The truth of social media and other lessons from 'Zola's story'

Story highlights

  • The dramatic tale became a worldwide trend last week
  • Many didn't seem to care whether it was true
  • Viral stars are the brightest in the new showbiz

(CNN)One of the most popular stories this year can't be found in any bookstore or on Amazon.

"Zola's story," a tale told on -- and then deleted from -- Twitter last week, had a little something for everyone: crime, love, angst, humanity and strippers.
Here's the back story:
    Aziah Wells (who goes by the name Aziah King and the Twitter handle @ _zolarmoon) posted 148 tweets to tell of how, as a Hooters waitress, she met a cast of characters including a young woman named Jess; her boyfriend, Jarrett; and a man known only as "Z."

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    A photo posted by Aziah King❤️ (@zolarmoon) on

    Wells, 19, embarked on a wild adventure to Tampa, Florida, so she and Jessica could make money stripping at high-end clubs. But what resulted, according to Wells, is a trip that included claims of prostitution, dramatic tears, a suicide attempt, an attempted kidnapping and a man shot in the face.
    Think Carl Hiaasen, the Florida-based author who's king of the quirky, meets ratchet, with a dash of director Quentin Tarantino, and you have what came to be known as #TheStory.
    It was compelling as can be, and it wasn't without its lessons:

    We don't expect truth from social media.

    Wells deleted the original tweets, but nothing ever truly disappears from the Internet, and the story was saved on a Storify template titled "A Wild Weekend in Florida."
    The story and the names of those involved trended worldwide, and social media began casting a potential film.
    New terms like "hoeism" and "trap" were added to the lexicon of those formerly not in the know as people found themselves captivated by a story that seemed so absurd, it had to have been from a script.
    Rapper Missy Elliott may have summed it up best when she tweeted that she "ended up reading the whole thing like I was watching a movie on Twitter."
    There were lots of theories that the story was fake or perhaps an attempt by Wells to break into show business (beyond stripping, that is). But no one seemed to care.
    In an era of practiced, filtered Instagram selfies and Facebook statuses that present only the best bits of our lives, Twitter was just down for a good story. Period.

    Viral stars are the brightest in the new Hollywood universe.

    Remember when aspiring stars used to trudge to auditions and shop their projects around to get Hollywood's attention?
    These days, they would be better off just logging on.
    Soon after the emergence of #TheStory, Wells and the others were famous. Suddenly, there were headlines like "Someone Get Zola a Pulitzer or Potentially a Spot in the Witness Protection Program" and thinkpieces like Is Zola's Epic Twitter Story Empowering Or Disturbing Or Both?
    Both Jess and Jarrett told their versions of what happened, and the story dived into racial politics for a hot second when Jess (who denied that the chunk of Zola's story was true) was criticized for saying Zola sported a "short nappy wig."
    There were even Halloween costumes based on the story.
    Wells told TMZ that Hollywood has come calling, and she's tweeted about possible book deals.

    There can be a serious side to going viral.

    The Washington Post tracked some of the principals and offered a story even darker than the one originally tweeted. Though the Post piece found that there was some truth to Zola's story, it also turned up new information, including accusations of "Z" attempting to force other women into prostitution.
    The tale sparked a deeper conversation about human trafficking and the dangers sex workers face every day. Writing for the Huffington Post under the name "Josephine," one woman said, "Every sex worker has a horror story. We get robbed, arrested, beaten, humiliated."
    "The majority of our horror stories blur the line between 'awful' and 'hilarious,' " she wrote. "At least, mine do."
    But the reality is, Josephine writes, that the stories are not the light entertainment that many found Zola's tale to be.
    "The truth is I don't think any of those things are funny," Josephine wrote. "The truth is I've had a few moments in my career where I almost got hurt, or I did get hurt, where I could have died."