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Why the Web loves Cleveland hero Charles Ramsey

Doug Gross, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Online, Cleveland rescuer Charles Ramsey is an instant star
  • Ramsey kicked open a door for escaping victim Amanda Berry
  • His colorful response has been auto-tuned and imitated
  • Some see troubling racial undertones in the Web's amusement

(CNN) -- It's a horrifying tale: Three young women are held captive for nearly a decade, spending some of that time in chains.

But in the story of their dramatic escape from a Cleveland home last Monday, an Internet star has emerged. Charles Ramsey, the man who, along with fellow neighbor Angel Cordero, helped rescue victim Amanda Berry, has gone from struggling dishwasher to viral sensation overnight.

Ramsey's role in the rescue -- he heard Berry screaming and, thinking she was escaping a domestic dispute, kicked open a door for her -- has made him a hero to many.

But his straight-shooting retelling of the story, with its colorful asides and sometimes-profane vernacular, is what's captivated a Web where nothing is sacred and front-page news becomes meme-worthy amusement at lightning speed.

Hero's day: From McDonald's to rescue

"The Internet likes to celebrate our heroes," said Ben Huh, CEO of The Cheezburger Network, which includes the site Know Your Meme. A video of Ramsey was the top item on the site Wednesday. "In our own way, this is our celebration of Charles Ramsey."

Ramsey: Berry screamed like car hit a kid
Ramsey to 911: 'She's in a panic'

Of course, there was the inevitable auto-tune. The Gregory Brothers, known for "Bed Intruder," "Double Rainbow" and other Internet-famous, Songify reworkings of Web video, crafted "Dead Giveaway" from media interviews with Ramsey.

"My neighbor's got big testicles because we see this dude every day," goes one oft-repeated line. "We eat ribs with this dude."

Several images of Ramsey had popped up by Wednesday on Meme Generator, a site that lets people add presumably humorous text to stock photos. And, in another Web certainty for overnight sensations, he's had several fake (or, if you prefer, parody) accounts created in his name on Twitter.

Speaking of Twitter, McDonald's didn't waste any time getting mileage off of the story after Ramsey repeatedly said he was eating food from the chain when he heard Berry's screams.

"We salute the courage of Ohio kidnap victims & respect their privacy," the company tweeted Tuesday from its corporate account. Way to go Charles Ramsey- we'll be in touch."

But if much of the online attention was designed to turn Ramsey into entertainment, some of it was just to say "thank you."

At least two fundraising efforts are under way on GoFundMe, an online fundraising site.

One, titled "Thank You Charles Ramsey," had already topped its goal of $10,000 in little over a day early Thursday. Its creator, Robby Russell of Portland, Oregon, promises to deliver the funds to Ramsey and document the donation.

"Thank you for doing what you did ... thank you for the fantastic interviews," Russell wrote. "You made our day. Sincerely, The Internet."

There was another effort on the site but, as of Wednesday morning, it hadn't received any donations.

For his part, Ramsey has said that, despite sometimes struggling financially, he would give any reward money he receives to the victims.

Praise for Ramsey appeared to only cool off marginally Thursday as reports surfaced that he did prison time in the '90s, and again about a decade ago, on domestic abuse charges and for drug and trespassing arrests.

Ramsey himself referenced his past in at least one interview, and many online seemed willing to give him credit for paying for his crimes and perhaps redeeming them, at least in part.

"Ramsey did horrible things 10 years ago. He was a hero on May 6, 2013," Kirsten West Savali wrote for News One, a news site "for black America." "He served time for the former; he should be allowed to serve time as the latter."

Mostly, however, the Internet chuckled. It's the sort of mix of appreciation and amusement that can only happen on the modern Web, evoking memories of insta-famous folks, from frustrated flight attendant Steven Slater to NASA "Mohawk Guy" Bobak Ferdowsi to Lydia Callis, the hyper-animated sign-language interpreter for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who found Web fame during Superstorm Sandy.

But some see a more troubling side of the Internet's fascination with Ramsey.

These observers say the Ramsey memes are reminiscent of the viral fame foisted upon people like Antoine Dodson ("Hide yo' kids/hide yo' wife") and Sweet Brown ("Ain't nobody got time for that") -- in other words, poor, black people in scary situations whose emotional reactions are turned into punchlines.

"It's difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform," Aisha Harris wrote Tuesday for Slate. "Even before the genuinely heroic Ramsey came along, some viewers had expressed concern that the laughter directed at people like Sweet Brown plays into the most basic stereotyping of blacks as simple-minded ramblers living in the 'ghetto,' socially out of step with the rest of educated America."

Huh acknowledged that some viral takes on these instant celebrities are more tasteful than others. But he downplayed the importance of race for most viewers.

"I've seen this happen to every race, every color, every situation," he said. "They love this guy, not because he is some funny black man, but because he did something great and didn't walk away from a bad situation."

That said, Huh predicted that on the Web of 2013, Ramsey's appeal may fade more quickly than, say, that of Mr. Trololo or the "Double Rainbow" guy, because much of the reaction has grown predictable.

"It's almost like there's a cottage industry of people now trying to get famous by turning things into a meme," he said. "That kind of takes the fun out of it.

"Charles Ramsey is probably going to have a much shorter shelf life ... but one of the nice things about a story like this is we get to celebrate a person who did something good."

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