A viral video starring an adorable child has briefly united the world in a shared understanding: “It’s corn!”
The boy, whose given name is Tariq and whose last name is unknown but who is also known as “Corn’s CEO,” was featured in a video on a popular Instagram account called Recess Therapy. (Recess Therapy is a man-on-the-street-style talk show in which all the guests are children.) Tariq is missing a front tooth, so he’s about the age when that usually happens. He is in a park in Brooklyn and he is eating corn on the cob. “Ever since I was told corn was real, it tasted good,” he explains. His grandmother is laughing out loud in the background. “I can’t imagine a more beautiful thing,” she says of corn.
The video host, Recess Therapy creator Julian Shapiro-Barnum, asks you to describe corn to someone who has never heard of it. “A big knobby lump,” he replies. It’s not how you would describe it, right? Kids say the weirdest things! At the end of the video, Tariq asks everyone watching to have a “fantastic day” and then behaves as if he’s taken aback by the host’s open-mouthed laughter. “What?” he asks. “It’s just a pun on corn.”
Of course people love this video. There are many ways it’s fun. The word corn, to begin with, has a certain inherent comic tone. Tariq’s syntax is strange, since he is a child. Corn Kid went viral on TikTok and Instagram, and was fueled by digital media company Doing Things Media, which co-created Recess Therapy and is known for his involvement in several popular meme accounts. (On his website, Doing Things Media describes itself as “a 24/7 dopamine drip machine.”) Shortly after, the original video was remixed by a bunch of people who do that sort of thing, resulting in a remarkably catchy song that features outtakes from Tariq’s interview not included in the original clip. (“When there are negative things in the world, take a break”).
Tariq’s viral fame proceeded in a fairly predictable fashion. He was featured in a Chipotle ad and started selling personalized video messages on Cameo starting at $220. Social media commentators defended this at first. “Make this little boy get paid,” insisted a Twitter thread with thousands of retweets. “If he makes the right moves, he can work with Green Giant or any other corn company.” But this encouragement came with caveats. Later in the same thread, the author expressed concern about Tariq’s profit opportunity going too far: “Please don’t make this little boy do something he doesn’t want to do…parents get so involved in try to get their children. prepare for life, but just relax.” In responses, others agreed and worried that Tariq was not being properly guided by his parents, arguing that “they must have no idea what they’re doing.”
Others took Corn Kid into larger narratives about the Internet and exploitation. “Watching the kid of the corn appear in every ad on the planet and instantly become a lifeless, joyless aspect of the capitalist machine is not fun,” one tweet read. “Childhood virality is wild, this kid was just having a snack in public and now his parents are letting people/companies book him in a cameo,” read another, which has been retweeted thousands of times. Many of the Corn Kid’s willing supporters assumed that whoever profited from his image was taking advantage of him.
This is an understandable reaction: a fear response created by years of watching similar viral events. Black children and adolescents, especially, have historically been excluded from any potential benefit that may come from the Internet cultural events they create. In a now-classic essay published by The Fader in 2015, Doreen St. Félix argued that brands had grown accustomed to seeing the “cultural output” of young Black people as “ready for the taking.”
When a person gets a lot of attention on the internet and brands inevitably start to circulate, it is now obvious to us how things can easily go wrong. If the person is a child, viewers worry that this will cause lasting damage and be a stranger to them for the rest of their lives. All sorts of dark outcomes feel not just possible but likely. For example, Joshua Holz and Daniel Lara, the teens who starred in the classic 2016 Vine clip “Damn Daniel,” received plenty of free sneakers, appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, were profiled in magazines, and suffered plenty of bizarre consequences. . I wrote about them wistfully in 2018: “They found prom dates. Fell in love. He drank Red Bull with mom…Also, his accounts got hacked and Josh got squashed after a stranger lied to the police, saying he shot his mom with an AK-47.”
So far, Tariq’s story hasn’t taken any of the dark turns Internet culture observers expect. According to Shapiro-Barnum, Tariq and his family get a cut of the profits from the musical remix, and Recess Therapy protects Tariq’s identity by not sharing his last name. He has not been doing any interviews or television appearances, and his family declined to comment for this story. Shapiro-Barnum is aware of how his work can affect the children he interviews and removes any content that a parent ultimately decides not to have online. He has so far been acting as a kind of intermediary for Tariq and says that he forwards any media or brand requests he receives to Tariq’s mother: “I want to give them the reins.”
Although the song has been copied and pasted all over TikTok and it is impossible to completely control or exercise ownership of it, Shapiro-Barnum argues that events have unfolded as positively as can be expected. “Viral moments are always a challenge to navigate,” she told me. “But I really hope that the ‘It’s corn’ moment is a step in the right direction when it comes to a community that supports and honors the source material.”
The Corn Kid moment is another opportunity to reflect on how we treat children whose charisma we find captivating and whose personalities the culture is tempted to consume as entertainment and then sell as a product. Years after the St. Felix’s Fader storyline and the “Damn Daniel” days, these issues remain unresolved. But we do have a small set of more direct ways for kids like Tariq to be compensated for creating an internet culture that other people want to spread and participate in, as well as a stronger norm about privacy-respecting online communities. of the kids.
There is little reason to suppose that Tariq is being pushed into a career as a corn spokesman or a lifetime as a caricature of himself, or that his family doesn’t understand the mechanics of the internet or the possible consequences of fame. “Tariq is the most jovial and talkative kid who really enjoys doing these things,” Shapiro-Barnum told me when I asked about his reaction to these kinds of concerns. “He comes from a very sweet and supportive family. I don’t think they would force him to do something he doesn’t want to do.”
With that said, enjoy Labor Day weekend and the end of corn season. It’s corn! But not for much longer.