When I first started writing about popular cultural semiotics in the 1980s, the Cabbage Patch Kids were the biggest thing going in children’s consumer culture. Not too many years later there was the POGS pandemic, followed by the Pokemon outbreak, which has since crossed its original generational boundaries to continue on as what may be the most lucrative gaming phenomenon of all time.
The common thread running through all these mega-fads is the way that they all were disseminated—at least in their beginnings—via a mysterious children’s grapevine unknown to adults, a vast international playground of sorts in which word about the Next Big Thing got passed without the assistance of social media. And now that the grapevine has gone digital, as it were, the propagation of new kiddie fads is accelerating at Warp speed, with unsettling results.
A couple of recent articles from The Atlantic and the New York Times provide a case in point. Describing the apparition of an online poltergeist called "Momo" who pops up unexpectedly on social media and dares kids to, among other things, commit suicide, they tell of a burgeoning panic among parents, police departments, and major news outlets around the globe. The new fad is called "the Momo challenge," and it would be pretty scary—except that it's a hoax.
Taylor Lorenz sums up all the confusion rather nicely:
On Tuesday afternoon, a Twitter user going by the name of Wanda Maximoff whipped out her iPhone and posted a terrifying message to parents.
“Warning! Please read, this is real,” she tweeted. “There is a thing called ‘Momo’ that’s instructing kids to kill themselves,” the attached screenshot of a Facebook post reads. “INFORM EVERYONE YOU CAN.”
Maximoff’s plea has been retweeted more than 22,000 times, and the screenshot, featuring the creepy face of “Momo,” has spread like wildfire across the internet. Local news hopped on the story Wednesday, amplifying it to millions of terrified parents. Kim Kardashian even posted a warning about the so-called Momo challenge to her 129 million Instagram followers.
To any concerned parents reading this: Do not worry. The “Momo challenge” is a recurring viral hoax that has been perpetuated by local news stations and scared parents around the world. This entire cycle of shock, terror, and outrage about Momo even took place before, less than a year ago: Last summer, local news outlets across the country reported that the Momo challenge was spreading among teens via WhatsApp. Previously, rumors about the challenge spread throughout Latin America and Spanish-speaking countries.
The Momo challenge wasn’t real then, and it isn’t real now. YouTube confirmed that, contrary to press reports, it hasn’t seen any evidence of videos showing or promoting the “Momo challenge” on its platform.
If Momo is a hoax, why, then, has she produced such a panicky reaction? John Herrman's take on the matter is instructive. "Screens and screen time are a source of endless guilt and frustration" for modern parents, he writes, "so it makes sense to need to displace these feelings on a face, a character, and something, or someone, with fantastically evil motives, rather than on the services that actually are surveilling what the kids are up to, to ends of their own."
In other words, if "Momo" isn't real, the way that the corporate Net is invading our privacy, "mining" our data, and leading our children down a Pied Piperish path (one which makes the exploitations of traditional television look like a nineteenth-century Fourth of July parade) is, and grownups are accordingly getting very jumpy. "Momo" may be a hoax, but Slender Man wasn't, and therein lies the real "Momo challenge": the Internet is growing faster than our ability, or even desire, to shape it to human needs, rather than corporate ones. And the kids, who usually know what's going on before their parents do, could actually be the canaries in a creepy digital coal mine.