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Before the rise of YouTube and Facebook, Ghyslain Raza became an internet star better known as the Star Wars Kid. It wasn’t on purpose, or even wanted, but he’s learned to move past it and hopes others can do the same.
“I’m not the Star Wars Kid, I’m Ghyslain. This is a sort of character, to call it that, that has its own life separate from me on the web. It was never me,” Raza told The Current’s Matt Galloway.
“But there is a lesson there that, especially if this digital shadow becomes overpowering, it’s important to not let yourself be defined by something external to you.”
Race is the subject of a new documentary called Star Wars Kid: The Rise of the Digital Shadows, made by the National Film Board. In it, Raza looks back at what happened 20 years ago, when he stepped in front of the camera.
One of the first viral videos
Raza’s troubles began when he was a Grade 9 student at le Séminaire Saint Joseph in Trois-Rivieres, Que. He was helping a classmate work on a video to parody popular movies, including Star Wars.
The student actors wielded golf ball retrievers in place of lightsabers. Raza was trying to add the iconic glowing effects on top of it, but she couldn’t get it quite right.
Raza tried to troubleshoot, posing in front of the camera to see if it could better track slower movements. But after a few tries, it still didn’t work.
With one final take, Raza decided to blow off some steam, and swing the staff-like retriever in his hands as though he was actually a Jedi.
“When I’m in front of the camera, I’m like, ‘Nope, you know what? I’m just going to vent some steam, and you know, goof around basically,'” said Raza.
“That’s when that famous video was created.”
Raza had recorded his impromptu lightsaber session. At the time I thought nothing of it. But a few months later, someone did find the video — and posted it online.
In a matter of days, the video of Raza wildly spinning his fake saber was famous, and so was he. And he wasn’t even that big of a Star Wars fan.
Today, anyone can upload a video to potentially reach a huge online audience on platforms like YouTube or TikTok. That wasn’t the case in 2003, when users uploaded short clips to their own blogs.
“Today, this viral phenomenon is not exactly new, but at the time, it was probably the first time something would go viral at such a large scale in such a short time,” said Raza.
It took about two weeks before the video really became famous, but once it got picked up steam, the momentum never let up. A blogger posted about it, and then the New York Times picked it up. Once the local news got onto the story, Raza was hounded by the media.
WATCH | Ghyslain Raza explains how the Star Wars Kid video was created
“They were at school. They came to my parents’ home. They tried to take a picture of me at any cost. They tried to take a picture through the window blinds,” said Raza.
At school, students teased or mocked him for the video. Staff saw it as bad publicity, and asked him not to return the following year. So I started getting tutored at home.
In the nearly 20 years since it was first posted, the video has been viewed hundreds of millions of times. It was referenced in TV shows such as Arrested Development and South Park. People would remix the video, adding their own sound or visual effects.
Carrie Rentschler says Raza’s story is a prime example of why people need to be more conscious about consent on the internet, even today.
“The story is common today, I’m kind of struck by that fact. It was of course not common in 2003,” said Rentschler, an associate professor of media studies at McGill University in Montreal.
“It wasn’t normal, and it really started a ton of meme culture… [It] really became a phenomenon that you would remix short videos and post them, not necessarily knowing the origin of the original video.”
She says that while people might be more aware of digital consent now than when Raza went viral, there is still more work to do.
“Being consensual on the internet isn’t top of mind for most folks, because so many of our platforms are designed to enable us to share things without having to ask anyone if we can share it or not,” said Rentschler.
“We’re often not thinking about, necessarily, the people behind the material that we’re sharing as well. In fact sharing is generally presented to us on our platforms as a good thing.”
Rentschler says that on a lot of academic sites, when professors post material, they are asked if they have permission to post it. She says simple tools like that and proper attribution is important in this digital age.
Raza says he’s been able to move past being the Star Wars Kid. He now has a degree in law and is working on his PhD. He wants people to know that you don’t have to be defined by the online identity others may have created for you.
He feels the world has gotten better at understanding the online world. As part of filming the NFB documentary, he went back to his school of Three Rivers Academy, and talked to some of the students there about the digital shadow.
“Especially today, everyone has a form of digital shadow, right? Mine might be a little bit larger than most, but at the end of the day, we all have this sort of double identity with our online life and our real life,” said Raza.
Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Matt Meuse.