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.
"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?
So when did this seismic shift happen? When did someone look down at his cat and determine that his furry companion could feed a photographic repository of funny cuteness, one that could generate ad revenue and profit?
Many would point to the launch of the Cheezeburger Network, which was founded by Ben Huh in 2007 when he and several investors purchased the company's flagship blog, I Can Haz Cheezeburger? Since then it has launched dozens of new verticals, and early last year tech blogs reported that the company had raised $30 million in venture funding.
"Huh was planning on hiring 20-30 new staffers by the end 2011, but now he's looking to take bigger risks and push up the hiring schedule," Mashable wrote when the news broke. Merely a year later, BuzzFeed, which until then had mostly focused on aggregating images and memes, announced it had received $15 million in financing and immediately launched into an aggressive hiring spree, sniping several veteran journalists to build out its editorial content.
Not all have required outside funding, however. In February, Imgur, a site that lets users easily upload photos and galleries, won the "Best Bootstrapped Startup" category at the Crunchie Awards. The site, the host of thousands of funny memes and photoshopped images that first gained visibility on social news sites like Reddit and Digg, currently sees about a billion pageviews a month.
A few years ago, Jonah Peretti, the 38-year-old founder of BuzzFeed and a graduate of the MIT Media Lab, coined a phrase to describe the people who consume memes and other viral internet content: the Bored At Work Network.
This network, which he claimed is "bigger than the BBC, CNN, or any traditional media network," consists of the millions of employed professionals who work desk jobs that provide numerous five to 10 minute time capsules with which to crawl the Internet— while eating lunch at their desks, say, or when the numbers on their spreadsheets have been relegated into an impenetrable blur that can only be cured by a few moments of mindless web surfing.
These consumers are not as interested in a 10,000-word feature in the New Yorker as they are in bite-sized, snackable images or video that can be digested and regurgitated, in the form of a Facebook share or Tweet in between conference calls.
In a recent phone interview, Peretti says the market for this shareable content has only expanded with the advent of smartphones and mobile computing.
"It used to be that all the consumption happened when people were bored at work," he said. "And now you're also getting people who are stuck in traffic, or at a stop light, or waiting for an elevator, or waiting in line. So you have all these moments where you have to patiently sit and be bored that now are filled with media consumption."
The entrepreneur compared the commercialization of memes to a similar metamorphosis within the blogosphere. It used to be, in the early 2000s, that blogs were no more than personal journals and diaries, and what little advertising existed on them was slapped on as a mere afterthought.
"The big idea from [Gawker founder] Nick Denton was what if you took it seriously and you hired full time people and do something that normal people are just doing personally, except you have them do that professionally? That pushed blogging into a new form of professional content."
These days it's an anomaly to find a news outlet that doesn't incorporate blogging in some form or fashion, even as Gawker has moved away from the traditional blogging format and adopted a more newspaper-like front page.
Peretti theorized that the meme is prone to abundant social sharing because it plays into shared emotions and experience. A news article, while it may or may not be something in which your friend is interested, is purely intellectual and does not necessarily trigger any form of emotion.
"So laughter and comedy do well because it's fun to laugh with your friends, and it's fun to have an emotional experience with your friends," he said. "Media that facilitates that seems to spread more."
Duncan Mitchell, the co-founder of Someecards, ascribed the growth of the meme market to content producers' attempts to scale by both maximizing traffic while minimizing the number of paid staffers it takes to produce it. It's not a coincidence, he explained, that many meme-based sites rely on user-generated content.
"I think the goal for a lot of web businesses is to produce quality content without having to burden all the costs of creating that content," he told me. "It's hard to create a profitable publishing business online, so user-generated content is one way to kind of diffuse some of those costs."
Mitchell jokingly refers to himself as the "CEO and assistant to the CEO" of the humorous e-card company launched in 2007 that serves as a parody of Hallmark greeting cards. Though he initially worked on the project while maintaining his day job as creative director at a major digital marketing firm, he and his business partner, Brook Lundy, received some outside funding in 2008 and came to work for the site full time. Today, Someecards employs the two founders, five full time writers, one full time tech person, one full time ad salesperson, and a number of freelance graphic designers and writers. In the last month, the site generated 39 million page views and over five million unique visitors.
Someecards is a mixture of user-generated content (users are able to pick from a variety of designs and overlay their own text onto them) and cards written by company staffers. Mitchell estimated that the company features six to 10 new pieces of content a day. Like many of the companies featured in this piece, it makes most of its money from advertising. While many of its ads are no different from the display ads shown on the websites of the New York Times or CNN, Someecards is also able to provide custom "branded" content for its main publishing channels.
"So if you're a liquor brand, a car company, or a movie studio, we create Someecards co-branded with your products and circulate those around the site," Mitchell said. "It'll show up in our apps, in our Twitter feed, and on our Facebook fan page."
Mitchell claimed that the click-through rates on these kinds of ads are "10 times the rate you get on normal display advertising," mostly because they rely on the very same humor inherent in all its non-branded content. In fact, the only difference between a standard Someecard and a custom ad is the company logo contained in the ad. They don't shill for the company, but rather allow the brand to hitch a ride on the viral content.
"So if we have an ad for for Chili's, it may be a joke about going to a happy hour for margaritas, not an ad about Chili's," he said.
Perhaps the most significant portent of the meme's rise in prominence is BuzzFeed's recent spate of hirings of veteran journalists, including both Politico's Ben Smith and Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings. Though it's not entirely clear at this point what the company has in store for these more traditional reporters, Peretti asserted the lessons the company has accumulated from its viral meme content will be applied to its political news coverage.
"I think that we've seen a lot of blurring between these different styles where some reporters are thinking, 'How can I use some of the conventions of the web to report a story better?' And some of the people who are mostly craving entertainment web culture are saying, 'How can I get engaged in a big news story or a news event using the tool I'm accustomed to?'"
Still, many couldn't help themselves from cracking a few jokes when the announcement had been made that BuzzFeed sniped Smith from Politico. Several of these jokes came in the form of memes, one of which imagined Smith asking a question at a White House press conference: "Mr. President, Ben from BuzzFeed. What are your top ten Honey Badger mashups?"
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Correction: 6/28/13: A previous version of this story misidentified the founder of Quickmeme.