Vines growing on trees

Clingers and twiners: Vines have tangled relationship with trees and buildings


Vines are interesting plants. They grow abundantly in many of our habitats, including our yards. Their abundance may be linked to one of their big advantages. This advantage is that they often let another plant grow a stalk or trunk and then essentially hitch hike up that plant. It takes a lot less energy and time for the vine.

To climb up things, vines have evolved some interesting ways of attaching themselves. There are three basic methods or types of vines: clingers, twiners, and winders.

The clingers are vines which grasp rough surfaces by means of rootless or adhesive disks. This type of vine includes English ivy (Hedera helix) and trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans). They can be difficult to remove, and their roots can loosen mortar between bricks or concrete blocks in masonry walls.

Twining vines climb by encircling upright vertical supports (such as a trees). Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) is a common twining vine.

Lastly, there are the winder vines. These vines climb by means of tendrils. Tendrils come in many forms and sizes. They wind themselves around some kind of support in response to friction. Passion vine (Passiflora caerulea), cross vine (Bignonia capreolata), and grape vine (Vitis spp.) are examples of winder vines.

On the other hand, vines, if managed, can add beauty to trees. It is important to watch vines and trim them from time to time to keep them from damaging trees.

The simplest method is to cut them at the base when they start to get into the crown of a tree. I have found that pulling the vine out of the tree usually causes more damage than letting the vine simply decay. Of course, the vine will re-sprout at the base and grow up the tree again.

If you need to kill the vine because it is invasive, like kudzu (Pueraria montana) or Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), you can spray the cut trunk of the vine with an herbicide. You must apply the herbicide immediately after the cut, as the cells close off quickly, denying the absorption of the herbicide.

The active ingredient Triclopyr is very effective and should be applied at full strength. Always read and follow the label when using any pesticide. This method also works well on poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).

Of course, it is good to note that vines in trees can help our wildlife. Many vines provide food and cover for animals. The common greenbrier, or Smilax, with its troublesome thorns, provide a lot of protection for songbirds. This winder vine’s fruit is consumed by turkey, quail, and more than 40 songbirds. Deer and rabbits also eat its leaves.

Many vines have pretty flowers that are rich nectar sources for butterflies and hummingbirds. Trumpet creeper is an excellent ruby-throated hummingbird plant.

Stan Rosenthal is a forester with Big Bend Forestry and Forestry Agent Emeritus with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County, an Equal Opportunity Institution. For gardening questions, email the extension office at [email protected]

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By Debra Huff

Michigan forests are host to many vines, both native and non-native. Do you know what vines you have in your woods?

Vines are part of the natural forest system and can provide food and habitat for birds and wildlife. Good forest planning and management can help you manage the system so you keep your woods healthy and productive, according to the goals you have.

This series of articles will explore some of the most common vines found in Michigan. Some vines can kill trees, either through breakage from the sheer weight of a mature vine, or through strangulation by girdling. Yet other vines can provide important food for wildlife. It helps to know which you have.

To get a basic idea of which vine you are looking at, here are some questions to answer.

  1. Does it have tendrils? If yes, then it could be Virginia creeper, grapevine, greenbrier or poison ivy. These are the most common.
  2. Is it smooth without tendrils? If yes, then it could be oriental bittersweet or the native American bittersweet.

A good resource for identifying vines is online at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point website at:

In Michigan, typical vines you may find in your woods include Oriental bittersweet, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, and grapevine. This article will focus on Virginia creeper and poison ivy, since they are sometimes mistaken for each other. The next installment will focus on Oriental bittersweet and grapevine.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

This vine often grows on the same site, even the same tree, as poison ivy. Unfortunately, they can look very similar. Hence the saying “Leaves of Three, Let it be; Leaves of Five, let it thrive” used to differentiate between the two tree-climbing vines by their leaves.

Virginia creeper can be beneficial for wildlife (for example bluebirds, cardinals, woodpeckers, skunks, chipmunks, mice, deer and turkey eat the berries and parts of the leaves), although all parts are poisonous to humans

It can not only grow up as a vine up tree trunks and walls, but it can send out runners along the ground, and quickly cover the area. Virginia creeper is very fast growing. It can cover and damage a tree or shrub, but generally Virginia creeper vines do not damage the tree, as they tend to live mostly in the lower portions of a tree. When cutting vines be careful to identify this vine because poison ivy looks similar.

Poison Ivy (Toxicondendron radicans)

Identifying poison ivy is your first task. Poison ivy is often found associated with Virginia creeper, so you may have both vines on the same tree. Both plants have leaves that start out red. But Virginia creeper has a cluster of 5 leaflets, while poison ivy always occurs in clusters of three. Leaves turn greener until fall, when leaves turn bright red and orange and drop, leaving white waxy berries behind. One trick to identifying poison ivy is that the middle leaf is symmetrical and on a longer stalk than the two side leaves, which are mirror images of one another but not symmetrical. Leaf edges are usually smooth, but can sometimes be toothed or lobed, the side leaves often resembling a mitten shape.

Poison ivy vines will have hair tendrils, but no poison ivy plant will have a prickly stem, like a raspberry. Poison ivy vines are brown, attached to their support trees, and do not have shreddy bark, like a grapevine. Poison ivy has wildlife value, as birds and mammals consume the berries.

Control of Vines

Control and management of vines should be consistent with your forest management objectives. If the objective is to grow high quality timber then elimination of many vines is usually recommended. If you are managing for both high quality timber and wildlife, then you will want to leave some grapevines for wildlife and selectively manage the vines. Like all decisions, the pros and cons must be carefully examined before undertaking any action. A professional forester can help a landowner evaluate what the options are, including any cost-share possibilities that might be available to help with improving the forest.

Who to Call?

Any management system should be implemented carefully, in accordance with your forest management plan. Resources to assist you in the use of chemicals include consulting foresters and Conservation Districts foresters. Herbicides should be carefully applied, as they can also affect the trees you wish to retain.

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Vines And Trees: Do Vines Harm Trees By Growing On Them

Vines can look attractive when they grow up your taller trees. But should you let vines grow on trees? The answer is generally no, but it depends on the particular trees and vines involved. For information about the risks of vines on trees, and tips on removing vine from trees, read on.

Trees and Vines

Trees and vines have a troubled relationship. Some vines climb up your tree trunks and add color and interest. But vines on trees can cause structural problems as the extra weight breaks branches. Other vines shade out the tree’s foliage.

Do vines harm trees? Should you let vines grow on trees? As a general rule, trees and vines should grow separately. Certainly, evergreen vines and fast-growing vines should not be allowed to take over your trees. Generally, all evergreen and most vines that grow rapidly will damage trees. Slow growing deciduous vines are sometimes okay.

Here’s a short list of the worst vines on trees: Ivy is bad, as well as Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), wisteria (Wisteria spp.) and kudzu (Pueraria spp.).

How do these vines damage trees they grow on? Vines that serve as groundcover, like ivy, cover the root flare of a tree in a dense mat. Their leaves cover the root collar. This creates a system where moisture is trapped against the trunk and root flare, causing diseases and potential decay.
Deciduous vines on trees shade out the tree’s leaves. Vines like wisteria can damage a tree in this way. They can also strangle the tree’s limbs and trunk with their twining.

Smaller vines and those that grow slowly don’t necessarily harm your trees. These can include clematis species, crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), passion flower (Passiflora) and even poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) – although no one intentionally grows this last one.

But these vines, too, can cause problems for your trees so you’ll want to watch their progress. Unless you see them damaging the tree, you’ll have to weigh the advantages and risks yourself.

Removing Vines from Trees

If you have vines on trees that are doing damage, you’ll want to know about removing vines from trees.

Don’t start ripping ropes of vine off the trees. Instead, cut the stem of each vine at the bottom of the tree. You may need a saw for thicker vines. This deprives the vine of its source of nutrients. (And always protect yourself when removing vines like poison ivy.)

Then pull all of the vines out of the ground in a thick “lifesaver” area around the trunk. This will prevent the vine from starting a new attempt to take over the tree. Leave the vines alone that are growing in the tree. Removing vines from trees by pulling them off the trunk could injure the tree.

Removing Invasive Vines

Posted May 01, 2014 08:23h in Special Interest, Sustainability Topics by Becky Robert

April was invasive plant, pest, and disease awareness month and a great time to remove invasives on your property. As part of our annual Crum Creek Clean-Up on April 29, volunteers continued our ongoing efforts to remove and control invasives in the Crum Woods. Many large trees were liberated from the strangling vines of English ivy, naturalized wisteria, and Oriental bittersweet. Home gardeners should attempt to remove these aggressive plants from their properties as well.

The large severed woody stem of the aggressive oriental bittersweet had a strangled hold on this tree. photo credit: R. Robert

Invasive vines compete with the tree they grow on for sunlight. After encircling a towering tree to reach the sunlight, the vine branches out and shades the tree’s own foliage. In addition to competing for the same sunlight, vines add weight to the tree, causing broken and damaged limbs and trunks. These aggressive vines vigorously compete and damage our native tree canopy.

Director Claire Sawyers helping to sever invasive vines growing in the Crum Woods. photo credit: R. Robert

To remove invasive plants from your property, dig them out of the ground when possible. If the vine is too large, at least, cut it off at the base of the tree. While your tree may look rough for a year or two as the vine dies and falls out, vigor will return to your specimen with the loss of the competition.

Volunteer Jim Ortoleva saws invasive vines from trees in the Crum Woods. photo credit: R. Robert

Due to the size and age of the trees and vines in the Crum Woods, volunteers focus their efforts on cutting the two to three caliber vines at the base of the trees.

Volunteers removed 20 bags of trash from the Crum Creek. photo credit: R. Robert

In addition invasive control, 35 volunteers, staff, and students removed: 7 tires, 20 trash bags, 1 inflatable swimming pool, picnic table and parts, metal barrel, traffic barrel, pressurized wood, chicken wire, plastic ramp, sheet metal, and toilet parts. Thank you to everyone for their help!

LFS mixed vines

The shaggy vine on the left is wild grape. In the center, wisteria vines twist around one another, while on the right, poison ivy clings to a tree using its adventitious roots.

(Clay Wollney)

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — From native plants like Virginia creeper, greenbriers and poison ivy to invasive species such as porcelainberry, bittersweet and wisteria, there is no shortage of climbing plants in the fields and woodlands of Staten Island.

One way or another, most vines climb up other plants to get away from the shady ground environment and reach higher levels of sunlight, closer to the canopy of trees or just atop surrounding bushes.

To get there, vines use a few different strategies. Active mechanisms of attachment involve growth and hormonal responses called tropisms. Tendrils, twining and aerial roots are three kinds of active mechanisms used by our local plants.

Passive mechanisms simply depend on existing structures. Spines, stiff branches, patterns of growth and simply sprawling over other plants are some of the passive means of climbing employed by Staten Island vines.

In the strictest definition, vines are thin-stemmed, herbaceous plants that are generally found in disturbed or high-light zones.

A liana is a vine with a woody stem that has roots in the soil and leaves high above in the tree canopy. Technically, most of the larger vines on the island should really be called lianas.

Tendrils are used by a number of local vines. These tentacle-like structures are often modified leaves. They are thin extensions that tie the vine to surrounding plants for a strong support that can withstand the forces of wind and gravity. Some tendrils, such as those of greenbrier, form spring-like curled tips as they wrap around a branch or narrow stem. This response, known as thigmotropism, is caused by hormones that cause the side touching the stem to grow slowly, while the outside of the tendril grows faster, causing it to curl tightly around a support.

Porcelainberry, an aggressive invasive vine with beautiful blue, violet and purple berries, also uses tendrils.

Wild grapes use tendrils to attach as they climb up into tree branches, but tendrils on the lower stem fall away and the vines of older plants may dangle loosely. Some of the grapevines in Conference House Park are more than 40 years old.

A few types of tendrils stick to their attachment, using root hairs and even natural adhesives. Virginia creeper, for example, has tendrils that end with flat disks capable of clinging tenaciously to a surface.

Plants that use twining twist around whatever supporting structure they touch. In most cases, twining only occurs in one direction, with a general tendency to turn to the right. Local examples include Chinese wisteria, and both oriental and American bittersweet. All three of these species are beautiful in a controlled garden, given proper support; however, their twining often strangles trees in the wild. In addition, the weight of wisteria can bring down small trees.

Adventitious roots grow from the stem and attach to the bark of their supporting structure. While tendrils and twining are somewhat limited by the width of a tree’s trunk, this is not a deterrent to poison ivy or English ivy, both of which use adventitious roots.

Until recently, it was thought English ivy simply used a glue-like secretion to help it grow on trees and the sides of brick buildings. Researchers in Germany recently used a scanning electron microscope to observe the attachment of English ivy. They found that after making contact, the roots change shape to fit the surface they are touching. The roots rise in number, increasing the area of contact. Fine root hairs grow into small nooks and crannies, as the roots secrete their glue. Then the root hairs die and shrivel into a spiral that locks the root hair into the cavity.

Unlike most other vines that climb to reach the light, dodder doesn’t have such needs. Its thin, yellow-orange stem lacks chlorophyll, hence the plant is unable to makes its own food by photosynthesis. Instead, it is a parasite and feeds off the plants it grows on — using small roots that suck the sap and water from its victims.

When dodder sprouts, its vine immediately attaches to a host plant and twines around the host’s stem. Eventually the dodder’s connection to its roots dies and it becomes totally dependent on its host.


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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 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 center 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 favorite 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 1 million.

A compilation of Vine videos with Gavin.

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 possible. The trade-off is a childhood played out in front of millions of strangers, the cost of which remains to be seen.

I recently spent a weekend with Gavin, eager to learn how a seemingly normal family are dealing with the memeification of their only son.

Gavin is now eight – a second grader from a middle-class family in Minneapolis. Photograph: Kate Thomas

When Kate picked me up from my hotel in downtown Minneapolis on a Friday afternoon, she had just collected Gavin from school. “Say hello to Oscar, Gavs,” Kate said. Reluctantly, Gavin gave me a high five, and then told Kate that he wanted to play Fortnite. “My phone doesn’t have enough battery,” she said. “But why don’t we stop off and get you some Wendy’s. You’re probably just a bit tired and hungry.”

We were headed to the Winter Lights festival at the Arboretum, a botanical garden and function center on the outskirts of the city. Kate, who is 35, told me that her husband wouldn’t be able to join us – he is in the military and was away for work.

The plan for the evening was to shoot a video of Gavin making cookies with Kate’s sister, who works as head chef at the Arboretum. Over the past few months, Gavin had started making regular vlogs to keep his fans updated about his life.

Making these is part of a new content strategy developed by Gavin’s manager, Byron Austen Ashley, who Kate began working with in December 2017. Previously, her strategy for managing Gavin’s online following was haphazard. She had her own social media accounts where she uploaded pictures and videos of Gavin, but most Gavin content was being created by unaffiliated meme accounts, some of which were using his face to sell merchandise.

Ashley began by telling Kate to start new social media accounts on Gavin’s behalf and then hire a legal team to shut down the other meme accounts. Kate’s accounts now have millions of followers across multiple online platforms and far greater control over the content that gets disseminated.

At the Arboretum, Kate’s sister said that she wouldn’t have time to make a video with Gavin making cookies. “That’s OK,” Kate said, handing Gavin a digital camera attached to a small tripod. “Why don’t we go outside and make a video of the lights instead.”

“What people seem to love about Gav is that he’s just a normal kid,” Kate said. “So, we just take videos of us out and about. And then I go through the footage later and decide what to upload, just like any proud mom.”

Once outside, Gavin, who had perked up since his Wendy’s cheeseburger, hit record and took off into a field of snow with illuminated hay-barrels and barns, swinging the camera by his side. When I caught up, he asked if I wanted to play hide and go seek. “Sure,” I said.

“OK, I’ll hide first,” he said. “Take the camera.”

“Why do I need to take the camera?” I asked.

“Because then no one can see me.”

Gavin Thomas at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. Photograph: Jenn Ackerman/The Guardian

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.”

I had reached out to several of these “meme kids” and their families before meeting Gavin. For most, the experience of internet fame was a meteoric, short-lived experience.

Such was the case for David Devore, better known as David After Dentist, whose dad shot a video of him while he was still high on pain medication after dental surgery when he was seven. The video went viral and Devore was briefly famous. “Now I’m a senior in high school and applying for college,” he told me. “I’m just a regular kid who plays lacrosse and works out. The whole thing is just kind of like a cool memory.”

But not all experiences of unwitting internet fame are so benign. The forebear of this type of celebrity was Ghyslain Raza, who in 2002, at the age of 14, filmed himself fighting imaginary sentries with a golf ball retriever in the media room at his high school. The footage was discovered by three classmates who uploaded it to Kazaa, a file-sharing network. The video was then discovered by blogger Andy Baio, who posted a copy on his popular blog, along with a remixed version that superimposed Star Wars graphics on to the footage.

For 14-year-old Raza, the non-consensual online fame was horrifying. He was mercilessly bullied, lost the few friends he had, and ended up completing his final exams at a hospital psychiatric unit. While Baio retrospectively tried to cast Raza as an “internet hero”, Raza felt like the internet was laughing at him, not with him. “Having your 15 minutes of fame, when you’ve done something truly worthwhile, is one thing. When you earn it for something humiliating, that’s entirely different,” Raza said in 2013. “I couldn’t help but feel worthless, like my life wasn’t worth living.”

‘What people seem to love about Gav is that he’s just a normal kid,’ said Kate, his mother. Photograph: Nick Massahos/Kate Thomas

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.”

The next morning, I met Gavin and Kate at the Mall of America, which has an indoor theme park, a mini-golf course, and movie cinemas. “Gav knows the social media team here,” Kate told me. “They love it when he comes and hangs out, so they’ve given us free passes to go on all the rides.”

Gavin was dressed in a yellow hoodie with a big picture of his own face on it, which would be available to buy via their new online shop in a few months.

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.

Arden Rose, one of Ashley’s other clients, got her start making beauty-focused YouTube videos on her dad’s laptop when she was 14 out of their suburban Arkansas home. She accumulated a devoted following online and leveraged this to become the lead actor in two successful TV series: Mr Student Body President and Guidance. She has since designed a jewelry collection, signed big product endorsements with Calvin Klein, authored a book published by HarperCollins, and splits her time between Los Angeles and London.

Gavin Thomas plays at Gameworks, an arcade at the Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota. Photograph: Jenn Ackerman/Guardian US

Part of what makes internet celebrity so appealing is this sense of accessibility. Whereas being a movie star once required living in a certain place and having certain connections, being a YouTube star ostensibly only requires a camera and the internet.

But this democratic access to fame that the internet affords comes at a cost. Last year, a number of high-profile YouTubers talked publicly about the pressure of constant online engagement. Elle Mills, a YouTuber who rose to fame in 2017 after posting a hugely popular “coming out” video, uploaded a video to her channel in May entitled “burnt out at 19”. She confessed that the grind of producing new content and the emotional labor of interacting with her fans had left her anxious and depressed.

Because Kate still runs Gavin’s accounts on his behalf, his engagement with fans is carefully moderated. Yet occasionally, his celebrity spills out into the real world.

As we walked around the mall, a number of teenagers took pictures of him from a distance. At one point, Gavin dropped his packet of caramel popcorn on the ground. “Oh no! What have you done, Gavin,” said a young woman walking past. “Do you think I can take a selfie with you?” Gavin, popcornless and crestfallen, shook his head. Kate whispered something in his ear. He relinquished and went to stand next to the stranger, producing one of his signature faces, which sits ambiguously between a smile and a grimace.

“That’s pretty normal for us,” Kate said as we made our way to the arcade. “He’s been recognized in public since he was three. Here in Minnesota, people are pretty reserved and generally keep their distance.

“But in China, it was a different story.”

What’s on Weibo (@WhatsOnWeibo)

Name: Gavin Thomas
Age: 8
Occupation: Internet celebrity/meme icon in China
Weibo followers: 2.1 million (!)
Famous in China why: his “fake smile” speaks to people familiar with awkward social situations, hence nickname “Fake Smile Boy” #假笑男孩. Gavin’s uncle is: @nickmastodon

January 12, 2019

Gavin and Kate made their first trip to China in August 2018, after the successful launch of Gavin’s Weibo account – they gained over 1 million followers in 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 capitalize”.

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 fanbase 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 neighbors – 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.”

In my family, my older sisters share a lot of photos and videos of their children via our family WhatsApp group. We live in different countries, so photo sharing is a good way to stay in touch. I have seen my nephews and nieces take first steps and sing the alphabet for the first time, to which I respond with heart emojis.

But my eldest sister has misgivings about putting her children on more public forums. She and her husband have a rule not to post content on social media that shows their children’s face. They want their children to be able to choose how they depict themselves online, to have agency over their digital record, rather than it being forged by their parents without consultation or consent.

They also worry that if they posted content of their children, they might start analyzing their interactions with them through the lens of what gets more engagement. “If you’re conditioned to feel your relationships are somehow improved by the number of likes you get, you’re setting yourself up for difficult times ahead,” my brother-in-law told me.

While they feel that these rules have been useful so far, they still have questions and anxieties about the future. When is the right age to let children start posting their own content? What do they do if their friends post things about them online? “These are uncharted waters,” my sister told me. “And we’re all just bumbling through.”

Like my sister, the Thomases are navigating their way through the ramifications of sharing a Truman Show-like record of their child. But the Thomases, like many other families, have allowed the world into their private photo album. In return, they experience an intensified version of what all proud families feel when they receive praise about their children.

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 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 have done that? I sometimes feel like we’ve handed our kids a reality they didn’t sign up for.”

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