How Ralph Breaks the Internet Highlights the Hidden Costs of Social Media Popularity

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How Ralph Breaks the Internet Highlights the Hidden Costs of Social Media Popularity

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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hat would you do if your best friend needed help and the only way to help them was to go viral on social media? Would you be willing to embarrass yourself to become the laughing stock of the interwebz? Or would you give up on them because you’re aware that popularity on social media comes with terms and conditions? Admittedly, I would’ve chickened out. But the amicable Ralph displays his selflessness by deciding to help his friend at a great personal cost in Ralph Breaks the Internet.

In the impressive sequel to the 2012 Oscar-nominated Wreck-It Ralph – Ralph (John C Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) – travel to the magnificent depths of the internet to purchase a “steering wheel” that Mr Litwak needs to restart Sugar Rush, a popular video game in his arcade. And while the film surprises us with a series of exceptional cameos, which include Disney Princesses and new strong female characters like Shank (Gal Gadot) and Yesss (Taraji P Henson), the most interesting takeaway from this animated offering, is in its commentary on the consequences of internet fame.

The premise is this: Ralph and Vanellope participate in an eBay bidding war for the wheel. Except video-game characters have no concept of money. So the duo end up confusing the complicated bidding process with the casual act of stating the highest amount of money to win. Thanks to their dumb foolery, they needlessly owe $270001 to the seller. And faced with a debt that needs to be cleared in 24 hours, Ralph and Vanellope decide to wade the uncharted waters of internet fame: Ralph shoots an impromptu video that has him saying, “I’m gonna wreck it!” as a leaf blower blows his mouth wide open. Against all logic – as is the case with the internet – the video goes viral on BuzzTube. And makes them some pocket money!

Ralph

Believe it or not, over a period of hours, Ralph actually manages to become an online sensation and earns more than the amount he needs to pay for the wheel.

Image Credits: Walt Disney Pictures

It also leads them to do a series of funny videos aimed to blow up the internet – at the cost of Ralph becoming a standing joke. In one video, a goat’s face is replaced with his face, in another he’s smacking his lips, and in another, he’s making a bee pun (which according to Yesss is a new low) for an audience. Believe it or not, over a period of hours, Ralph actually manages to become an online sensation and earns more than the amount he needs to pay for the wheel.

But the joy of his growing – and fluctuating – online fame also results in him unknowingly wandering into the comments section. As Ralph’s eyes peruse the digital walls reflecting hateful comments, he begins to realise that his audience is laughing at him, not with him. But there’s also a catch: The hateful comments bring him lots of money.

That’s the sweet spot that Ralph Breaks the Internet hits: It articulates the peculiarities of the digital age while making light-hearted fun of the same.

It’s in this moment that Ralph Breaks the Internet gets something very right about how getting trolled on the internet is now a part and parcel of any modern online experience. In an interview, YouTube star, Superwoman articulated this exact thought, “If you say that comments never bother you, you’re lying. It takes a really intense hate comment to get to me, but once in a while it does.”

And yet, she isn’t the first popular online celebrity to be affected by hateful comments. In 2014, Pewdiepie turned off his comments section as a protest against online trolls. In a Guardian essay, Pewdiepie claimed that although he used the comments section to communicate with his bros every time he’d browse through, it would invariably have people trying to provoke him. If you think about it, the online experience is now synonymous with outrage and hate. To be on the internet, is to embrace a diminishing self-worth. A Scroll essay about social media influencers explains how it is common for people who amass likes and followers that boost their self-confidence, to also have to contend with routine anxiety and irrational fear.

By the end then, Ralph Breaks the Internet leaves audiences with a lesson about the internet being a double-edged sword. Sure, the internet is fun, insightful and exciting, but rarely do we shine the spotlight on the parts that make it a black hole rife with hate, judgement, and scorn. That’s the sweet spot that Ralph Breaks the Internet hits: It articulates the peculiarities of the digital age while making light-hearted fun of the same.

It’s especially timely in an age where most of us spend our waking hours glued to the internet and when our online existence is hinged on our ability to negotiate the insecurities that criticism from strangers bring. The internet, after all, can never be an unabashed safe space – and it’s slightly unnerving that it had to be a Disney film that told us this without sugarcoating it.

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