EWFA Chapter 6
Chapter 6 - The Meme Industry
BECAUSE 4CHAN HAS no archives, a host of websites have sprung up around it in order to analyze and document meme culture. Some of these sites act almost like museums, adding sociological commentary and in-depth research in order to place memes in context. Others behave more like comedy sites that go straight for the lulz. As Internet culture becomes mainstream, even massive media organizations like CNN dedicate more space to viral content.
Consider the following two case studies in meme celebrity.
In the fall of 2002, a chubby Canadian student named Ghyslain Raza filmed himself wielding a golf ball retriever like a lightsaber in his high school film production studio. Providing his own sound effects, the poor kid spins and kicks his way through a clumsy martial arts routine. It was perhaps the most pitifully nerdy thing committed to film in a pre-YouTube era. Of course, one of his friends discovered the tape and passed it around. Eventually, one of his classmates uploaded a file called Jackass_starwars_funny.wmv. This was during the height of Star Wars prequel mania, and the video went on to become one of the most viral clips in history.
If the Star Wars Kid video had been uploaded today, the kid probably would have been featured on Good Morning America, done a parody video for the comedy site Funny or Die, guested on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and been given a low-budget reality TV show in which he judged martial arts routines across America. That’s because today, there’s a massive infrastructure built around the memesphere that’s driven by the media’s insatiable desire to be first to market with the next big viral craze. Being first can make the difference between hundreds of page views and millions.
But there was none of that around back then. Instead the clip was parodied on a few dozen TV shows against his will—just a humiliating experience for Raza all around. His family filed a $250,000 lawsuit against the families of the classmates who distributed the video, eventually settling out of court.
Two years later, a video of 19-year-old Gary Brolsma hilariously gesticulating and lip synching to a Romanian pop song went viral. The “Numa Numa” phenomenon brought immediate media attention. Brolsma appeared on Good Morning America, but soon decided to reject his designated fifteen minutes of fame, shunning all interviews. Brolsma reappeared in 2006 with his own website, merch, and a remix of the original song: a cash-in attempt that smartly coincided with the birth of YouTube, which allowed countless others to upload renditions of the legendary meme.
In a way, Star Wars Kid is an artifact of a bygone era. Meme fame is so easy to monetize now, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see meme celebrities of that magnitude shun fame the way Star Wars Kid did way back in 2002.
For several years, Encyclopedia Dramatica was the only place to go to read about 4chan culture. It’s a wiki site that contains thousands of entries dedicated to all things drama. Like 4chan, it’s almost incomprehensible to outsiders, as every entry is written in an intensely mean-spirited tone, peppered with obscure Internet slang and populated by lolcows.
A lolcow is someone who offers lulz like a cow offers milk. People who just never learn, who post their hysterics on the web, who try to fight back against Anonymous and lose. Lolcows are people who play by the old rules, who smugly declare that they’re going to sue 4chan, or tearfully threaten to call the police.
Lolcows just don’t know when to give up, and Encyclopedia Dramatica made documenting lolcow behavior its mission. For example, here’s an excerpt from the entry on Asperger’s Syndrome:
Assburgers is a made-up disease, most common in overachieving middle-class families, because little Johnny is either a social outcast, or is just acting fucking retarded. The parents diagnose their child, and the “doctors” go along with and encourage it because of the money it generates. Fuckers. The truth is, the Assburgers diagnosis has become popular with parents because they need a good excuse as to why their “fucktard children are dumb faggots who will be dying alone.”
While each entry is intended to provide some informational content, it’s conveyed in such a way as to troll the unsuspecting reader and delight those who are in the know.
It surprised me to find that Encyclopedia Dramatica’s creator, Sherrod DeGrippo, has absolutely zero interest in 4chan.
Just so you aren’t shocked or disappointed . . . I am not a walking encyclopedia of memes. I don’t really follow Anonymous or 4chan or anything like that.
What? This woman runs a site that behaves as the definitive repository for 4chan culture, and is telling me that she could not care less about 4chan? As it turns out, she launched the site in order to chronicle the hilarious drama she saw on LiveJournal, the online diary/social network that predated the blog revolution. DeGrippo discovered LJ in 2000, when it was mostly “people posting pictures of their cats and detailing what they had for breakfast.”
DeGrippo quickly became fascinated by LJdrama, a community on the site that eventually got booted off, and later resurfaced with its own domain. An Urban Dictionary entry describes the site as “the high school cafeteria of the Internet.” DeGrippo and her cohorts posted reports of LJ gossip. Their coverage of the community acted as a Gawker or a TMZ for the LiveJournal community, and gained notoriety quickly.
The rise of LJdrama coincided with the rise of reality television and the blogging revolution, when regular folks began to garner headlines alongside Hollywood A-listers and pop stars. It was a huge shift in the nature of celebrity and tabloid culture. LiveJournal users soon learned that if they stirred up drama on their journals, they could build bigger fanbases. Some went as far as to threaten suicide or document their mental imbalances.
People were accessible and it was bidirectional. Voyeurs and exhibitionists were able to interact in a way that was normalized. That’s why I started ED. It was mostly just personalities that were just so nuts and fascinating.
Technology gave us an environment in which people are empowered to project their dysfunction to millions of viewers. DeGrippo found this environment intoxicating. The lolcow who started it all was mediacrat, aka Joshua Williams, a student at the University of Washington, Seattle.
In 2002, Williams began a relationship with another LJ user, Andrewpants. The relationship soured, and drama ensued. When LJdrama documented Williams’s online histrionics, he threatened to sue. He even went so far as to drive to Portland, Oregon, to talk to LiveJournal’s abuse team about the matter. He claimed that he underwent online harassment when unflattering pictures of him were posted online.
Williams contacted a local TV news station to report the harassment. He threatened to press charges and get restraining orders. The drama resounded throughout the Internet until July 19, 2002, when Williams updated his LiveJournal account for the last time, leaving the controversy behind. Encyclopedia Dramatica was born in the wake of this scandal. According to DeGrippo, there were a lot of people on LiveJournal faking pregnancies, diseases, and relationships to get attention. People had become fascinated with these lolcows in the same way they used to obsess over the antics of Elizabeth Taylor or fictional drama like Dallas’s “Who shot JR?” phenomenon. “It turns regular people into paparazzi,” says DeGrippo.
She defines an lolcow as “someone who just doesn’t know when to stop. They just won’t wise up and stop posting pictures of themselves naked, or [writing] insane posts, or whatever. They just keep fanning the flames of the fire they claim to hate.” She considers Courtney Love to be a prominent celebrity lolcow, given her perpetual legal trouble, drug addiction, public mental instability, and seemingly insatiable lust for the limelight. A more recent example would be Charlie Sheen, whose recent manic downward spiral has been documented in real time via streaming video, live performances, and Twitter feeds throughout 2011.
“You want to just grab them and be like, ‘Look! Just STOP it! For your own good!’” says DeGrippo, but of course there is a certain voyeuristic pleasure in rubbernecking at the celebrity train wreck. And the Internet offers much more delicious schadenfreude than Hollywood does. But TV is catching up.
DeGrippo is really into reality TV gossip, especially the various iterations of the Real Housewives franchise, which is basically built around lolcows. But the experience of enjoying the shows doesn’t stop when the credits roll. In fact, for DeGrippo, the real fun begins the following morning, when Gawker’s Richard Lawson posts snarky commentary of the previous night’s drama. The mayhem continues in the comments following the article.
Producers recognize this phenomenon, and they facilitate it with crazier, more dramatic content. Because now Demi Lovato isn’t just competing with Miley Cyrus for your attention; she’s competing with Jessi Slaughter, and Kiki Kannibal (teen webcam microcelebs who were recently targeted by trolls). This forces Hollywood celebs to make themselves more accessible, offering the public their illicit cell phone photos, for instance. Celebrities used to be unattainable demigods, and now we’re watching them fart and philander on YouTube.
According to DeGrippo, LiveJournal became such fertile ground for drama because it was particularly open, making it easy for noobs to spew their dysfunction into the world. It provided an early example of the “follow” function called “friendslist,” which created a chronological feed for users to browse their favorite LJ personalities. This functionality would come to define social blogging platforms like Twitter and Tumblr years later. It also included a clever threaded commenting structure, making it easy for people to keep discussion threads going for years.
Which is of course the exact opposite of how 4chan works. 4chan feels more like a fire hose of unrelated content hitting you all at once and then disappearing down a storm drain. Speaking of which, how is it that Encyclopedia Dramatica is so inextricably linked to 4chan rather than to LiveJournal? DeGrippo claims she created ED to house one article about LiveJournal, and completely lost interest after that.
I think this is something that many 4chan users wring their hands and tear their hair about. I still use LJ every day. Ha! I have never been a 4chan user, so I just assumed these people were seeing stuff on the Internet. As long as something wasn’t submitted as illegal or an abuse complaint, I didn’t even see it. Wikis are something that you either closely, closely monitor and manage, or you just let it go.
And let it go she did, allowing Encyclopedia Dramatica to mutate into a museum of 4chan-related lulz and drama. It also acts as a troll hall of fame.
In 2006, Seattle-area network administrator Jason Fortuny, who described himself as “a normal person who does insane things on the Internet,” became an Encyclopedia Dramatica microceleb when he posed as a woman seeking a partner for some rough sex in the “Casual Encounters” section of the Seattle Craigslist personals. Fortuny then posted each response, many of which included personal and contact information, to Encyclopedia Dramatica, calling it the Craigslist Experiment. A few respondents were fired when companies caught wind of the information dump. This scandal gave ED its first taste of mainstream media attention. Fortuny was required to pay one victim $74,252.56 in damages, attorney fees, and costs.
When the focus of Encyclopedia Dramatica shifted away from LiveJournal, that’s when DeGrippo stopped having fun. She kept paying for server space because she thought maybe it might turn back around to focus on lighthearted, sarcastic LJ drama again, rather than the mean-spirited trolling of 4chan.
Encyclopedia Dramatica never turned a profit. Like 4chan, it had just too much vile content to turn the heads of any serious advertisers. DeGrippo never set out to make millions, and never used the popularity of the site to further any personal agenda. Despite her fascination with Internet celebrity, she prefers to keep her identity under wraps, so much so that I had no idea she was a woman in her 40s when I was first able to track her down. She’s spoken to the press twice in the last seven years.
DeGrippo loved the Internet because of the interesting personalities she found there, ever since she discovered BBSes at age 13 in the back of Thrasher, a skateboarding themed counterculture rag. Her dad was a “mega hard-core smarty type,” who taught her basic computing. But she wasn’t a shut-in. She was also on homecoming court and president of several clubs in high school.
Her experience with BBSes and IRC was controlled chaos. She claims that people were generally friendly and wanted to collaborate, but Internet users back then were much more equipped to fight back against antisocial behavior, since the very fact that they were on the Internet at the time meant that they knew a thing or two about the technology. Plus the online experience was slow. “Being a dick took forever, so why bother?” she says.
DeGrippo always suspected the Internet would go mainstream, but not exactly the way it has.
Technology is cheap and ubiquitous now. It’s just assumed. I used to think that everyone would be programming C and writing their own operating systems. File systems would be taught in middle school, kids would all be kernel committers.
But in reality it went the way of television. The populous wasn’t elevated. The entry was dumbed down. No one knows how to fix their television, or cares. They just want to watch it.
DeGrippo came to hate ED, so in April 2011, she killed it. In its place she built Oh Internet (as in, “Oh, Internet, you so crazy!”), a sanitized, approachable version of ED—if not for social value, then at least for entertainment value. She believes that collecting and archiving content is valuable. And this time, she’s doing it on her own terms. It’s still a user-edited wiki site, but it will be more closely monitored and moderated. She believes that if a person wants to upload embarrassing information to the Internet, all that content is fair game, but she doesn’t want Oh Internet to be a place where personal info and dirty laundry is easily posted and distributed. Leave that to 4chan.
The Cheezburger Network
It started with a supremely stupid image macro featuring a chubby British Shorthair cat. The happy cat photo was captioned with the line “I Can Has Cheezburger?” and eventually launched a media empire. The image was originally posted to Something Awful in the tradition of 4chan’s lolcats. A blogger named Eric Nakagawa thought the lolcat was hilarious, so he created a blog to document funny cat photos.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, a start-up kid named Ben Huh was running a tiny blog about being a pet owner in Seattle. Fate struck when Nakagawa hot-linked one of Ben Huh’s animal photos and brought down Huh’s server with an avalanche of traffic. Also known as inline linking, this means Nakagawa linked directly to Huh’s image rather than hosting the image on his own server. It’s considered a supremely dickish move because the hot-linker gets to benefit from featuring the image while the other guy has to deal with the traffic it generates. Huh called Nakagawa and told him to cut it out.
Huh’s initial annoyance gave way to curiosity. If this goofy site had crashed his server, it must be getting a ton of traffic. So he helped Nakagawa manage the site for a while, and then offered to buy it.
The blog was already hugely popular, but Huh spun the thing into a network of meme-oriented blogs that had the sort of numbers major newspapers would envy, with the flagship site achieving over ten million daily hits.
Huh insists that he wasn’t buying a site so much as the potential for a vibrant community. He’d seen the way online communities like 4chan work together to create a vast canon of something approaching modern folk art. The trick was getting the fad out of /b/ and into mom’s and dad’s laps.
Huh expanded the network to include a site for loldogs called I Has a Hotdog. There’s Daily Squee, a site for cute pictures of all kinds (not just animals). You can probably guess what My Food Looks Funny is about.
Then there’s FAIL Blog. The use of fail as a noun began to pop up on the web in 2008. It derives from a bit of Engrish from a video game called Blazing Star. If you lose, the game tells you, “You fail it! Your skill is not enough! See you next time! Bye bye!” The term eventually evolved to include the mirror term win, and related terms epic fail and—you guessed it—epic win.
FAIL Blog is one of the biggest sites in the Cheezburger roster, essentially an America’s Funniest Home Videos–style clearinghouse for videos and images illustrating extreme human stupidity. This expansion of the Cheezburger brand has itself spawned Failbook (Facebook fails), Engrish Funny (self-explanatory), There I Fixed It (dangerously lazy or inept repairs), and After 12 (party fails).
There’s also The Daily What, a tremendously popular Tumblr blog, which in just a few years cornered the market on meme-oriented news with its staggering publishing speed, though much of its coverage is scraped directly from Reddit. TDW has recently diversified into TDW Geek and TDW Tease, which cover geek news and racy content, respectively.
A handful of other random meme-oriented sites rounds out the Cheezburger Network. Advice animal memes, demotivational posters, GIFs, trolls, RageToons, and more. Basically, if Huh sees a meme trending on 4chan or Reddit and he thinks it’s strong enough, he builds a blog around it. These blogs print money, and this is where Huh starts to draw criticism.
“You’re stealing our memes!” screams 4chan. “You’re profiting off our hard work!” cries Reddit. That’s a big question guys like Ben Huh are facing right now. Who owns these memes? The person who created the source material? The person who Photoshopped or otherwise augmented it? The community where it was originally posted? The community that helped it go viral? These are questions that content producers and intellectual property lawyers are currently wrestling with.
The Hitler biopic Downfall features a scene in which Adolf goes on a tirade, realizing that he’s lost the war. Hundreds of YouTube parodists used the video and audio footage from the scene, but changed the subtitles to suggest Hitler was freaking out over something else, like the price of the iPad. As the meme spread, the producers of the film tried to have the clips removed. But the more they fought to suppress the meme, the faster it spread. The conflict between the memesters and the creators of the source material ended with the creators throwing up their hands in defeat. It was simply impossible for YouTube to keep the stuff down. One particularly meta iteration of the meme showcased Hitler bemoaning the takedown notices. Today, the meme is recreated in the wake of every major controversy or hot topic. If something’s big in the news, there almost certainly will be a Downfall parody.
Imagine a guy spends two hours creating a Downfall parody video that gets posted all over Reddit and eventually Gawker, which doesn’t give the remixer credit. The guy sends a furious complaint to Gawker, claiming that he put his heart and soul into that remix and he should receive credit for his work. But what about the community that made the clip go viral? And while we’re at it, what about the original film studio? The actors, director, producer, makeup artist, and on and on down the line? Who deserves credit when there are so many people involved in meme creation, even some who never wanted to create a viral hit?
Huh admits that he’ll catch flak no matter who gets credit.
People say, “I am part of this community, which had a hand in making the meme, it’s to our credit, even though I personally had nothing to do with it” [or] “Hey, that image came from Reddit!” It didn’t come from Reddit. We do the best we can; even though, in this example, Reddit is the popularizer, credit belongs elsewhere.
Ben Huh can’t remember life before the web. His father was computer savvy, teaching his young son how to take apart a computer and put it back together. But it wasn’t until Huh saw ICHC that he recognized something special was happening online. It was while he worked for Eric Nakagawa that Huh discovered 4chan.
I initially assumed it was just another forum, but it was like, “Oh my God.” Very eye opening. It gave me some insight as to how memes formed there and why it’s such a breeding ground. You would post something and have to rely on the digital and psychological memory of someone else.
I asked Huh why he thinks his sites have been such successes, and he draws from an offline analogy, the celebrity sighting.
Think of you telling a friend, “I just saw Brett Favre.” There’s no benefit to you sharing that information, but there is, biologically speaking, when you associate yourself with something greater than you. Not because you’re giving them a piece of advice. I can tell you something funny or show you what’s popular; therefore my status in the community increases somewhat. There’s that powerful association.
This powerful association is what drives the memesphere.
In the mid-2000s, pretty much every media portal came up with some kind of web 2.0 strategy that would help it harness and monetize user-generated content. No site pulled this off better than Buzzfeed, though it had the advantage of starting from scratch. Co-founder Jonah Peretti was also responsible for the Contagious Media Festival and for cofounding the web 2.0 news blog The Huffington Post, where he learned a thing or two about viral content.
Peretti coined the term, the Bored at Work network, which he considered to be a vast untapped demographic made up of millions of cube farm drones, already sitting at computers, looking for quick bits of distraction while their bosses attend meetings. And not only looking for viral content, but also already on Gchat, Twitter, or Facebook too, ready to forward content to their buddies. The key to tapping this far-reaching market, according to Peretti, is letting them decide what’s popular.
Buzzfeed, launched in 2006, is powered by an algorithm that monitors over 120 million unique pages across hundreds of media portals like Time, Aol News, and TMZ, taking into account social sharing on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Stumbleupon. When the algorithm determines that a piece of content is going viral, it sends a red flag to Buzzfeed’s editorial team. Buzzfeed also opens up its site to direct submissions from Buzzfeed users, who have the ability to tag and vote on pieces of content.
Buzzfeed Senior Editor Scott Lamb started out at an alternative weekly in San Francisco after graduating, and was immediately drawn to working on the website rather than the paper. He first recognized viral content as something new and interesting when he was introduced to the All Your Base Are Belong to Us phenomenon.
They say you can’t force a meme. And that’s true. What you can do, though, is create the right environment for one to take off. And memes, most of them, have some element of social imperative, something inherent in them that makes you want to share. We’re at this cool point where we all have access to easy social sharing, which I think mimics a lot of the roots of meme culture in boards, where people could easily and quickly read and respond to one another.
Buzzfeed also employs an in-house editorial team of meme-meisters, all with keen eyes for what could go viral. The editors monitor places like Reddit and Tumblr, spotting content that their robot might miss. They also create their own custom content, such as a list of pop starlets with chiseled male chests, and approve submissions from the algorithm and the users. Of course, everything is integrated into major social networks so users can easily share content and spot what’s already trending where. Each piece of content submitted to the site has the potential to earn badges that say things like LOL, OMG, or Fail, which give the site a colorful, fun vibe.
And so every day, editors, users, and machines team up to create a steady drip of simple, shareable, and sticky content that’s easy to consume in bite-sized chunks. They are constantly trying new things, tweaking the algorithm, and killing what doesn’t work.
Though Lamb recognizes the influence of 4chan, he’s quick to concede that Good Morning America–type mainstream content still pulls tremendous weight on the Internet. But those big media entities are increasingly waiting for content to percolate on the web so they can pounce on buzz-worthy content.
I also asked Lamb the obligatory “future of journalism” question. While he recognizes the power of Buzzfeed’s model, he reminds me that Buzzfeed does not do any actual reportage—no interviews, no articles, nothing. They’re curators, and we’ll always need people doing the journalistic legwork, even if serious news sites trend toward a Buzzfeed-like model.
Know Your Meme
Google any meme. Chances are, within the first page of results, there’s an entry for it on Know Your Meme. That’s because it’s the best place to figure out the who, what, when, where, and why of memetic culture.
Kenyatta Cheese, Jamie Wilkinson, and Elspeth Jane Rountree were working at Rocketboom, a web video company that produces a daily web news show. They were on 4chan every day, spending a lot of time on Encyclopedia Dramatica, and talking about the weird little subculture. Over time they started to notice that a lot of the stuff in that world was showing up in the mainstream. They’d notice an Adult Swim ad here, or a commercial there, that referenced somewhat obscure memes that in most cases weren’t being credited to the original creator.
Thus was born the Rocketboom Institute for Internet Studies, a tongue-in-cheek laboratory conceit wherein the institute analyzed memetic culture as video segments under the Rocketboom brand. Meanwhile, Jamie Wilkinson built a database platform in order to store information that would supplement the existing Know Your Meme video series. The database’s popularity would eventually outstrip not only the Know Your Meme videos, but the Rocketboom series as well. It’s a wiki site like Encyclopedia Dramatica, but generally safe for work, approachable for noobs, and with an added layer of straight-faced analysis and editorial control provided by a staff of Internet culture experts.
The typical KYM entry begins with a short introduction to the meme, along with a video or image representation. Then it sources the meme as best it can, along with charts representing Google search trends and social media stats. A description of why the meme is funny or interesting within the context of the memesphere usually follows. Finally, a few dozen examples of derivatives and mashups, followed by a place for commenters to discuss.
KYM is driven by user submissions, but on most entries at least one staff member is listed as one of the editors. Cheese believes the ease of use for the random user is integral to the site’s value.
There’s the person who comes to us and says ‘I saw this one image macro appear on a thread on such and such a forum back in 2003, and here’s the link.’ Sometimes that bit of information is more important than the high-level analysis from someone who’s an expert in cultural theory.
According to Cheese, you have to be somewhat familiar with 4chan to be able to wrap your head around meme culture.
Most of the real rules of 4chan are not explicit. They’re things that you only understand after being a part of the culture. You have to hang around lurking for months before you get a handle on what’s acceptable, or what will be successful. And you can only be a part of the culture if you’re willing to be infected by it. You can’t go in as a journalist or a marketer hoping to figure them out. You won’t.
Of course, that doesn’t stop social media “rock stars” from trying. Cheese says that about a quarter of the submissions at KYM are suspected of coming directly from content producers and creative agencies hoping to make their stuff go viral, but weeding out these forced memes is easy if you know anything about how Internet culture works.
There has been some tension between Know Your Meme and 4chan for a few reasons. /b/tards don’t like it when anyone explains their subculture to NORPs (or normal ordinary respectable person; shorthand for someone whose mind hasn’t been warped by the horrors of 4chan). And while /b/tards are happy to contribute to the memesphere anonymously and for no pay, when someone else starts selling T-shirts, people can get nasty.
4chan thought KYM wanted to commoditize, but we loved this stuff. Most of us had artist backgrounds, who were hyperaware of the market commoditization of culture. That’s not what we wanted for web culture.
Of course, it’s not like Know Your Meme was ever hugely profitable (but it was acquired in March 2011 by Ben Huh’s Cheezburger network, so that’s probably going to change). Cheese sees KYM almost as a public service that sustained itself in order to properly archive and analyze stuff that no one in academia seemed willing or able to preserve properly.
We think of the Internet as being this place for information to live permanently, but if there’s no market value in keeping something online, it could be lost forever.
I started a Tumblr blog three years ago, when it was being positioned as a place for creative types to easily upload and share their stuff. At the time there was a little corner of the social network made up of New York media types who used their Tumblr blogs to post writing they couldn’t sell. These bloggers were witty, insightful, and happy to engage with people (like me) who didn’t have impressive media credentials, as long as they had something interesting to say.
Tumblr is a simple, streamlined blogging platform that allows users to follow one another, like on Twitter. The posts from the people you follow are collected in a feed, viewable in the Dashboard. Integral to the site’s design is the Reblog function, which is used in lieu of comments. It copies someone’s post to your blog, allowing you to add your comments. Then the original poster can re-reblog your post, if she wants. This creates a conversation, and allows people to riff on each other’s creative work. It’s a perfect platform for meme creation.
Tumblr was founded in 2007 by David Karp, a high school dropout who taught himself to code, and a small group of developers in New York. One member of the team, Christopher Price, is tasked with managing the community of communities and facilitating its growth. No easy task, considering that people use Tumblr for as many different purposes as you can imagine. Price’s enthusiasm and knack for creating things that people wanted to share caught the attention of the Tumblr team, and they hired him. His personal Tumblr blog reads, “I work at Tumblr. I live in Manhattan. Dinosaurs are awesome,” underneath a googly-eyed close-up photo of his face. His goofy online persona has become something of a Tumblr mascot.
Price tells me that the democratizing effect of the Internet excites him the most about the present age. Everyone now has the ability to find a huge audience for their work, whereas just a few decades ago the reach was limited to those who could buy the biggest radio towers.
Most of the Tumblr employees post a few times a day, but Price, going by “Topherchris,” outpaces them all by far. This is a man who unabashedly loves memes, and he spends a sizable portion of his workday experimenting with them—seeing what works and what doesn’t, tapping the community to create interesting new things. Unlike his coworkers, Price’s online persona is silly, reflective of his childlike love for his medium of choice.
I asked him why he’s so interested in memes.
There’s a spot in Argentina called Cueva de las Manos, or Cave of the Hands. About 9,000 years ago, humans started painting images of their favorite food there, the guanaco. It’s like a llama. It’s no lolcat, but they’re cute. Then, about 7,000 years ago, something happened. People started putting up hand stencils. You’d put one hand up on the wall, hold your bone-made pipe in your other hand, and blow paint through it towards the wall and your hand.
Why did people do this? Maybe it was an adolescent rite of passage. Maybe there are religious implications. Maybe they just thought it looked cool. What we do know is that somebody did it first. And then it was copied. And so on. Scattered amongst all these negative relief stencils of hands are a few paintings of positive relief hands. (That is, instead of a painting of the outline of a hand, it’s a painting of a hand itself.) Think about that. Somebody approached this wall of stencils and said, “Here’s another way to do that.” That right there was the apex of meme technology at the time. Today we open things in Photoshop and hit “invert.” Memes are our culture. Memes are our language. Memes use whatever technology is available.
Price lives and breathes Tumblr. He says it “pokes a spot in my brain that feels good,” because it’s so rewarding to share something he’s made with others, to know they’ve appreciated it and to watch them share it with their friends.
With over 3 million users, it’s safe to say that Tumblr is mainstream, though pockets of the Tumblrverse are still as bizarre as can be. Consider Summer of Megadeth, a collective of NYC media malcontents who started a group blog (or glog) with no clear editorial mission other than to crack vaguely heavy metal–related jokes, mainly at the expense of New York media fameballs and random celebrities/pop personalities. Other times it’s a place to complain about Tumblr. Or talk feminism. Or post twenty images of Warren Zevon in a row. The Calvinball concept is truly at play at SoM.
One member is the editor of a prominent music site. Another is an art director at an LA ad agency. Some are unemployed. A favorite meme is to uphold contrarian ideals that are typically seen as wimpy or “not very metal” and proclaim them as “so fucking metal” (Steely Dan being the example that comes to mind). The group’s appreciation for schlocky heavy metal music is not dissimilar from 4chan’s obsession with cute cats. SoM is actively antagonistic to outsiders, telling any confused onlookers to “delete your Tumblr.” It relies heavily on an impenetrable, multilayered network of metal slang, ever-changing puns and recurring meme gags that ward off most people who wander onto the blog wondering what it’s all about. It’s said that if you’re following SoM, you’re missing the point. More recently members have taken to switching up the URL of the site so the casually interested have difficulty finding it. According to insiders, all the real action is happening in the back channel, a legendary email thread only accessible to the blog’s mysterious contributors.
One contributor named Rendit described the site’s aesthetic:
It’s really quite simple. Someone dumb (me) comes up with an almost-funny joke and represents it in the basest, most simplistic, and talentless way. Then! Someone smart does it again much better, making actual reference to the source of the comedy and his or her work. After that, one of our members . . . will apply the image to an incongruous situation, perhaps making a comment on the tumblrtroversy of the moment. Hours later, [the aforementioned member] will show us all up with something like what you see above [a clever photoshop], but by then we’ve all forgotten what the joke was in the first place. And yet it lives on!
Like 4chan, it takes effort to appreciate Summer of Megadeth’s nuances. You have to possess both a deep cultural understanding (and a knack for looking things up quickly when you don’t get the joke) in order to make sense of any of it. Wordplay stacked on wordplay. Jokes are twisted, rearranged, recontextualized, self-referenced, connected to ancient, obscure callbacks. But when the meme du jour hits, and you really get it, there are few things more rewarding. They are drawing on a rich tapestry of rapidly evolving cultural tradition. If Tumblr has a /b/, it’s right here.
There is a meme that states that 4chan users aren’t supposed to like Tumblr users, because they’re a bunch of artfag hipsters who steal 4chan’s memes. This antagonism peaked with a “war” in November 2010, when /b/tards launched Operation Overlord, perhaps the dumbest and most ineffectual among the raids that were able to grab press. They planned to set up a bunch of dummy Tumblr accounts, build huge follower bases, and then flood users’ dashboards with festish porn and gore, ultimately hoping to take Tumblr down with a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack. Some Tumblr users retaliated even more ineffectually by spamming 4chan with references to Tumblr, Twilight, Harry Potter, and other cutesy imagery they knew would annoy /b/. But as one /b/tard put it, “Raiding /b/ is like pissing in an ocean of piss.”
For the last two years, hundreds have gathered at MIT to attend a very silly conference called ROFLCon (ROFL, which means rolling on the floor laughing, is a stronger variant of LOL). Reputable academics mingle with cosplayers. Internet nerds meet the stars of memes gone by. The conference attempts to host careful analysis of memetic culture and promotes the collection and preservation of Internet ephemera. Most of all, it’s a lighthearted celebration of all things webby.
The primary organizer of the event is Tim Hwang, a researcher for the Barbarian Group, the meme-friendly digital agency. He’s also part of the Web Ecology Project, an organization dedicated to the preservation of digital culture and folklore. The Web Ecology Project’s latest project is a complete, downloadable archive of Encyclopedia Dramatica.
The germ of ROFLCon began when Hwang attended an event built around the popular nerdy webcomic xkcd in nearby Somerville, Massachusetts. xkcd is drawn and authored by Randall Munroe, who, before he was able to make a living from his stick-figure doodles, worked for NASA as a roboticist. xkcd is a powerhouse in the memesphere (for example, Munroe once created a site called http://www.wetriffs.com after bemoaning a lack of “guitar-in-shower” pornography on the web—a nod to Rule #34), and nearly all of Munroe’s comics get the kind of hits most newspapers would kill for. The event was a simple meet-up based on nerd culture, but way too many people showed up.
So in 2008, Hwang and his friends decided to put on a legit convention for Internet nerdery. They brought in academics to comment on Internet culture and invited meme stars to hang out too. It was a big success, garnering glowing press. Even Tron Guy showed up!
Tron Guy, aka Jay Maynard, was a flabby programmer whose spandex costume inspired by Disney’s Tron went viral in 2004 via Slashdot and Fark, reaching a peak with appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Tron Guy can be seen as a representative for people who display their unassuming quirkiness on the web. There’s Peter Pan impersonator Randy Constan, Michael Blount of “Hello My Future Girlfriend,” Ginger Kid, and countless more, but Tron Guy was one of the first. Like many meme celebrities, his appearance on the web was initially met with derision. But his appearance at ROFLCon was met with rapturous applause. Here was a guy who was doing his thing and simply could not give a damn what anyone else thought. Welcome to the Internet, where nerds are free to self-actualize to their hearts’ content.
ROFLCon had a panel that included the guy who designed the Three Wolf Moon shirt, along with the first Amazon reviewer, drilling down to deep levels of what Hwang calls “micro-micro-microfame.” The Three Wolf Moon is a kitschy t-shirt that would not look out of place on your stereotypical basement dweller or, these days, worn ironically on a hipster bass player. The shirt got thousands of reviews on Amazon, far outpacing sales. Reviewing the thing became a lightly competitive game. The goal was to come up with funny, creative ways to describe the Three Wolf Moon shirt. The top-rated review begins:
This item has wolves on it which makes it intrinsically sweet and worth 5 stars by itself, but once I tried it on, that’s when the magic happened. After checking to ensure that the shirt would properly cover my girth, I walked from my trailer to Wal-mart with the shirt on and was immediately approached by women.
The shirt became a meme, parodied by CollegeHumor and covered by several major papers. This is the sort of phenomenon that the ROFLCon folks love to pick apart, analyze and commemorate.
Hwang’s fascination with meme-dom began with early memes like Hamster Dance, Zombocom, and other single-destination sites. He recalls that Hamster Dance, like many sites of the day, had a stats ticker at the bottom of the page, so you could watch how big the thing was getting, and how quickly. He first recognized that Internet culture had bled into the mainstream when he saw Rick Astley perform “Never Gonna Give You Up” at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2008.
Hwang first encountered 4chan in middle school. He claims that at the time, a big part of the attraction to the Internet was finding nasty things to send to his friends. At the time he and his buddies were passing around a lot of Rotten and Stile Project links. At some point, this gave way to 4chan content.
As an informal meme historian, Hwang recognizes the cultural import of 4chan.
The content 4chan produces is so powerful. We are increasingly moving away from the Internet as it existed in the mid-90s. There was no one trying to commercialize or police it. We are also moving towards non-anonymization. On 4chan, you have to shape who you are by what you’re doing. It also brings it back demographically to the way things were when I was first discovering the web.
According to Hwang, 4chan matters for two reasons. First, its users are “white blood cells” of the Internet, because they perform vigilante justice—against people who harm animals, for instance. He points to the increasing role that 4chan users have in geopolitics, as they have successfully brought down the sites of massive multinational corporations. Second, Hwang claims that although 4chan exists as this “other” state outside of the rest of life online, it is an important part of the web’s cultural production.
Hwang laughs at the raw visual power of the Xzibit meme, which 4chan kick-started in 2007. You may know Xzibit as a rapper and host of the MTV show Pimp My Ride. But on the Internet, he’s become so closely linked with his meme that the usual words used to caption image macros are no longer necessary; his smiling face says it all.
Pimp My Ride featured Xzibit and his gearhead crew retrofitting jalopies with outlandish accoutrements like flat-screen TVs or fish tanks. Xzibit would often say something along the lines of, “Yo/Sup dawg, I heard you like Xbox so we put an Xbox in your car so you can play Xbox on the road.” A clever Photoshopper recognized this recurring line and made an image macro featuring a grimacing Xzibit captioned with, “Yo dawg, I herd u like cars so we put a car in yo car so you can drive while u drive.”
The meme was a massive hit straight out of the gate. It’s gotten to the point where just the picture of Xzibit’s smiling face sans caption suggests recursion. The meme culminated two years later with a fuming Twitter response from an understandably frustrated Xzibit (I mean, the guy was a respected gangsta rapper at one point):
Everybody with the “sup dawg” shit can find the highest place in your house and jump on something sharp to kill yourselves.it’s fucking old.
No matter how trivial memes like this may seem, millions of people participate in them every day. Tim Hwang’s trying to figure out why. This kind of humor is just a sliver in the wider world of meme culture that he hopes to explore through ROFLCon and the Web Ecology Project. Naysayers look at something like the Xzibit meme and see a corny joke at best, but folks like Hwang see nothing less than tiny revolutions in entertainment, media, and human social interaction. Even moot showed up at the last ROFLCon after giving a TED Talk.
In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky argues that the web is making us smarter, collectively. Humanity is working together like never before, each individual contributing something so minute as a single correction to an obscure Wikipedia entry or a photograph uploaded to Flickr. Even our Google queries help the search giant perfect its algorithms. Whether we realize it or not, we are behaving as a hive mind, and those tiny trivial inputs add up to monumental social change.
4chan’s influence in the memesphere isn’t going anywhere soon, but Reddit is definitely catching up. Reddit is currently the biggest social content aggregator, recently taking the reins from Digg after that site’s troubled redesign. Reddit users post pieces of content and “upvote” ones they like or “downvote” ones they don’t. Even comments can be upvoted or downvoted, which makes browsing comment threads sorted by vote count half the fun.
For our purposes, the Condé Nast–owned but still very nerdy Reddit is interesting for three reasons. First, it acts as a gateway between 4chan and the rest of the Internet. Second, it’s a place where the mainstream media has recently gone to routinely scrape through content for news. Third, it facilitates meme creation that rewards users in a way that 4chan doesn’t.
Reddit is a good gatekeeper for 4chan because its users are immersed in a meme-saturated environment—but it’s not anonymous and everything is archived, so its users don’t act like sociopaths. There’s also an incentive to be nice, or at least comprehensible, since everything that’s said can be rated by fellow Redditors.
What truly sets Reddit apart is subreddits, which are tiny communities for infinitely granular subject areas. Where most sites would create tags for topics like “Tech,” “Gaming,” “News,” and “Sports,” Reddit allows its users to create their own tags, which quickly turn into tiny little communities that in many ways have replaced special interest blogs. For instance, I’m not into video games so much anymore, but I still play Starcraft, so I follow the Starcraft subreddit. It’s very specific Starcraft news, all the time. I follow several dozen other subreddits, each pulling content from hundreds of blogs across the web, each sorted for the most interesting and funny content, and each appended with scintillating conversation. It’s a fantastic platform that combines a high-level overview of the web with magnified looks at only the things I find interesting. I typically check Reddit every few hours to see what’s going on in my world.
Reddit has become nearly as adept at creating memes as 4chan. Consider the Inglip mythos. Inglip is a RageToon-based series of comics built on the random pairings of words spit out by reCAPTCHA, a Google-owned user authentication service that forces users to type out squiggly words in order to let web pages know that they’re not SPAM robots. It all started when one Redditor found the words “inglip summoned” in a reCAPTCHA. He made a comic alluding to an ancient Lovecraftian deity (“Inglip has been summoned. It has begun”). Then another user followed up with the reCAPTCHA result “called gropagas,” which he preceded with a question:
I hope our dedication to your lordship has been satisfactory. Tell me, oh great Inglip, what should your followers call themselves?
“As you wish, my lord. We are the gropagas and united, we will take the world in your name!”
Hundreds of responses followed, fleshing out the Inglip mythos. And it’s all based on randomly generated words. A few years ago, this sort of collaborative metahumor would have been found only on 4chan (or maybe Something Awful), but the rest of the Internet, with Reddit leading the charge, has caught up.
Reddit has also reappropriated 4chan’s Ask Me Anything, or AMA threads, which have attracted some major celebrities in addition to nerd icons like moot.
The all-time top verified AMA threads include those of 74-time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, actor Bruce Campbell, Columbine shooting survivor Brooks Brown, and a former Marine One crew chief. Unverified AMA threads, which are often even more interesting, include a military whistleblower, a girl who spent 16 months as a full-time BDSM slave, a person who was caught and tortured during recent rioting in Egypt, a man who only answers questions using MS Paint, a brain cancer victim with 2–6 months to live, and a four-year-old girl (with help from her dad). After a few controversies in which AMA posters were revealed to be trolls, Reddit has taken steps to integrate a verification process.
When moot gave an AMA on Reddit on March 29th, 2011, most of the questions about Canvas, his new startup, dealt with his team’s decision to integrate Facebook Connect into the site’s private beta-testing period. Basically, if you wanted to be a part of Canvas, you had to reveal your identity. 4chan diehards felt betrayed. Their patron saint of anonymity had given up the good fight in order to cash in.
The top comment, which received over thirteen hundred votes, read, “How do you justify rallying against the lack of anonymity that Facebook provides and then requiring it for your next project?”
I think it’s important to understand the difference between advocating for anonymous contribution, and a pro-anonymity-is-the-only-way!!!!! zealot. (I’m the former!)
I want the public to understand the importance of having the option to contribute anonymously. At SXSW, I focused on anonymous authenticity, and the creativity that anonymity allows for. The ability to fail quietly without having that failure associated with your name/identity allows for more experimentation and limit pushing. People also contribute in a totally raw, unfiltered way, that I’d argue is more authentic than real-ID [An ID authentication measure taken by game developer Blizzard to link players’ in-game and forum identities with their real names].
He went on to outline some times when identity is preferable, such as places that experience lots of low-quality comments, like YouTube and TechCrunch. One detractor replied:
His worldview is balanced, if that’s what you mean, but he answered nothing at all. Nothing proves to me that he won’t use information from my account, just as nothing proves to me that Facebook itself won’t. And we know they do. So his answer was the same as saying “please trust me”. Well I won’t.
But most respondents were OK with it. Of course, this was Reddit, not 4chan.
4chan uses basically the same software that it did when it started out, which itself was antiquated by the standards of the day. moot’s vision for Canvas is a web community that takes advantage of faster browsing capability as well as the lessons he’s learned from eight years of running 4chan. To fill that community with users who are going to push the platform forward, he’s going to have to weed out trolls. The Facebook Connect integration is probably a good start. Canvas isn’t 4chan 2.0.
It’s basically a user-friendly, browser-based image-editing tool connected to an imageboard with light social networking features. It’s simple for people who don’t have editing ability or don’t have a copy of Photoshop, and because it’s hosted online you don’t have to upload and download and reformat and resize in order to move content from your computer to the web. Ninety-nine percent of the people remixing images on Facebook (or 4chan, for that matter) don’t need tools as robust as Photoshop because they’re mostly only adding text or slapping a layer over an existing image. Canvas’s remixing tool allows users to do these things. What’s more, it’s all archived, so users can post an image and watch their friends create genuinely clever remixes over time, without having to worry that it’s going to fall off the edge in a few hours. Everything is shareable on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Surely they’re working on integration with Reddit.
I’m looking at Canvas as I write, in May 2011. Someone has posted a blank page with the words “What is Canvas?” written on it. It was posted five days ago in the #drawing thread, so it’s encouraging other users to draw response images. The first reply has written “a website” in the blank space and earned 9 stickers. The stickers represent basic emotional responses (happy face, sad face, heart, question mark, etc.). This response has earned some of each, but it looks like the smarty face, represented by a smiley with a distinguished mustache and monocle, is winning out.
Another has written a small essay within the image.
I begin by scrolling around, learning my way navigating throughout the site. It is interesting to see the amount of stuff I have already seen, and very quickly I realize, this is SFW. I get excited. I continue to look around and discover the ‘remix’ button. So I try it out and post a relatively funny picture (in my opinion). Nothing happens. I go to bed, thinking I am very unfunny.
I wake up in the morning with a cookie and two lol stickers and it’s such a relief. I mean, I hardly got to sleep last night. So I find another popular thread, and post another idea I have. It immediately gets a #1 and a smiley and I get very excited and tell my friend. Then I go to bed.
I wake up the next morning to find that I have received over 50 #1 stickers. I am ecstatic and I go through the rest of my day overjoyed. I continue to read and post and come up with funny pictures, and even show my girlfriend the webpage because of how excited I am. Then my picture appears on the ‘best’ tab and I’m like FUCK YEA.
What is canv.as you ask me?
The greatest thing ever.
The post has 16 stickers and one comment: “dude your post rocks. long live canv.as!” The next post remixes the essay with a giant “TL;DR” plastered on top. (Too long; didn’t read, a common 4chan dismissal for anything longer than a few sentences.) The next remixer answers the question, “What is canvas?” with a picture of actual canvas, the kind painters use.
I think this thing’s going to be huge.
The News Media
Today there is a tremendous pressure on journalists to “create” viral content. When I was writing about memes for an Internet culture blog called Urlesque, I spent a lot of time tracking how the mainstream media picked up on memes, and over the course of 2010 I noticed that reporters were increasingly relying on Reddit to find news.
In January 2011, a Cleveland man took a video of a local homeless guy named Ted Williams, who happened to have a trained “golden radio voice,” and posted the footage on YouTube. The video eventually found its way to Reddit, with the poster hoping that maybe a fellow user might be able to offer Williams some voice work. The footage of this down-on-his-luck, scraggly homeless guy juxtaposed with his sonorous voice shocked the community, and dozens came forward to help out. One offered to buy Williams a phone, another a suit, another studio time, and still more offered producing and editing services. Over a dozen Redditors specifically offered work in the Cleveland area. This outpouring of generosity is par for the course on Reddit, a mirror image of 4chan’s collaborative destruction.
Within a day, Williams started getting coverage and interviews at every major news outlet. One particular story caught my eye. Indianapolis’s Fox affiliate wanted a piece of that “homeless person with an unexpected talent” pie, so they sent a reporter out in the dead of winter and asked various homeless people if they had any special talents. The reporter asked them if they’d seen the footage of Ted Williams (what?) and told them that he was given a new house and job for his talents. One woman’s eyes lit up with the realization that this could be her ticket out of destitution and she sang a soulful gospel tune. It was an unsettling display of the worst kind of bandwagon journalism, showing just how desperate the media is to be a part of the meme of the day. The video has since been taken down.
The Entertainment Industry
The relationship between show business and the web is strained. Only very recently have entertainment execs come to view the web as a unique platform for interactive content rather than just another channel to cram their existing products into. The influence of the memesphere can be seen moving in both directions. Cable TV shows like Tosh.0 and Best Week Ever focus heavily on the viral content of the moment. Late-night TV hosts joke about viral sensations. Morning talk shows bring on victims of trolling and YouTube microcelebrities.
Stephen Colbert gave a nod to Anonymous in February 2011, having previously flirted with Reddit on his show. For a split second, a Guy Fawkes mask (the Anonymous calling card) was superimposed over Colbert’s face, leading many to believe that Anonymous had hacked into the broadcast and was sending a subliminal message to viewers. Others speculated that it was a winking recognition of the hacktivist group, expressing solidarity with their aims. It turned out to be a joke coming from inside the Colbert camp, which was used as a setup for a segment later that week.
On the other side, we see mainstream entertainment dipping its toes into the web. Celebrities now interact directly with their fan bases through Twitter. Conan O’Brien harnesses his vast network of Facebook fans with Team Coco. Bands signed to mainstream labels, such as OK Go, court YouTube audiences with videos produced with clever gimmickry engineered for viral success. Rocker Andrew W.K. recently did a live Q&A with 4chan, the first of its kind.
In strict terms, not much has changed but the technology. Entertainers have always wanted to create memes. The Internet just allows them to do so much more rapidly, cheaply, and to greater effect.
The Advertising Industry
Advertisers are increasingly recognizing the power of Internet memes. For example, Jennifer Aniston recently did a spot for smartwater featuring a host of Internet microcelebrities and cute cats in an attempt to jokingly reference the advertising industry’s recent obsession with memetic culture.
I talked to Rick Webb, co-founder of the Barbarian Group, a digital ad agency based in NYC, about a viral project he helped conceive back in 2001 for Crispin Porter + Bogusky client Burger King. Streaming video had only recently become available to a majority of households, and ad agencies were beginning to take notice. That year, BMW had unleashed The Hire, a short film series produced, directed, and starring Hollywood A-listers. It was hugely successful, and opened up streaming video as a viable advertising platform.
But the Internet isn’t just another visual channel. It allows for interactive content, and BMW’s films, while innovatively placed, did little to take advantage of the Internet’s core competencies.
Rick Webb was drawn to the web at an early age, when he discovered Usenet, a good way to connect with like-minded folks from outside his native Alaska. Webb’s interests ran toward the countercultural, and the Internet fed his passions. Rick eventually found his way to Manhattan, where he now manages digital campaigns for global clients.
Before the blog era, a grassroots marketing strategy was, in Webb’s words, “horrible and no fun.”
It generally involved commenting on message boards, IM and email spamming, astroturfing [drumming up interest in a product or service by creating the illusion of an extant grassroots movement], and the like. We didn’t do it. We focused on making great things and using what tools we had at the time—email, IM, traditional PR and maybe a little LiveJournal—to get it in front of people and get it to spread. But for those who wanted to pay to catalyze a meme, it was generally pretty sketchy. Lots of pretending to be enthusiasts on message boards.
Webb spends a lot of time coming up with memes for clients. Today he doesn’t have to start from square one every time because the social web allows the Barbarian Group to maintain a constant identity on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogs of its employees. And they don’t just blog about marketing stuff. Webb himself maintains a Tumblr blog dedicated mostly to the indie rock of his youth. His followers recognize that he represents an ad agency, but he’s also a real human being. People who have no interest in “the biz” follow him because he’s interesting, and he doesn’t use his various platforms to jam marketing messaging down their throats.
When we did the chicken, the meme was initially propagated almost exclusively via email and some IM. Now we have all these tools and technologies that foster meme propagation. Twitter, Facebook Like, Tumblr, StumbleUpon and Buzzfeed are the big ones. None of those existed before.
When Webb wants to launch a viral campaign, he knows he can get it in front of ten or twenty thousand people (some of whom are journalists and powerful tastemakers) without spending a single media dollar.
So what’s this “chicken” all about? Burger King had a longtime tagline, “Have it Your Way,” and was trying to promote a new chicken sandwich. CP+B partnered with the Barbarian Group to create the Subservient Chicken, a campaign that would almost immediately go down as a classic advertising case study in every college marketing textbook.
Here’s how it worked. If you went to Burger King’s website and clicked on the appropriate link, you’d see a loading screen that read, “Contacting Chicken.” Then a small Flash window appeared featuring a man in a chicken suit and a text field reading, “Get chicken just the way you like it. Type in your command here.”
The first thing I typed back in 2001 was fight. To my delight, the chicken adopted a sword-fighting stance and began to parry and thrust at the camera. I typed in a naughty word. The chicken put his hands on his hips, walked to the camera, and shook his head disapprovingly.
Wait, what? Did they actually hire a guy to stand there all day performing commands?
Of course they didn’t. They polled their agencies internally, asking, “What would you tell the chicken to do?” They pared thousands of responses down to the four hundred most common commands, and filmed responses for them all.
Trying to create an Internet meme was new territory for ad agencies. How were they able to convince the burger giant to run with such a wacky idea?
Luck. Small budget. Couldn’t hurt. Amazing sales on the part of CP + B. Marketers were also learning about the concept of viral marketing at that time via think pieces in AdAge and were willing to experiment with very small amounts of their budgets.
Webb says that smart marketing departments have experimental budgets that they devote to playing with emerging trends. The Barbarian Group subsisted on those small experimental budgets until the chicken changed everything. The campaign was a raging success, one of the earliest examples of an agency harnessing the power of viral content. It cost almost nothing, and generated loads of traffic for the client. It was the first of its kind, establishing proof that viral marketing could work. “After that,” says Webb, “the floodgates opened.”
Advertisers have been trying to replicate the success of Subservient Chicken ever since. Webb says that brands are now more willing to be authentic and honest than they were before the rise of the Internet. In order to achieve success in the memesphere, they have to be able to create something that’s interesting enough to watch or experience, but also something people will want to share.
When I showed Webb the Jennifer Aniston video, he had to laugh.
What you see here, is that the divide between paid media and viral is blurring. This is not, technically, a viral video in the old sense, because a lot of money was spent getting the initial word out (never mind the budget that allowed them to pay for Jennifer Aniston).
It might be smarter, but compared to Subservient Chicken, the costs-to-results ratio is way higher. They paid a bundle to use Aniston. It guaranteed them a million views, but was it worth it? Not necessarily. A good idea is a lot cheaper than a celeb tacked onto some ad exec’s idea of what memes are.
Just ask Portland’s Wieden + Kennedy, who produced the legendary “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign for Old Spice, which, like the Subservient Chicken, holds up the industry press as being a game-changing campaign that took advantage of the Internet’s core competencies in a way that hadn’t been done before.
The original spot was simple. A hunky guy addressing the camera with a suave “Hello Ladies,” followed by a goofy spiel about how showering with Old Spice body wash would turn the viewer’s man into the kind of dreamboat that would buy you tickets “to that thing you love.” The hunk, played by former NFL wide receiver Isaiah Mustafa, moved seamlessly from his bathroom shower to a beach in a single take, with the camera zooming out to reveal that Mustafa was, inexplicably, riding bareback on a mighty steed. The spot ended with a hilarious absurdism, “I’m on a horse,” that became a mini-meme in its own right.
The ad would have been huge had W+K left it at that, but they followed up the TV spots with an interactive YouTube and Twitter experience that left many ad execs smacking their foreheads, wondering why they hadn’t thought of something so simple (and cost-effective) years ago. They filmed Mustafa answering questions that came in from Twitter and YouTube, focusing on tech-savvy celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, Twitter’s Biz Stone, Alyssa Milano, and Digg founder Kevin Rose. But the Old Spice Guy also responded to everyday people, like a random teenage girl named Lindsey.
The thirty-second responses were simply shot in the Old Spice Guy’s bathroom, complete with props. All two hundred responses felt carefully crafted. Especially the response to anonymous.
Hello anonymous. I’m glad at least some of most of you are liking my new Old Spice commercial.
Random crown [holds up crown].
And that means a lot.
Large book [holds up book].
Because you’re important to me.
Jewel-encrusted scepter [holds up scepter].
And I want to make you proud.
Freshwater fish [holds up fish].
So I always try my best.
Delicious cake [holds up cake].
Because you deserve the best.
The fish again [holds up fish].
So that’s what I give you.
Thank you friends, you’re my everything.
Expensive magnifying glass [holds up magnifying glass].
If you haven’t guessed, the random objects are of course clever references to 4chan’s random /b/ board. And delicious cake is a more direct reference to the aforementioned “get the cake” game. As you can imagine, /b/ freaked out and fell in love with Mustafa, which is interesting, because any less witty message would likely have been met with a massive trolling effort. The video response was smart, and seemed more like a friendly wink than a shallow attempt at generating buzz. This campaign marks the first time any corporate entity has actively courted 4chan, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Old Spice was able to garner social media points by courting Digg and Reddit simultaneously, exploiting their longtime rivalry. Sales of Old Spice went up more than 100 percent.
Rick Webb says that paying for content in the memesphere can help, but only up to a point.
Buzzfeed and Stumbleupon, especially, are INSANELY good at helping juice your memes in the beginning. Amazingly good. Their ad offerings are par excellence for cheaply getting your first million views. The name of the game is to spend a little money and kick it off then it goes viral and millions of more see it for free.
Webb says that agencies have to recognize their strengths, because today everyone has the tools to make a Subservient Chicken. He argues that brands have to step up their games in order to outshine the rest of the Internet’s fantastic amateur content. Just as Hollywood is competing with indie filmmakers by producing ever more expensive summer blockbusters like Avatar and Inception, agencies have to use their budgets to make simple ideas look fantastic. The Barbarian Group was able to do this with a campaign called Beer Cannon, in which they shot cans of Milwaukee’s Best out of a cannon into various objects, filmed with an expensive slow-motion camera. That’s a basic idea, but something your average teenager can’t replicate.
Webb tells me that most ad people are aware of 4chan and poke around there, though the Barbarian Group has never executed any formal campaigns on the site. Generally clients don’t want to have anything to do with 4chan, but agencies are happy to browse the site to keep an eye on memes bubbling up.
The Barbarian Group has been giant 4chan fans since the beginning. I still go on there constantly to poke around, reset my brain, learn about the psyche of certain types of people. There’s definitely a window into the soul going on there, though you gotta temper it by going to some deep Christian websites and remember not everyone is pure id.
In Japan, Dentsu, the world’s biggest ad agency, has a buzz research division that constantly monitors the activity of 2channel, hoping to spot memes and trends before they become mainstream. I’d bet that we’ll see this more formal research happen in the West too—if not with 4chan specifically, with the surrounding host of sites that make up the memesphere.
The speed of appropriation on 4chan has certainly affected the rest of the web. The public has an insatiable appetite for new memes, so thousands are created every day. Ad agencies are no longer just competing with other agencies for your attention, they’re competing with every teenage slacker packing a copy of Photoshop (or Final Cut, or ProTools).
Marci Ikeler is Director of Digital Strategy at Grey Group, a global marketing communications agency. She gave a presentation at South by Southwest Interactive this year, right after Christopher Poole’s keynote, called “Haters Gonna Hate: Lessons for Advertisers from 4chan.” She describes herself as a nerd first and strategist second, having taught herself to code at an early age.
Marci tells me she’s been keeping an eye on 4chan for the last few years, and says that 4chan users have managed to get mass media attention by understanding what people are intrinsically interested in, something advertisers are sometimes not very good at.
Ikeler defines five properties of 4chan that she thinks advertisers can learn from.
First, “Bump.” This refers to how communities self-select what kind of information is important to them, and furthermore what kind of information sticks around. According to Ikeler, a lot of old-school ad men hate to see chatter about their brands on social networks because it’s not under their control. But it’s in advertisers’ best interests to view even the most antagonistic comments as valuable opinions coming from an honest forum. This kind of feedback can be tremendously valuable compared to the focus groups of yore. The key is to transition from a perspective of wanting to control the conversation to engaging the audience on the same level and allowing them to define what works about a brand and what doesn’t.
Second, “Moar” (more in chan-speak, which often mocks bad spellers). This refers to the need for advertisers to hit the marketplace hard with many iterations of a brand concept, not just a single big piece like a Super Bowl ad. You want your audience to be hungry for more. According to Ikeler, the best way to meet that demand is with microcontent like tweets and Facebook replies.
Third, “Mods are asleep” (mods are forum moderators). On 4chan, users whisper this during off-peak hours in the hopes that someone will post content that would otherwise get them banned. Marci encourages advertisers to lay off a bit when moderating social media presence. A good example of a brand that failed to do this is Smirnoff Ice, who put the kibosh on an incredibly viral phenomenon called “Bros Icing Bros.” The game had guys pranking their friends by leaving bottles of warm Smirnoff Ice around, which, according to the game’s rules, had be drunk on sight. While Smirnoff was right in assuming that the subtext of the game was that Smirnoff Ice tastes terrible, the company lost an opportunity when it didn’t embrace the prank and capitalize on its virality.
Fourth, Ikeler raises how trollish behavior can cause tiny PR crises and also disrupt community managers from dealing with legitimate concerns by drawing their attention toward triviality.
Fifth, “Not your personal army.” This is a common 4chan response to any call to action deemed unworthy of anons’ attention. Ikeler interprets this as a warning not to expect too much of audiences. They need to be given the motivation to participate in branding efforts. It’s not enough to throw a bunch of social media tools online and expect people to show up and start creating buzz. In other words, “What’s in it for me?”
My conversation with Ikeler ends on a note that would surely send chills down the spine of every creative director in the industry.
Content is no longer valuable. We simply have too much content. There’s more content being produced in a day than we could consume in our entire lives. Advertisers are in the business of creating content that’s no longer valuable. We should be focusing more on curation and engagement.
She’s right. And it’s not just advertising. Publishing, show business, media, art and design too. 4chan shows us that there are enough creative people out there doing for free, and for zero recognition, what professionals have been paid to do for centuries. Furthermore, we have learned that what separated professional creatives from the amateurs wasn’t so much a level of talent, but access to distribution channels. Now that the social web has provided so many amateurs with a way to reach millions, they’re outshining the pros everwhere.