation about our differing opinions; the rest just wanted to scream at me until I stopped talking at all. I had mutual followers with most of the yelling men; I hoped someone might jump in to tell them to chill out.
Unfortunately, the only thing people like more than a feel-good success story is watching someone get kicked in the groin repeatedly—it's why America's Funniest Home Videos has been on as long as I've been alive.
As the old adage says: Be careful what you wish for. Fame didn't bring me universal adoration. What people really like (when they like me at all, because some people hate me on principle) is the idea of me. I'm a blank canvas, onto which they can project their ideal version of The Wendy's Social Media Girl—a job, incidentally, I no longer hold (I left Wendy's in March, a move that was in the works long before I became internet famous). There's no room for error or humanity or my own opinions. I live now with the constant knowledge that to someone, somewhere, I am a disappointment. I wish it didn't bother me, but I haven't figured out how to stop caring yet.
When I visited my childhood home during my senior year of college, I had the distinct feeling of being a stranger in somebody else's house. Some things had been moved, walls painted, one of the cats died. My stuff had been packed up and put in a closet. It was fundamentally the same house, but it was also a completely different one at the same time.
That's how I feel about the internet now, too. I'm a stranger in my own home.