Winnebago Man is a documentary about the "Angriest RV Salesman" in the viral video. If you haven't seen the video itself, it's a series of outtakes from a Winnebago sales video, wherein the salesman keeps blowing his lines and swearing at the camera. It's pretty funny and apparently quite famous, although I'd never heard of it until the documentary came out.
The documentary relates what happens when someone decides to track down the angry RV salesman twenty years later to find out who he is and what happened to him. It has its flaws but at its best it's a reflection on how Youtube has, for better or worse, catapulted ordinary people in obscure videos to low-grade viral-video infamy, usually through video footage that catches them at a really bad, unguarded or ill-judged moment. We all have such moments and we always did; but video cameras used to be expensive and bulky, and opportunities for footage to reach wide audiences were pretty much limited to America's Funniest Home Videos. Under those circumstances, it took a real effort to humiliate yourself in front of millions of people.
It makes me grateful to have been born when I was, because most of my opportunities to embarrass myself on camera happened before the 'tube came along. There's a home movie of me that circulated among my family for years, from when I was about twelve, ripping off a George Carlin routine minus the swear words. Throughout my teenage years I conclusively disproved the existence of telekinesis, for if it were at all possible to effect action at a distance then every copy of that video would have been erased by my brainwaves of sheer will.
Later there was another incident where someone else's good sense or at least embarrassment probably saved the day. When I was nineteen, the summer before I went off to film school, I was playing with a video camera with some friends. We were using a very bright film lamp I had found at a garage sale, and one of my friends who had been interning at a TV station pointed out that you usually put some kind of diffuser over it. The video shows her demonstrating by putting the lamp under her t-shirt, whereupon her shirt catches fire. The scene explodes into Three Stooges chaos as I stare on, slack-jawed, painfully slow to understand what's happening.
Fortunately, Wendy wasn't hurt and the house is still standing as far as I know.
(In fairness, I was momentarily blinded by the brightness of the light and so I blame the giant phosphenes for my slowness on the uptake. But such is the unforgiving nature of video, which purges all context and leaves only the image. I don't video well in profile--I have kind of a pudgy face and a moronic hillbilly jawline--and with my mullet, ball cap and sleeveless wife-beater T-shirt, not to mention the glacial pace of my reaction, the video makes me look like one of the roobs in People of Wal-Mart.)
Wendy wisely kept the video and probably destroyed it. Today it would likely have ended up on Youtube, and if we were really unlucky it would have become an indestructible viral phenomenon, uncontrollable, undeletable, fifteen seconds of electromagnetic pee in the worldwide media pool.
Just about everyone born after 1980 has had the opportunity--the alignment of technology, youth and inability to grasp the idea of consequences or that someday you might be in a position to be taken seriously--to screw up their digital identity forever. For each of them, there's a chance that someday they'll be running for city council or receiving the Order of Canada and there it'll be: an old clip of the candidate punching a clown or molesting a dead pig head, taking them down in a burst of drive-by ridicule or worse.