Don’t Worry About Corn Kid

Why an excess of internet attention automatically reads as a threat

Corn Kid, the viral internet star, placed under an illustration of a smiley face
Instagram; Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic

A viral video starring an adorable child has briefly united the world in shared understanding: “It’s corn!”

The child, whose first name is Tariq and whose last name is unknown, but who also goes by “CEO of Corn,” appeared in a video on a popular Instagram account called Recess Therapy. (Recess Therapy is a man-on-the-street-style interview show on which all the guests are children.) Tariq is missing a front tooth, so he’s approximately whatever age at which that typically happens. He’s in a park in Brooklyn, and he is eating corn on the cob. “Ever since I was told that corn was real, it tasted good,” he explains. His grandmother is cracking up in the background. “I can’t imagine a more beautiful thing,” he says, of corn.

The video’s host, Recess Therapy creator Julian Shapiro-Barnum, asks him to describe corn to someone who has never heard of it. “A big lump with knobs,” he obliges. Not how you would describe it, is it? Kids say the darndest things! At the end of the video, Tariq asks that everyone watching have a “corntastic day” and then behaves as if baffled by the host’s open-mouthed laugh. “What?” he asks. “It’s just a pun about corn.”

Of course people love this video. There are many ways in which it is funny. The word corn, for starters, has a certain inherent comedic tone. Tariq’s syntax is strange, as he is a child. Corn Kid went viral on TikTok and Instagram, and it was boosted by the digital-media company Doing Things Media, which co-created Recess Therapy and is known for its involvement with several popular meme accounts. (On its website, Doing Things Media describes itself as “a 24/7 dopamine drip machine.”) Soon after, the original video was remixed by a group of people who do that sort of thing, resulting in a remarkably catchy song that features outtakes from Tariq’s interview not included in the original clip. (“When there’s, like, negative in the world, take a corn break.”)

Tariq’s viral fame proceeded in a pretty predictable fashion. He appeared in a Chipotle ad and started selling personalized video messages on Cameo starting at $220. Social-media commentators championed this at first. “Get this little boy paid,” one Twitter thread with thousands of retweets insisted. “If he makes the right moves he can work with the Green Giant or any other corn company.” But this encouragement came with caveats. Later in the same thread, the author expressed concern about Tariq’s opportunity for profit going too far: “Please don’t make this little boy do anything he doesn’t want to do … parents get so swooped up in trying to get their kids ‘set’ for life but just relax.” In the replies, others agreed and worried that Tariq was not being properly guided by his parents, arguing that they must “have no idea what they’re doing.”

Others pulled Corn Kid into broader narratives about the internet and exploitation. “Watching the corn kid get put into every ad on the planet and instantly become a lifeless and joyless aspect of the capitalist machine is not fun,” one tweet read. “Childhood virality is wild this kid was just eating a snack in public and now his parents are letting people/businesses book him on cameo,” read another, which has been retweeted thousands of times. Many of Corn Kid’s volunteer advocates assumed that he was being taken advantage of by whoever was profiting off of his image.

This is an understandable reaction—a fear response created by years of observing similar viral events. Black children and teenagers, especially, have historically been cut out of any potential profits that may come from the internet cultural events they create. In a now-classic essay published by The Fader in 2015, Doreen St. Félix argued that brands had made a habit of viewing Black young people’s “cultural production” as “ripe for the taking.”

When a person receives a lot of the internet’s attention and brands inevitably start circling, it is obvious to us now how things can easily go wrong. If the person is a child, onlookers worry this will cause lasting damage and be weird for them for the rest of their lives. All kinds of dark outcomes feel not only possible but probable. For instance, Joshua Holz and Daniel Lara, the teenagers who starred in the classic 2016 Vine clip “Damn Daniel,” received a lot of free sneakers, appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, were profiled in magazines, and suffered a lot of bizarre consequences. I wrote about them wistfully in 2018: “They found prom dates. Fell in love. Drank Red Bull with mom … Also, their accounts were hacked, and Josh was swatted after a stranger lied to the police, saying he had shot his mother with an AK-47.”

So far, Tariq’s story hasn’t taken any of the dark turns internet-culture observers have come to expect. According to Shapiro-Barnum, Tariq and his family are getting a cut of the profits from the musical remix, and Recess Therapy is protecting Tariq’s identity by not sharing his last name. He has not been doing interviews or television appearances, and his family declined to comment for this story. Shapiro-Barnum is conscientious about how his work may affect the children he interviews and removes any content that a parent ultimately decides against having online. He has so far been acting as an intermediary of sorts for Tariq and says that he forwards every media or brand request he receives to Tariq’s mom: “I want to give them the reins.”

Although the song has been copy-pasted all over TikTok and is impossible to fully control or exert ownership over, Shapiro-Barnum argues that events have unfolded about as positively as can be expected. “Viral moments are always a challenge to navigate,” he told me. “But I really hope that the ‘It’s corn’ moment is a step in the right direction when it comes to a community supporting and honoring the source material.”

The Corn Kid moment is another opportunity for reflection on how we treat kids whose charisma we find compelling and whose personalities the culture is tempted to consume as entertainment and then sell as a product. Years after St. Félix’s Fader story and the days of “Damn Daniel,” these issues aren’t resolved. But we do have a small set of more direct ways for kids like Tariq to be compensated for creating internet culture that other people want to spread and participate in, as well as a firmer norm about online communities respecting a child’s privacy.

There is little reason to assume that Tariq is being pushed into a career as a corn spokesperson or a lifetime as a caricature of himself, or that his family has no grasp of the mechanics of the internet or the possible consequences of fame. “Tariq is the most bubbly, talkative kid who so thoroughly enjoys doing this stuff,” Shapiro-Barnum told me when I asked about his reaction to these kinds of concerns. “He comes from a very sweet, supportive family. I don’t think they would make him do anything he doesn’t want to do.”

With that said, please enjoy Labor Day weekend and the end of corn season. It’s corn! But not for much longer.