The phrase “too good to be true” typically doesn’t apply to 20-something white girls setting themselves on fire, but Caitlin Heller is no ordinary 20-something. The very same week America’s distraction du jour happened to be raising its collective eyebrows at Miley Cyrus and her questionable ability/right to twerk, Heller happened to make “a sexy twerk video” for her boyfriend — and happened to do so in front of a table full of lit candles, onto which her roommate happened to push her. So disappointing as the revelation that “Caitlin Heller” doesn’t actually exist may be, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone with an ounce of cynicism (which is to say, most of the people who gleefully shared a video of someone incurring what looked like pretty serious injuries).
Things started to clear up once Heller let her 9.7-million-and-counting fans know that she’d be appearing on Jimmy Kimmel last night, despite being “a little embarrassed.” Those who thought nobody could be so un-self aware that she’d want to brag about her humiliation on national television turned out to be right (this time, at least): Heller’s actually a stuntwoman named Daphne Avalon, enlisted by Kimmel to troll national media outlets by pulling the ultimate bait-and-switch and “end twerking forever.” Avalon’s mishap didn’t end in third-degree burns, just a yoga pants-clad Kimmel dousing the set with a fire extinguisher and a Daily Show-worthy montage of news anchors repeating the phrase “twerk fail.”
It’s tempting to take out one’s frustration that the video’s here’s-what-happens-when-you-culturally-appropriate moral was intentional rather than accidental on Kimmel. And sure, it’s a bit cynical to turn a simple visual gag into a viral fad by selling it to the Internet as reality. But Heller/Avalon’s mishap didn’t need to be accidental to hit a nerve with YouTubers, redditors, and other hive minds dedicated to finding whatever GIFs, anecdotes, and 30-second clips best capture the week’s zeitgeist. In his big on-set reveal, Kimmel makes a point of stressing just how little legwork he and his team had to do to get Avalon’s stunt off the ground: no social media campaign or PR push, just a simple clip of a girl and her tragically inept dance moves.
If anything, the staged aspect of Avalon’s stunt makes the video and its success far more interesting than the average amateur recording of [insert pet here] doing [insert human-like activity here] or even the ever-expanding sub-genre of accident humor (those who say they haven’t spent at least ten minutes watching people trip over hurdles or fall off treadmills are lying). Kimmel’s ability to hijack the process by which a piece of media gets turned into an Internet meme suggests something more intriguing than the unsurprising revelation that we’d still rather talk about Miley Cyrus than Syria: that the Web isn’t quite as unpredictable as we’d like to think.
There’s nothing the Internet likes less than feeling manipulated. Reddit loathes when users promote their own content, and Wikipedia famously doesn’t allow the subjects of its articles to write their own descriptions. And it’s been a truism for the last decade that there’s no point in trying to predict, let alone drive, what a collective of users chooses to sink its teeth into. Phenomena like “Gangnam Style” and 100,000-note Tumblr selfies just happen — not because anyone meant them to, but because they had whatever je ne sais quoi is required to grab people’s attention.
But Kimmel’s magnificently executed troll short-circuits that assumption. Caitlin Heller’s nonexistence takes the schadenfreude out of her insta-fame, but it also shows that if you’re able to figure out just what people want to see and when they want to see it, 36 seconds of low-quality footage are all it takes to dominate a few 24-hour hype cycles. And right now, what people want to see is someone who looks kind of like Miley Cyrus get the kind of comeuppance many think Miley deserves, either for taking ownership of a dance move that’s not hers to appropriate, or less nobly, being a young woman showing off her body onstage. And that knowledge is way more uncomfortable than the idea that somewhere in Kansas City, some poor girl lost a pair of yoga pants.