There’s an inevitable timeline to virality. First there is the burgeoning fame, then the ubiquitous online affection, followed by a fall from digital grace. We’ve seen it happen over and over.
Remember Ken Bone, the gentleman in a red sweater who won hearts during a presidential debate in 2016? It wasn’t long before internet sleuths unearthed his unsavory Reddit history. TikTok’s favorite emu farmer? You already know where this is headed. (In internet parlance, these characters are often referred to as “milkshake ducks.”)
Now, Campbell and Jett Puckett are experiencing the latter half of this timeline.
The Pucketts, a married couple who live in Georgia, rose to prominence on TikTok, where Ms. Puckett regularly posts videos of the couple modeling their outfits. It is technically his wife’s account, but Mr. Puckett has become beloved for the very particular ways he hypes up his wife, whom he affectionately refers to as Pookie.
“This is the ultimate Friday date night outfit,” Mr. Puckett says in one video from November, gesturing to his wife’s miniskirt and cardigan. “It’s the sexy but classy look that I love,” he says in a video of the pair getting ready to attend a college-football game.
“Pookie looks absolutely amazing,” he says in a more recent upload. It has been viewed over 6 million times. Mr. Puckett sometimes describes his wife’s outfits as “fire.”
At first, viewers were baffled by the couple’s videos. Many found them a vehicle for experiencing acute secondhand embarrassment. But in recent weeks, the tide has turned. “I love this man,” reads a representative comment on a recent video. “He is so awkward in every video, but it’s so sweet,” reads another.
Mr. Puckett’s vocal adoration for his wife’s taste and wardrobe has become a meme. TikTok users have begun mimicking Mr. Puckett and making “absolutely fire” parody videos. Even Southwest Airlines got in on the bit. (Typically, when a brand enters the picture, it’s a sure sign an internet joke is no longer funny.)
Here’s where the inevitable happened: As the couple became more popular, people began digging into their online history. A TikTok user posted a screenshot of what appeared to be Mr. Puckett’s LinkedIn and narrated his résumé to the tune of 2 million views. (This video did not turn up anything unsavory, but rather pointed out Mr. Puckett’s academic and professional accolades.)
Then on Reddit, users shared photos of a person they claimed to be Ms. Puckett. In one, the woman poses in front of a Confederate flag. (The photo was still visible as of Wednesday on a Facebook account that appears to belong to Ms. Puckett.) In another, she wears an old-fashioned gown with a large skirt, which some online have said was a costume for an “Old South” plantation-themed ball. (This photo was posted on Pinterest by an account purporting to be the University of Mississippi’s chapter of the sorority Phi Mu, of which Ms. Puckett was a member.)
Ms. Puckett declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this article. In an email to The New York Times, she wrote that she had addressed the photos on social media. “Some old photos of mine recently resurfaced,” she wrote in an Instagram story. “At the time these photos were taken, I was 20. I didn’t fully understand the impact of my actions the way I do now.” She apologized “for the harm this may have caused for some and take full responsibility.”
Ms. Puckett is an influencer attempting to court an audience and, as such, has invited the internet at large to pay close attention to her. This scenario, however, doesn’t just happen to people seeking fame. By now everyone should understand the speed and ease with which everyone’s entire online experience is available for public consumption. But larger questions surround digital footprints, and as generations are raised in a world where there was never a time without internet, those footprints are getting larger and more unwieldy by the day.
Our pixelated detritus can range from banal and harmless to posts that might negatively affect someone’s personal life, career or, simply, cause unwanted or unearned embarrassment.
“Regular people need to be aware that through almost no attempt of their own, their lives could just suddenly blow up and become fodder for public consumption and judgment,” Kate Lindsay, writer of the digital culture newsletter Embedded, said in an interview. (Ms. Lindsay emphasized that she was not condoning Ms. Puckett’s actions, but was speaking more broadly.)
“I think it is within everyone’s best interests to regularly cull their internet presence,” she added. “There are some people who seem to fall under the belief that that’s avoiding or skirting accountability, but I actually think the deleting is the accountability. You realize that’s bad and it doesn’t represent you anymore.”
Pookie and her fire outfits will likely be forgotten as quickly as they appeared, but the viral cycle will all but certainly begin anew for someone else. It has probably already begun.