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.”