Internet Nostalgia

Let’s Revisit the Double Rainbow Guy

How do we handle sincerity on the internet?

Welcome to part 11 of our Internet Nostalgia series, which looks back at phenomena that captured the internet’s imagination and attention for a fleeting moment and then vanished as everyone moved on to something else. This series looks back at those olden times and what they told us about the internet and ourselves. If you have a suggested topic, email me at williamfleitch@yahoo.com. Last week, we looked at Boaty McBoatface. This week: the Double Rainbow guy.

Date: January 8, 2010.

The story: In 2010, Paul Vasquez had the good fortune of living just outside of Yosemite National Park. He was from East Los Angeles, but discovered that he loved the outdoors more than anything, so he moved outside Maricopa, California, to a farm. He would make sometimes charming, mostly meandering videos about his life and post them to YouTube. He was just another of billions of people on this planet until one day, in January 2010, he stepped outside his home and saw the rare — though not that rare — double rainbow. His reaction was… well, let’s call it enthusiastic.

Vasquez insisted for years that he was not under the influence of any mind-altering substances when he made that video. The internet was, and remains, suspicious.

Pop culture crossover: There was something about this joyous, sure-seems-like-he’s-stoned Californian that was irresistible to late-night comics. Jimmy Fallon wrote a song about it, Tosh.0 (remember him?) did whole shows about him, and Jimmy Kimmel, in particular, obsessed over him, calling the video “the funniest thing he’d ever seen.” Kimmel’s promotion of the video was what ended up making it so huge. Vasquez would end up appearing on Kimmel’s show himself.

What we’ve learned: In many, many ways, the internet has gotten darker and meaner in the last 10 years. Social media has made people reflexively crueler and glib, white supremacists are everywhere, once in a while a collective mass delusion caused by Facebook makes people run out to storm the Capitol building. It’s not great.

But one way it has gotten better, at least in a superficial way, is that being unabashedly enthusiastic about something will no longer get you mercilessly mocked. There’s a whole Instagram economy built around loving things unconditionally now. But in 2010, expressing the sort of heart-on-your-sleeve, overwhelming joy that Vasquez showed upon being confronted with that double rainbow was bizarre, absurd, and even a little unsettling. We still had a layer of ironic reserve around us in 2010, a residue of two decades of giving yourself a layer of remove from everything. So when Vasquez was so joyous, so overcome that he burst into tears, we immediately made fun of it. What’s with this guy? Why’s he so happy? It’s just a freaking rainbow. He must be on drugs.

It really was that simple, you know. He was just a happy, emotional guy who moved to be closer to nature and saw something that moved him to a moment of ecstatic joy. Does he go a little more overboard than I would have? Yeah. But this is what made a viral video? Just someone being gloriously elated by the natural world? There is something a little mean about it. He believes the world is beautiful and wants to chronicle how much it means to him. What a buffoon.

Watching the video now, I find myself moved by Vasquez. I don’t remember the last time I was so emotionally overwhelmed by anything. I’m closed off now, like the rest of you. Everything is performative. Everything is staged for your approval. Vasquez didn’t care what people thought of his joy. He just expressed it. That’s an experience that is awfully difficult to find anymore.

Vasquez died last year, from what may have been a Covid-19-related illness. New Yorker writer Charles Bethea memorialized him, talking to a close friend of his.

What he reminded us of in that video — and what he reminded me every time I would see him — is there’s a lot of joy in nature, in things right in front of us that we take for granted … I know that that video started out being famous for parody, but I don’t think it ended up that way. I think most people really got that meaning. There was something so beautiful and profound in what he was seeing that most of us had forgotten to appreciate.

I hope Vasquez’s friend is right. But I don’t think we’ve changed. I just think the internet has. Put it this way: How much appreciation do you see these days? Maybe getting out of the pandemic will make us stop taking things for granted. Or maybe it’ll just make us be more careful about expressing it on social media. I don’t know if the world is better or worse than it was when Vasquez made his video. But imagining something like it going viral today is impossible.

Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family and is the author of five books, including the novel How Lucky, released by Harper this very week. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of five books, including “How Lucky,” in bookstores now. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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