Life

Nearly a decade later, a random exchange between two men unspools the long tail of YouTube and viral videos. By Simon Webster.

The YouTube game

Stills from the 2012 video prank that went viral, with Andrew Hales (left) and Mike Dixon.
Credit: Andrew Hales

November 2012, Salt Lake City, Utah

A young man wearing a backpack approaches an older man, also wearing a backpack. They appear to be on a university campus. Both have their hands in their pockets. The young man stops the older man and asks, “What did the baby corn say to the mama corn?”

Bemused, the older man says, “I don’t know.”

“Where’s pop corn?” the young man says, but the older man is distracted.

“Is that a camera?” he asks, looking dead at us.

“Yeah.”

“Is there a point to all this?”

The camera pulls back. The young man stumbles on his words. “No, it’s just for fun.”

The young man describes what he is doing as a social experiment. The older man laughs.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to mess it up.”

He implores the young man to try the joke again, which he does, and again it falls flat.

The two men laugh. There is a sense of camaraderie in their awkwardness. They talk for a bit.

“Do you want to be in the video?” the young man asks.

“I don’t really care,” the older man responds. “I don’t know where it’s going, but for the moment I guess I’m not afraid.”

The young man, whose name is Andrew Hales, explains that he has a YouTube channel, with new videos each Monday. These were the heady days of viral prank videos, where a lack of social decorum and a video camera could equal fast money.

Hales rummages through his backpack, looking for a branded wrist band to give to the older man. Sensing his opportunity, the older man, whose name is Mike Dixon, also takes off his backpack. “Let me advertise my book?” he asks.

Hales laughs. “Maybe.”

“You never know what you’re gonna walk into, right?” Dixon says as he pulls out a copy of his book – Alaska Bound: A Life of Travel and Adventure in the Far North – which, he says, he has recently put on Kindle. “It’s a very hot item. There are 36 used copies for sale on Amazon.com at any one time.”

Hales and Dixon talk for a while. Their interaction runs for 10 minutes, including a portion that is fast-forwarded. At one point, Hales asks Dixon if he is a professor.

“No – I was in China,” Dixon replies. “Do you want to know how I ended up in China?”

“Yeah, sure,” Hales says, and Dixon launches into a string of what feel like well-trodden tales. He speaks about the connections between Alaska and China – “They needed people who could handle guns and weren’t afraid of danger, so a lot of Alaskan homesteaders actually ended up in China, because it was the next adventure” – and about one such frontiersman who drove a caravan of 500 camels, loaded with tobacco and tea, across Mongolia and into Russia. This same man, Dixon says, introduced the American cowboy hat to Tibet.

Hales lets Dixon run, intermittently adding a “wow” or a “cool”.

Dixon ends with a story of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. He was 800 kilometres away when it struck. Compelled to help, Dixon and one of his students went out and bought 40 tents, and then drove for hours, eventually reaching a flattened village. Dixon describes delivering a tent to a man who was on his knees, crying at the small kindness.

As the conversation wraps up, Dixon signs a copy of his book for Hales. He writes a long inscription. It feels like he is dragging his feet. Eventually, he lets Hales go.

But it doesn’t end there. Hales posts the video, and like all things uploaded to the internet, it gets a second life, beginning in the comments section. Viewers frame the interaction in terms of technology and morality, art and farce:

He seems like a good person. I appreciate people like that in the world.

This is probably how a lot of conversations started before the phone was invented...

This clip started out as an innocent joke and turned into what could be a David Mamet play...

This is how life trolls all of us.

Opinions are split on whether Dixon deserved pity or gratitude, whether he is a Machiavellian prankster or a lonely heart:

This video is such a feel-good video I don’t even know why.

I feel really sad and I don’t know why.

Can’t figure out if the guy was a master tactician who outmanoeuvred you or what…

This guy is definitely a lonely person.

Damn, that man looked sad as he walked away.

Some begin engaging with the book:

I just bought the book.

Read this guy’s book... it’s amazing!!! I’ve read it 3 times and I just started it again.

I bought this book a few days ago from Amazon. He sent it to me himself as I can tell from the return address.

Similar notes appear on Amazon:

I felt inspired to purchase this book after your chance appearance in a YouTube video...

Then, in 2016, someone named Ekim Noxid entered the conversation:

Ekim Noxid is actually Mike Dixon spelled backwards. 15 years ago when I used the name no one knew about how safe the internet was.

And:

How do I contact the person who did this video? I would like to do another one.

When I ask Hales about the video, he remembers it immediately. He tells me he doesn’t read the comments on old videos, so once they’ve hit a certain age, they’re off his radar. He can’t remember if Dixon ever contacted him, but he did recall reading the book – his inscribed copy is now boxed up in storage.

I ask him how YouTube has changed in the years since 2012. For one, it pays less. Ten years ago, Hales received between $US3 and $US6 per thousand views. Now he gets a third of that. Another shift has been in his audience. In the early 2010s Hales made a name for himself by filming awkward pranks. To heighten his awkwardness, he would often perform hopped up on Adderall. Egged on by the potential payday and an unforgiving fanbase, Hales pushed himself to film more outrageous videos, and more often.

These days, his output is more introspective, and his audience reflects this. “I now have a much smaller, niche audience that doesn’t really care what I post as long as I’m in it and talking to them … That’s been therapeutic in a way to have that parasocial relationship with them.”

I was unable to track down Mike Dixon. I wanted to ask him whether he had found an answer to the question of how friendly a place the internet is. Perhaps my being unable to find him says it all. Perhaps he is once again homesteading in the Alaskan wilderness or teaching at a university in China. I asked Hales where he thought Mike was now.

“I imagine he’s somewhere in Salt Lake City, just taking it easy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 25, 2021 as "Parasocial animals".

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Simon Webster is a Melbourne-based lawyer and writer.