Meet Gavin, the eight-year-old with a face shared more than 1bn times | Sunday Observer

Meet Gavin, the eight-year-old with a face shared more than 1bn times

It was the summer of 2013 when Gavin Thomas made his breakout appearance on the internet. He was two and a half.

His grandfather had just passed away after a long battle with cancer and his extended family gathered every Sunday to share a meal. Gavin was the only grandchild, the centre of attention. The adults doted over him and shared photos of his early life via a joint iCloud account.

One Sunday, Gavin’s uncle, Nick Mastodon, took a video of Gavin putting stickers on his face and uploaded it to Vine, a recently launched video sharing platform. Mastodon was an early adopter and had gained a decent following making mash-ups of Disney movies and pop songs. Gavin’s happy spontaneity struck a chord with Mastodon’s followers, who demanded more toddler content.

Gavin’s mother, Kate Thomas, gave Mastodon permission to spend 20 minutes making videos with Gavin during their Sunday visits. The format was simple: Mastodon would act, and Gavin would react. In one video, Mastodon asks Gavin: “What was your favourite part about going to the doctor today?” Gavin responds: “When I throwed up on my jacket.” In another, Mastodon puts a gecko on Gavin’s head and his face oscillates rapidly between anxiety and astonishment.

By 2014, Mastodon’s follower count had grown to just under one million.

Mastodon and Kate thought the videos would be a brief internet craze and then fade into irrelevance. But then they started to notice people taking screenshots of Gavin’s face to make reaction memes, such as a picture of Gavin with his arms crossed accompanied by the caption: “How ya mom be looking when you get home too late.”

Soon, the Gavin meme had taken on a life of its own. The people of the internet adopted Gavin and started to refer to him as “our son”.

Gavin’s dad, Adam, remained mostly oblivious to his son’s fame until late 2017, when one of his colleagues noticed a framed picture of Gavin on his desk.

“Oh my God, this is hilarious,” he announced to the office. “Adam has a picture of the meme kid on his desk.”

Confused, Adam responded that the boy in the picture was his child.

“Yeah, I get the joke,” his colleague said. “He’s all of our kid. He’s the internet’s son”.

“No,” Adam replied. “That’s actually my child – he is my physical son”.

Gavin is now eight – a second-grader from a middle-class family in Minneapolis. His astonishing online fame led to opportunities his parents never imagined was possible. The trade-off is a childhood played out in front of millions of strangers, the cost of which remains to be seen.

Last year was huge for Gavin. He travelled to China twice, headed to New York to appear on Good Morning America, and in November, he made an appearance at the premier of Ralph Breaks the Internet in Los Angeles. “That was really amazing,” Kate told me. “They invited other meme kids, like David After Dentist and Side Eye Chloe and Backpack Kid, so I got to meet their families and trade stories.”

Kate says she is aware of the risks involved with Gavin being so young and so exposed. Someone once superimposed a Clorox label on a picture of Gavin drinking from a mug, making reference to a morbid suicide meme. Another time, a group of teenagers drove to Kate’s mother’s house and made a Vine outside. Since then, the Thomas’s have taken steps to ensure their privacy and Gavin’s safety. They don’t reveal their surname publicly (‘Thomas’ is an alias), never give out their address, and they have asked the school not to identify Gavin to anyone outside of the family.

“We keep a close eye on everything,” Kate told me. “But mostly, our followers are very nice and often protective. It really does feel like the whole internet is looking out for him, making sure he is drinking his milk, doing his homework. It feels special to see your boy loved by so many strangers.”

Kate is candid about how Gavin’s internet fame could lead him to a career online. If making a living as an internet celebrity was inconceivable a decade ago, it is now a profession that many aspire to. At this stage, Kate told me, Gavin wants to be a YouTube gamer. The most successful ones – Markiplier, PewDiePie,Fernanfloo – earn millions of dollars each year and have more cultural influence among young people than traditional celebrities.

To do this, Kate is taking direction from Ashley. They have enrolled him in acting classes and started teaching him how to edit video. They have also set up a Coogan account, a type of trust established in the 1930s to safeguard the money earned by child performers into adulthood.

Gavin and Kate made their first trip to China in August 2018, after the successful launch of Gavin’s Weibo account – they gained over a million followers on the first day. A media team from GQ China followed him around Beijing and Chengdu, taking pictures of Gavin with his fans. Gavin and Kate returned to China in September after being invited to a technology conference hosted by Tencent, the biggest social network and gaming company in the country.

This pivot to a Chinese audience started after Ashley was tipped off that Gavin’s face was being used to sell mugs, posters, and clothing on Chinese e-commerce sites. Ashley’s hunch, in his words, was to “lean in and capitalise”.

When I spoke to Ashley over the phone, he told me that the digital entertainment industry is far more advanced in China than it is in the US. He has been working on forging a number of brand deals for Gavin, including appearing in a hair product advertisement alongside his dad.

It is this Chinese fan base that now distinguishes Gavin from other meme kids. He is becoming less gimmick, more media personality.

“There’s a universe where he’s the most relevant American celebrity in China,” Byron told me. “Some people would say he is already.”

I asked Kate what made her son so popular in China. “I think it’s his face,” she said. “I think there’s something about it that is very relatable.”

Ashley also believes that Gavin’s face is his most valuable asset in China – more specifically, the signature smile/grimace face. On Chinese social media, it is used as a meme to connote forced positivity in an otherwise uncomfortable situation. For example, people will post a picture of Gavin’s smile with text that reads: “I can’t wait for school on Monday.” So widespread is this meme that Gavin has become known by the Chinese media as ‘the boy with the fake smile’.

“We’re currently working on a strategy to protect this face,” Ashley told me. “The case we’re making is that the way that Gavin is shared is not so much as a person, but more as an emoji.”

Gavin’s uncle is now working as a creative at an advertising firm – a job he got in part because of his social media presence – so he has little time to make videos with Gavin. But they’re still close and Mastodon feels a sense of responsibility for how Gavin’s life is now unfolding.

“I think that social media makes being a kid and a parent a lot more complicated than it used to be,” he told me. “When we were kids, we used to make videos with our neighbours – I think we recreated the show Friends at one point – but this was on an old videotape recorder, and I don’t even think my parents watched them.” With Gavin, they have this vast record of his life online and on iCloud accounts. “I think this makes growing up a whole different experience.”

The trade-off for Gavin’s life and how it unfolds is yet to be seen. What will growing up be like after the come down from a dopamine-rush childhood? What will be compromised in order to sustain the high?

“He’s only eight, but internet fame has just kind of been the norm for him his whole life,” Mastodon said.

“I don’t think he fully understands what that means, and I don’t think we do either. What I’ve always kept in mind is what he will think in, like, 15 years. Will he be grateful? Will he say I wish my uncle hadn’t done that? I sometimes feel like we’ve handed our kids a reality they didn’t sign up for.”