In November 2007, an entirely contextless video of me being punched in the face went viral. You might have seen it. It still does the rounds every couple of months, often when something notably bad happens that warrants a response of disbelief. In these strange times, it’s managed to remain endlessly prescient.
For the uninitiated, the video in question is an 11-second clip in which, aged 16, I appear wearing a dressing gown cord around my head, a chain necklace, some children’s sunglasses and a black T-shirt. I sit down and address the camera, ostensibly about to tell the viewer what I was thinking. I am immediately interrupted by my friend Tim, who appears stage left and lamps me. Rather than react in pain or anger, I err more towards disappointment and dismay, bewildered that something like this could happen. “Ah fuck. I can’t believe you’ve done this,” I said. End scene.
It’s been nearly 14 years since I uploaded the original video and to this day it still prompts questions. Who was the guy who got punched? Why did he get punched? Who punched him? What was he thinking? Why did he react that way? Why did he leave YouTube?
In recent years I’ve come to appreciate and even enjoy its bizarre status as an enduring piece of internet history, but my relationship with the clip in the decade that followed its inexorable rise hasn’t always been easy. To understand why, it’s useful to remember that the internet in 2007 was, for better or worse, a very different place.
Having spent the best part of my school years filming stupid skits with mates instead of studying, there was something semi-appealing about the prospect of being able to put videos online to share with friends. It began in mid-2003, when myself and a group of friends would have been in our early teens. Inspired by the likes of Jackass and Bam Margera’s CKY movies, our impressionable young selves set about ignoring all relevant safety warnings, hurling ourselves out of trees, riding scooters into curbs, and racing tyres down hills on skateboards.
At the age of 14 or so, I had envisaged cutting the footage into a chaotic feature-length video of “stunts.” I’d probably have soundtracked it with music from the Tony Hawk games, alongside countless other homemade skate videos people made circa 2003 that probably featured a mix of Ace of Spades or Guerilla Radio. I still have a box full of VHS-C tapes kicking around somewhere, which can only be viewed on one of those absolutely insane VHS adapters. Having not watched any of it in well over a decade, I can safely say that the content contained within those tapes is unequivocally shit.
All of a sudden you're everywhere and it's out of your control. You either try to fight it and get destroyed, or embrace it and try to cash in.
Looking back, the whole endeavour was entirely aimless, but aside from coming away with mild head injuries from time to time it was an innocuous way to spend my childhood. At the very least it also means I have a bizarre, tangible record of my youth that I’ll be able to laugh at one day when I’m old and wizened.
By summer 2004, we had started filming on Mini-DV, which opened up a whole new world of editing possibilities. Plugging a video camera into a computer and capturing footage directly to editing software is pretty much a given for today’s generation of content creators, but back in the early 2000s, this was revolutionary.
We’d eventually gravitate away from ‘stunts’ towards more structured skits and sketches. Nothing was ever scripted per se, but we’d usually start out with a rough idea of something and see how it played out.
There was an ambitiously misguided 'silent horror' short, soundtracked by Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, in which someone chopped off ‘my cock’ (a banana) with a garden shear. We considered this to be the absolute pinnacle of comedy.
There was an ill-advised 'Ballers' skit in which we ventured out in sports gear to make a mock training video taking the piss out of a guy at school who fancied himself as a bit of a gangster; this painfully middle-class white kid who listened to rap metal and liked basketball. He obviously never saw it and there's no question that we looked like idiots filming it at the local park. It’s probably quite offensive in hindsight.
The author at the Bristol Climate Change Protests in September 2019. Image: Shanya Buultjens
There was a James Bond 'spoof' that involved misquoting portions of dialogue from that scene in GoldenEye where Q gives Bond an exploding pen. It was funny to about three people. One of them was my mum.
One time a mate of mine fell out of a tree when he tried to swing from a branch. He landed on his back and ended up coughing up blood. He didn’t go to the hospital even though he probably should have. He’s now a doctor and a father.
Mercifully, none of this stuff ever made it online, but I did sell a couple of DVDs to people at school who rightly/probably/hopefully never watched them. In an ideal world, I'd own the only copies. I'm also fully aware that writing about this now only makes it more likely that one of the four people that still have a copy will dig theirs out. Please do not do that.
In 2005 and 2006, YouTube was very much in its infancy. This was the time when clips were limited to about 100mb and you could only upload about 30 seconds worth of footage at a time, which basically made it perfect for bursts of frenetic, inane content. As the platform grew, it became a dumping ground for skits and footage that we’d accumulated over the preceding years. Much of it went completely unnoticed until late 2007, at which point things started to get a bit weird.
The truth is that, nearly a decade and a half later, I’m still processing it.
The clip that people have come to know started out as an aimless skit filmed in Summer 2006. We hadn’t planned anything, least of all me being punched. In the footage building up to the event, I pushed Tim off the chair, he fell and hit his head on a filing cabinet off-camera. Rather than react to Tim, I sat down and proceeded to ad lib something that I’d venture to guess would have been considerably less funny than the act of violence that followed. Unprompted, Tim upsided me and I reacted with an inexplicable, completely incredulous response, which has followed me online ever since.
The footage sat on a tape until July 2007 when I decided to upload a brief segment under an ambiguous title. Fast forward to November and the video had somehow blown up, had its comments section relentlessly spammed, been ripped countless times and had offensive Wiki pages written about it. I also received a few direct messages which could at best have been described as ‘worrying’ and at worst ‘threatening,’ which was nice.
To this day, I’m none the wiser as to how it blew up in the way it did. I originally uploaded the video under the title ‘ ___________’ but the video somehow found its way onto 4chan where it spread like wildfire. The earliest mirrored link I could find was from January 2008, by which time it had been re-uploaded by multiple accounts, the most prominent of which had already clocked up almost double the number of views compared to my original upload.
At the time, going viral wasn't really comparable to any other experience and it certainly wasn't something I could discuss in solidarity with my friends. All of a sudden you're everywhere and it's out of your control. You either try to fight it and get destroyed, or embrace it and try to cash in. After yanking down several other videos on my YouTube channel, I opted for the latter.
When the video blew up, I got a call from a friend who informed me that the video had made the front page of Break.com. I peripherally knew what that meant: they offered a buyout scheme for videos that made the front page, which meant that I could make some money from it.
As it transpired, this wasn’t such a great idea. After signing a release form with some pretty appalling terms, over the following months I had several unnerving interactions with researchers for various TV shows looking to license the clip. Each offered far more favourable terms than those of Break. One of them harassed a bunch of my mates on Facebook. I think he even offered to pay one of them for my contact details.
By that point, it was all too apparent that I had completely fucked it. Break had the rights and I couldn't do anything with it even if I wanted to. At just 18 years old, I had sold out. In the short term, I used the money to buy a TV, which was great, but I soon started to get the creeping feeling that this was a decision that would come to haunt me. At that point, it was easier to disassociate myself from the clip, abandon YouTube, and move on with my life.
And yet, for the best part of 14 years the questions have kept coming: no, it wasn’t staged or scripted, it wasn’t a set-up, I didn’t know it was coming and, yes, it hurt. It was also very funny, which is presumably why I felt the need to upload it in isolation in the first place. Incidentally, Tim and I are still friends and contrary to some of the absolutely insane comments people leave on YouTube I can confirm that neither of us are in prison, the punch wasn’t a reaction to some sort of disagreement and he’s a lovely bloke.
To be clear, the lack of context wasn’t a deliberate choice to add intrigue either. I’d never even considered the possibility that anyone outside my circle of friends would see it. To me it was just another daft clip that a few mates would find funny.
Around the time I’d started to make peace with the issues around ownership, in 2018 it came to my attention that Break had shut down and its owner Defy Media had gone bust. The site was subsequently purchased by Yeah1 Network, but to this day I have no clarity whatsoever on my legal rights to the video. Any attempts to receive guidance have either turned up dead ends, or led to suggestions that I speak to IP lawyers, whom I have neither the means nor the time to deal with. Incidentally, if anyone has any insights in that area, I’d love to hear them.
Having said this, there’s something quite empowering in taking something embarrassing and admitting to it before someone else can point it out to you—a bit like taking ownership of an amusing surname. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what gags can be made from the name ‘Weedon,’ but I learned quite early on that if you make the jokes yourself and beat others to it, no one can fucking touch you. It’s much easier nowadays to hold my hands up and admit that I shouldn’t have sold the rights, make a joke of it and move on. At the very least, it makes for a good anecdote at parties.
As I suspect is probably the case for old content creators, if you can even call us that, the real story about I Can’t Believe You’ve Done This isn’t in how it’s aged and endured, or even how it’s impacted my life. For me, it’s tied up in issues of rights, ownership, and monetisation. As mercenary as it might be, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t regret missing out on a slice of the pie when it came to YouTubers being able to monetise their content sooner. On the one hand, that's probably a very cynical view for something that was created by a bunch of teenagers who were fooling around making videos for fun in the noughties, but on the other, that's just the world we live in now.
Perhaps the strangest thing about my experience with it nowadays is the way people engage with it on a day-to-day basis. The comments vary from young people discovering its origins for the first time, surprised to discover that it is in fact a 14 year old video and not a recent creation filmed for Vine or TikTok. At the other end of the spectrum are those who are incredulous that someone with a video that has 9.2 million views and an account that’s amassed over 15,000 followers without really trying would step away from the platform and not want to make content.
The truth is that, nearly a decade and a half later, I’m still processing it. I love seeing how it’s been re-interpreted in modern mediums and that positive association has made it easier to accept. Charles Cornell turned it into a sad song. It got sampled in a KIll The Noise track. I had a nice interaction with The Sidemen about it. Will Smith even featured it in an insane Instagram post during the pandemic. I DM’d him to say thanks and he obviously didn’t reply.
To that end, a small group of us have recently started work on a film project exploring the nature of the meme, how it grew, its impact on my life and my relationship with the internet at large. In doing so, the hope is that, while answering some of the burning questions that other people still seem to have, I’ll ultimately be able to make peace with the whole thing.
My Life as a Meme: ‘I Can’t Believe You’ve Done This’ Revisited syndicated from https://triviaqaweb.wordpress.com/feed/