Jacob Isom didn’t know he was about to be famous when he interrupted a protest by stealing a Quran and running away with it. Moments after the act, a reporter from the local CBS affiliate asked the unassuming skateboarder from Amarillo about his daring deed. His interview went viral, and Isom’s unintentionally humorous remark, “Dude, you have no Quran!,” is now a YouTube sensation. Katy Vine met with the 23 year old to find out what he thought about his newfound fame and to examine today’s instant celebrities. Here’s the story behind the story.
If this incident had happened five or ten years ago, you wouldn’t have written about it. It is undeniable that YouTube has changed our lives. What’s your take on it?
In a pre-YouTube era, Isom would have been celebrated for a weekend—maybe a workday or two—and then forgotten. Convenient dissemination of video has changed all that.
In your story you discuss other instant celebrities such as the “Star Wars Kid” and the Winnebago Man. Why do you think the public has become so enamored with everyday people and life?
I don’t know that viewers have become any more enamored with everyday people than they were before YouTube; wacky home videos and Candid Camera –type shows have always had a TV audience. But since viewers can watch Internet clips at their convenience from almost any location, everyday people can become more well known nationally or globally, if only for a short time.
Some scholars make the case that young people consider entertainment to be news instead of traditional hard news. Do you agree? If not, why not? If so, how has YouTube, social media, and the Internet played a role in this shift?
Though I haven’t done any research in this area, I’d guess that many people of all ages are looking for entertainment in their news. If they didn’t, loud commentators who are ruling the media airwaves would have gotten the boot. Instead, they’re thriving. That shift happened before social media and YouTube took off.
How difficult is it to write something new about an incident that has already been all over the Internet?
While Isom had been interviewed quite a bit, I was able to make my story distinctive since no one except the local Amarillo press had visited Isom in person. Which is not to say that the reporting experience was typical. I needed to report in two destinations, Amarillo and online.
Was Isom what you were expecting?
He had warned me on the phone that he was tired of interviews, but as it turned out, that stage of burnout was interesting. I didn’t know what to expect from him. I can tell you this: He was a much more interesting than he thinks he is. That’s the case with most people.
If the same event had occurred with the burning of a Bible instead of a Quran, do you think there would have been as much media hype? More? Less?
Hard to say. If some group had been beating the drum for weeks saying they were going to burn a Bible on September 11, I think there would have been a reaction. There would have been protests. Whether or not the media would have followed the story is another question. My guess is it would depend on the public interest in the story. If an initial news story generated buzz, there would probably be hype. If the initial news story resulted in a collective yawn, the press would drop it.
Do you feel that Isom’s story is a reflection of today’s generation and their attitude regarding political freedoms?
Every generation has a wide spectrum of attitudes, so I wouldn’t put an age limit on it. Isom owes his popularity to a widespread frustration with certain religious groups that were taunting another religious group in the weeks leading up to September 11, 2010.
In your mind, did the spectacle of Isom’s deed and newfound celebrity status detract from what he was trying to accomplish?
On the contrary, I think the whole display maximized Isom’s intent to undercut Repent Amarillo, the group that was threatening to burn the Quran. Jacob Isom was all over the news. Repent Amarillo, on the other hand, wasn’t even mentioned in most reports. They did not get the attention they were seeking.
It is clear that Isom doesn’t exactly associate himself as the stereotypical “nice guy” or “hero.” How does he wish to be portrayed by the media?
The Internet spotlight would make most people self-conscious. I got the feeling Isom wasn’t offended by the stories that portrayed him as a nice guy or a hero—what annoyed him was the indication that he’s a “type.” Any suggestion that he’s a predictable stereotype—whether that’s “hero,” or “stoner,” or anything else—probably gives him hives.
For Isom and countless others, YouTube has successfully transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. But for how long?
There’s no telling. Winnebago Man has been a hit for years. Maybe Isom will be out of the limelight by the time I finish this interview.