Once You’re In the Weird Part of YouTube, There’s No Way Out

YouTube is hilarious until someone thinks you're making fun of deformities. How a video of a shirtless man with a distorted face became a viral hit and a PR nightmare all rolled into one.

Rob Shap (not his real name) never thought “Bird Face” would go viral. He was just testing the camera on his new Macbook Pro when he recorded himself, shirtless, in his Brooklyn apartment and added some special effects.   But something happened when the video made its way to that weird corner of YouTube from which there is no return. Three years later, the “Bird Face” video has been viewed more than 1.2 million times.

The Rise of Bird Face

Even Rob will tell you there’s nothing special about “Bird Face.”  The 39-second video was just a reaction to “some weird thing on TV about making money,” he said. Viewers later told him that he was watching Jim Rome, a sports radio and television host. Rob stared into the camera for a few seconds and blinked, following the rise and fall of Rome’s voice with his face.  “I wasn’t stoned,” he said. “I guess I’m naturally wacky.”

It took movie editing software to create the distorted effect, which Rob added after the fact. “I think I either used Adobe AfterEffects or iMovie,” he said, “but I used two effects to make the face.”

The video, originally titled “Bird Face Strikes Back,” was unceremoniously uploaded to YouTube in 2008.  Rob added the tags “Bird Face” (and “for some reason,” he said, “MSNBC” and “Fox News”) before he emailed the link to a couple of friends.  The video went nowhere.

But in 2010, “Bird Face” resurfaced with a couple thousand views.  It might have been the bare chest and inquisitive face that made visitors click on the thumbnail to see what it was about.

By 2011, the thumbnail image was turning up in the search results for videos about people with deformities. “It turned into six degrees of Bird Face,” Rob remembered. There were conjoined twins, burn victims, and slideshows of plastic surgery mishaps, but one video in particular sparked controversy among Rob’s viewers.

Viewers Strike Back

Many wondered if Bird Face had the same disorder as DaWurDa, the anonymous creator of a series of YouTube videos featuring a boy with a misshapen face and a high-pitched voice. (Rumor has it that the star is deceased now, but this has not been confirmed.)

“Some people were really hostile,” Rob recalled. “They wrote things like, ‘I hope you have children that look like that.’” They could have clicked out, but they didn’t.  “They sit through it because they’re intrigued.”

It turns out that Bird Face is the derogatory term for a real-life birth defect called Pierre Robin syndrome.   Sufferers are left with a noticeably smaller jaw, a cleft palate, a retracted tongue, and respiratory problems.  At first glance, Rob looked like he had the disorder. He started to get hate mail from people who thought he was making fun of the disease.

“Dude, your dislike bar looks like a light saber,” an anonymous commenter wrote. The ratio of likes to dislikes leaned overwhelmingly to the latter, turning the bar an ominous red.

Rob took it in stride, pointing out that the distortion effects come standard with a lot of video editing software.  Although he added, “You can’t duplicate the way my neck is twisted because it’s warped in two places: the bottom of the face and the neck.” That may have caused the confusion.

Other viewers, who had already realized that the effects were not real, continued to lash out at both the creator and his choice of recording equipment. “Typical Mac user,” they wrote.

Arguably worse were the people who had hoped that the video was real. “There was a lot of disappointment,” Rob said, “because people [had told me they] were on YouTube looking for freaks.”

A Social Experiment

To quiet the critics, Rob put a note in the video’s description explaining that he was only testing out his laptop and hadn’t meant to offend anyone. “Some people said they wanted their 39 seconds back,” he said. “If I could give it back to them, I would.”

At the time, Rob was enrolled in a graduate program for social research. He decided to use “Bird Face” to conduct a social experiment of his own.  First, he removed many of the negative comments about the video. Then he turned on the “approve comments” filter to keep the flame wars under control. “People tend to go with whatever the vibe is,” Rob said, and he noticed that the first few comments effectively set the tone for the rest.  Now viewers concede that “the effect is pretty cool.”

Unfortunately, the number of “likes” and “dislikes” couldn’t be altered. To date, there are 228 likes and 2,763 dislikes for “Bird Face”—and the dislike bar still looks like a light saber.  “I think if from the start I had done the ‘approve comments’ thing I would have gotten more likes,” Rob said. He also noted that people who watch the video, but don’t have YouTube accounts, don’t get to vote.

Good or bad, “Bird Face” continues to gain traction. “We just reached the million-mark. We,” Rob laughed. “We – meaning me and Bird Face –just reached the million mark a few days ago. It was weird, because the day before that it was 900,000. And in the blink of an eye it’s a million.”

None of the other videos on his YouTube channel are nearly as popular as “Bird Face:” not even the similarly-titled “The Eagle Face Has Landed,” although that one has more likes.

Where is Bird Face now?

Soon after he reached a million views, Rob received an email from a startup company offering him 50 percent of the proceeds if he allowed them to put ads on his video. He hasn’t responded yet, but he did sign up for Google AdSense.  The Google bots took one look at “Bird Face” and threw up a link to an upcoming Phish concert.

The YouTube star also has a sequel in the works, and he said he’ll know he’s truly gone viral when someone makes a “Bird Face” parody. “When you put something up there, you don’t know how long it’s going to take,” Rob said. “But once it has that momentum, you can’t stop that train.”

Or, as one viewer put it, “Once you’re in the weird part of YouTube, there’s no way out.”