Paul Andrews

How Danny MacAskill got famous

In Mountain Biking, Videos on December 29, 2009 at 8:43 am

For cycling fans, the New York Timesprofile on trials wunderkind Danny MacAskill is more reiterative than informative. We’ve known about the Scottish phenom for months. One point in particular needs clarifying, though.

The article attributes MacAskill’s celebrity to YouTube. While YouTube assuredly played a role in elevating MacAskill from a $9-an-hour bike mechanic to a (potentially) six-figure international icon, crediting YouTube for his transformation is like crediting photography for making Marilyn Monroe famous. The images were important. But a lot more was going on.

The way MacAskill became “known” is a telling case study of the ever-richer, ever-expanding information ecosystem of the Web. And by way of examination it also reveals in a microcosm why newspapers are in such dire straits, and there is nothing they can do to improve their lot, no matter how much career journalists like myself might wish it otherwise.

YouTube certainly made a key contribution to MacAskill’s notoriety. Once his seminal video was posted, the germ was in place. But YouTube is a vast wasteland of flickering pixels. In the Darwinian infrastructure of the Web, entire species of very good videos lie stillborn. MacAskill was just another lad with a few tricks till a Twitterer discovered him.

As a bike blogger, I keep a Twitter feed made up entirely of bike tweeters. There are a lot of them out there, the most famous being the Man Himself, Lance Armstrong. The most famous road cyclist, that is. The most famous mountain biker Tweeter — the category that Danny MacAskill more naturally falls under — may very well be a Laguna Beach-by-way-of-Kenzingen, Germany trials rider by the name of Hans Rey.

Not coincidentally, Hans Rey is, like Danny MacAskill, a trials rider. In fact, whatever heights MacAskill eventually attains, there’s a good chance that within cycling circles he’ll never match Rey’s august stature. A born self-promoter, Rey was making bike-trick videos before MacAskill got his first bike. So inventive and flamboyant was Rey that his full appellation became “Hans No Way Rey,” as in, there’s no way you can pull that one off!

Rey doesn’t tweet a lot, so when he does, the cycling world pays attention. On April 20, 2009, he posted a comment, “Dam check this out,” and link on a “whole new level” for trials riding. The link was Danny MacAskill’s original video, posted just hours earlier.

Hans Rey twitter feed

Hans Rey's original tweet on Danny MacAskill

(I couldn’t find Lance’s original tweet about MacAskill but recall it being somewhat later. A Web search suggests it was in May.)

Once the King had given MacAskill his Midas blessing, a Twitternado erupted. Within hours, nay minutes, retweets began flying around the Web. Suddenly MacAskill’s YouTube views began pinning the servers. Gradually (in Internet time, anyway, meaning by the next day) bloggers got into the act. Then email lists, public and private.

And, finally, aeons later, a newspaper.

YouTube was the source, yes. But in the multi-layered ecosystem of the Web, the source is merely the soil. What made MacAskill famous was the forest of referrals, planted by Hans Rey.

When newspapers ruled the earth, they were both the source and the referrer. They enjoyed a wondrous monopoly over how information was purveyed and received.

Today the Internet has not only bifurcated those roles, it has partitioned them further among numerous players — YouTube, blogs, social networks, email, IM, and on and on. Newspapers are hanging on as one of the players, but their role is irreversibly waning. After all, in the new online order of things, the Internet is the newspaper.

In “covering” the Danny MacAskill story, The Times links to Lance Armstrong, a MacAskill video, still photos and various other pointers. Tellingly, and most ironically, a key progenitor of not only the phenomenon but the art form as well, Hans No Way Rey, was not even mentioned.

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