How Internet Memes Went Corporate

The creation and perpetuation of memes is becoming a big industry.

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Late last month, while standing on the sidelines watching a sea of athletes run in a South Carolina 10K race, a bystander named Will King noticed an angelic face in the crowd, a face that seemed surprisingly unflustered and resplendent, while others around him were emitting rivers of sweat and gasping for air.

King, amused, raised his camera lens and snapped a few pictures as the face trotted by and then later uploaded it with dozens of other photos to his Facebook and Flickr accounts. One of King's friends commented on the photo of the man, writing, "I dub this guy Mr. Ridiculously Photogenic." A few days later, King linked to it on the social news site Reddit with the headline, "My friend calls him 'Mr Ridiculously Photogenic Guy.'"

Within hours, the photo had generated hundreds of comments, thousands of upvotes, and hundreds of thousands of views. Soon, users began modifying the image, adding funny captions and photoshopping the anonymous man into absurd situations. The man, who journalists later identified as a New Yorker named Zeddie Little, had become a meme, that term coined by the British biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, to describe how culture is transferred from person to person, and how, like the gene, that piece of culture replicates and mutates over time.

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"We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation," Dawkins wrote. The Internet has sped up this process of transmission, and like other innocent bystanders who have been immortalized by hordes of click-happy Photoshop connoisseurs, Little had not expected his rise to fame. "People have really started noticing me," he wrote in a Reddit comment thread. "It's still a new experience - people knowing you from a random picture … I was noticed by an older woman around 70 or so in the grocery store on Saturday and she was ecstatic, saying, 'I saw you on my TV!'"

One person who's not surprised that a random photo on the Internet could suddenly get swept up in a torrent of web-induced hilarity is Wayne Miltz. Miltz, 31, is an investor and former employee of Quickmeme, the site where many of the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy memes originated. Quickmeme was founded by Shah Pavel Jamal in 2011 and later sold to Wayne and his brother Steven

"The whole vision with Quickmeme is just to make it simple and fast and easy to create these things," Miltz said in a phone interview. The site is immediately intuitive, propelling one past the realm of mere meme consumption toward the enlightenment stage of generating your own memes. It beckons the user on nearly every page to "add your own caption," and before you know it you're attempting to encapsulate your own witty observations on a picture of a socially awkward penguin or a hipster barista.

Quickmeme quickly gained a foothold on social sharing sites like Facebook, Reddit, and StumbleUpon, and currently serves up (according to Miltz) nearly 70 million unique visitors and a staggering half a billion page views a month.

"I think this is just the beginning, too, as far as our reach out there with memes," he explained, "because it's just starting to hit what I call pop culture, whereas before it was popular with more tech-savvy culture for the longest time."

While memes are nothing new to anyone with an Internet connection and a Facebook account—the web has been ridden for years with pictures of gramatically-challenged cats—the making and perpetuation of memes has been, since the web's inception, a mostly amateur affair, the work of those adept with Microsoft Paint or Photoshop who would host the memes on their own websites or Flickr accounts. Meme-themed blogs would sprout up like weeds, cause a brief snicker, and then either maintain a small but loyal following or fade into the background.

Increasingly, however, companies are launching to sate the growing appetite for memes, amassing hundreds of millions of pageviews, hiring employees, and even, in some cases, attracting venture funding. Who would have guessed that the promulgation of dogs giving legal advice and a condescending Willy Wonka could become so corporate?


Corrected on : Correction: 6/28/13: A previous version of this story misidentified the founder of Quickmeme.