The Meme-ing of Life: Identity Gone Viral

Does “Scumbag Steve” mean anything to you? How about “Overly Attached Girlfriend,” or “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy”? If you recognize any of these characters, congratulations you have some knowledge of popular memes. But what do you know about Blake Boston, Laina Morris or Zeddie Little? I would hazard to guess not as much.

When clicking through the constant onslaught of internet humor how often do we stop to consider just whose picture we’re laughing at? How do images become memes in the first place? Where did their pictures come from? I post hundreds of pictures on Facebook, will this happen to me?  Tracking an image’s life from snapshot to meme tells an interesting tale about the social “lives” of images online, and calls into question identity, ownership, privacy, and ethics.

Take the narratives of Blake, Laina and Zeddie as case studies. Their associated memes are examples of Advice Animals, quite possibly the most ubiquitous meme category today. Typically, Advice Animals feature an image accompanied by a two line textual joke which uses denotative aspects of the original image to link it with a stereotype, personality trait, or archetype. As the name implies, many pictures featured in Advice Animal memes are animals (Actual Advice Mallard or Insanity Wolf) however, increasingly the memes are constructed from stock, candid, or personal photos of humans.

 

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Scumbag Steve

An example of this is the image of ‘Scumbag Steve’. Before the creation of ‘Scumbag Steve’—a character who, as the meme-text indicates, always does the worst thing—this picture told a very different story of a boy named Blake. Blake, now a 25-year-old aspiring rapper, was sixteen when this photo was taken by his mother and publically uploaded to Myspace in 2006. The image was introduced to Reddit in 2011 as ‘Scumbag Steve’ [1]. In an online interview Blake described his reaction: “Who the **** knew what a meme was? I had never even heard the word…didn’t know how to pronounce it. People started blowing up my phone, telling me I was all over the net. At first it went deep. Then I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the ****. They are funny as ****. Sometimes I forget the pics were of me and we’re all laughing our asses off” [2].

 

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Overly Attached Girlfriend (OAG)

In June 2012, Youtube user wzr0713 uploaded a video parody of Justin Bieber’s song “Boyfriend”. Her altered version spoke from the point of view of a stalker-ish girl. Within 24 hours of publishing, , screen-caps from the video were created and  turned into the meme OAG, complete with meme-text portraying an obsessive and possessive girlfriend [3]. By June 15th Laina – the real life subject of the photo— quickly realized her memetic status and responded via tweet: “I’m always amused by the @OvrlyAttachdGF tweets. Then I realize my face is associated with it and I’m slightly disturbed. Still awesome” [4]. Laina’s Youtube channel remains active where she has amassed over a million subscribers.   


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Ridiculously Photogenic Guy (RPG)

Not all appropriated images have negative connotations. On March 31, 2012 computer programmer Will King took a photo of a group of runners at the annual Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, South Carolina. King subsequently posted a particular image on Reddit with the caption “My friend calls him ‘Mr Ridiculously Photogenic Guy,’” pointing to Zeddie Little [5]. With the addition of text highlighting the beauty of the subject, the ‘Ridiculously Photogenic Guy’ soon became a meme.  Zeddie learned of this from a friend and was soon recognized in public. His 15 minutes of fame led to a visit to Good Morning America where he responded to the meme saying “I find the humor in all of it, it’s funny. I feel honored to be part of a joke that’s in good spirits because the Internet can be a little vicious” [6].

While each meme developed differently, what is clear is that the photos used in them no longer represent Blake, Laina, and Zeddie, but rather the characters defined by the meme. Such disconnect, between actual subject and perceived subject raises some interesting questions. Do you own your likeness?  What right do Internet communities have to appropriate images? How do you respond to a character that uses your likeness?

The Digital Media Law Project (DMLP) –a project of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society – has published a legal guide to “Using the Name or Likeness of Another.” In it, DMLP states that someone seeking legal action must establish three elements to hold someone liable for unlawful use of their likeness:

  1. Use of a Protected Attribute (an aspect of their identity was used)
  2. For an Exploitative Purpose (it was used for commercial purpose)
  3. No Consent (it was used without permission) [8].

Meme subjects may be able to establish the first and third elements, but internet memes are not typically generated for commercial use.

DMLP also makes note of something called the Fair Use Doctrine, which gives creators the right to make use of copyrighted material under specific circumstances. While fair use follows no clear formula, DMLP notes that “as a general matter, you will not be held liable for using someone’s name or likeness in a creative, entertaining, or artistic work that is transformative, meaning that you add some substantial creative element over and above the mere depiction of the person” [8]. The meme-text in our examples, could likely qualify the memes for a fair use defense.

Furthermore, the ways these images became memes also can affect their legality. Blake made his image publically available on a musician Myspace account before it was appropriated as Scumbag Steve. Laina intentionally put herself online for consumption on her Youtube channel and is now actually credited on Wikipedia as the creator of the fictional character: Overly Attached Girlfriend [8]. Interestingly, Zeddie had no part in uploading his picture and was instead picked out of a group shot of a public event which then shared online by the photographer himself.

Still, other sources, like an NPR article published earlier this year propose future solutions for unwitting internet celebrities. The article identifies the concept known as “the right to be forgotten” instituted in both the European Union and Argentina which “allows for individuals living in these places to ask search engines like Google to de-index certain pages that are irrelevant, false, or not newsworthy” [9]. The idea itself is rife with controversy but could represent a potential future solution for unwanted viral fame.

Just this past June, Google implemented some aspect of this “right to be forgotten” globally, in crackdowns against a practice known as revenge porn. Google released a statement in a blog post by SVP Amit Singhal declaring that going forward they will “honor requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google search results” [10]. So far this policy change is limited to explicit images but as the conversation continues to develop so too may allowances.

Removing images from a search result does not however remove them from the web all-together. In the case of Advice Animal memes – which are already extremely widespread and are constantly being re-uploaded with new text to perpetuate the joke – there may never be a surefire way to ensure their removal. 

In late 2011, almost a year after the birth of his meme, Blake Boston (Scumbag Steve) wrote a letter to a fellow meme subject who was having trouble dealing with her alter-identity: Annoying Facebook Girl. In this letter he reached out to her offering advice with how to come to terms with her new memetic alter-ego. He wrote,

You see. Some people can’t distinguish the internet from real life. There are people who refuse to believe my name isn’t Steve and that I am not really the scumbag (well not all the time, that is). Just remember who you are. And that you know you’re a decent kid. You’re going to be in shock for a while, when you see what people have written. But the most important and self-preserving thing you can do is know that it’s not you. You can’t take this personally [11]. 
 

The adviceanimals subreddit, where all three of these memes were first introduced, has a list of rules on the sidebar. I was surprised to find this rule included in the list: “Don’t make memes with pics of people that you saw in real life. Ever.” Perhaps this is a sign of times to come; maybe the future of internet memes will be marked by greater care for the subjects of the images. Unfortunately, as long as certain memes remain a part of digital culture, individuals like Blake, Laina, and Zeddie will continue to be associated with characters that share their faces, but not their values or personality.

 


 References

[1] “Scumbag Steve.” Know Your Meme, Accessed September 15, 2015. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/scumbag-steve.  

[2] Brad. “Q&A with Blake Boston (Scumbag Steve),” Know Your Meme (Blog), February, 2011. http://knowyourmeme.com/blog/interviews/qa-with-blake-boston-scumbag-steve

[3] “Overly Attached Girlfriend.” Know Your Meme, Accessed September 15, 2015. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/Overly-attached-girlfriend..

[4] Laina Walker. Twitter post, June 15, 2012, https://twitter.com/laina622/status/213874895166242818.

[5] “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy,” Know Your Meme, Accessed September 15, 2015. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/ridiculously-photogenic-guy-zeddie-little.

[6] Zeddie Little interviewed by Robin Roberts. “Zeddie Little Interview” Youtube Video, 3:02, posted by “ABC News,” April 11, 2012. http://youtu.be/xjs2PZEh-ZQ.

[7] “Using the Name of Likeness of Another,” Digital Media Law Project, Last modified July 30, 2008. http://www.dmlp.org/legal-guide/using-name-or-likeness-another

[8] Wikipedia Contributors, “Laina Morris,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Accessed September 20, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laina_Morris.

[9] Garsd, Jasmine. “Internet Memes and ‘The Right to be Forgotten,’” NPR All Tech Considered (Blog) March 3, 2015, 4:32pm ET. http://n.pr/1F5Lmu6.

[10] Singhal, Amit. “Revenge Porn and Search,” Google Public Policy Blog. June 19, 2015 http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/revenge-porn-and-search.html

[11] Boston, Blake. “Scumbag Steve’s Advice for Annoying Facebook Girl,” Slackstory. December 21, 2011.  http://www.slacktory.com/2011/12/scumbag-steve-advice-for-annoying-facebook-girl/

Sarah Reif

Sarah Reif is a former MA candidate in Georgetown's CCT program. She is interested in participatory culture, pop culture, and identity politics – particularly how internet mediated communication affects how we view connections, manifest creative impulses, and form a sense of self

  • Andy R Marshall

    Interesting, I have always wondered about the people placed in these memes. Whether it was hurting people or not, and other things about them. It is good to know that many of them take it well and that they help others who are not taking it well. Internet ethics are something that are desperately needed and also something that our current politicians really have no clue how to address.