Viral infection

We are officially living in the Viral Age of Media.

Over the last decade, the rise of the Internet has changed the shape of fame, shifted our notion of celebrity and completely redefined the “mass” in “mass media.”

With just a click of a mouse, we have the power to share interesting, funny, entertaining or controversial links, videos, e-mails, etc. We have the power to make someone an overnight sensation.

Ask Greyson Chance. The Oklahoma teen nabbed a record deal after his sixth-grade talent show rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” earned more than 30 million views on YouTube.

That’s awesome for Chance, but such viral crazes aren’t always so sweet. Indeed, the story behind the latest YouTube-fueled spectacle makes me queasy.

The YouTube clip for “Bed Intruder,” which has been viewed nearly 15 million times, features a song based on a recording from a Huntsville, Ala., TV news report about an attempted rape. In the original local news clip, which first appeared on the station’s website in late July, a reporter interviews Antoine Dodson about a would-be rapist’s attack on his sister.

Dodson, speaking directly to the camera, warns Huntsville residents to “hide your kids, hide your wife and hide your husband, too, cuz they rapin’ everybody out here.”

The video went viral, but it wasn’t until the Gregory Brothers, a Brooklyn-based trio, released an Auto-Tuned version of the clip that Dodson became an Internet phenomenon.

Here, Dodson’s TV interview has been electronically refashioned as a catchy, modern R&B dance-floor number; the beats are hypnotic and groove-laden and Dodson’s words digitally altered so that it sounds like he’s singing phrases such as “You don’t have to come and confess, we’re looking for you. We gon’ find you.”

As of this writing, the clip’s netted millions of views and an iTunes download of the song peaked at No. 89 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. There are also numerous cover versions (including a rendition from comedian Dane Cook), countless “unauthorized” remixes and a Facebook fan page.

It’s enormously popular. It’s also enormously complicated.

Just think about it: a hit song based on one man’s comments regarding the near-rape of his sister.

Although the Gregory Brothers are splitting profits from the song with the Dodson family, it doesn’t change the fact that they’ve helped to propel something violent and invasive into the latest Internet meme. It doesn’t change the fact that Dodson and his family are African-American and live in the projects and the Gregory Brothers are white New York borough hipsters profiting off a family’s ordeal.

The group, of course, had no role in the video’s initial popularity, but its retreatment of the clip raises questions about race and class and the very nature of entertainment.

So does our seemingly gleeful embracement of it. What exactly is so funny about a man publicly declaring that he will find his sister’s attacker—that he will do his best to protect her and the rest of his family?

The group’s Andrew Gregory explained in a radio interview that Dodson “was passionate, articulate and he was original, which is three things you do not hear in every pop song on the radio today.”

This, apparently, is supposed to defend and validate the song’s popularity, but the cultural implications of “Bed Intruder” are at best provocative and at worst offensive. This is reality, not reality TV. This is about one family’s desire to be safe, not our desire to be entertained.

Then again, Dodson himself has set up a website where he sells T-shirts, posts video blogs and solicits PayPal donations to benefit juvenile diabetes as well as help his family “move out of the hood.”

Perhaps what was exploitation has now simply become cold, hard capitalism.

I wish the Dodson family nothing but the best—safety, happiness, prosperity—but it still makes me queasy.