OCTOBER 10, 2016
ON MARCH 31, 2012, a user going by the pseudonym King_of_Games posted an album entitled “35th Annual Cooper River Bridge Run” to the photo-sharing site Flickr. The album contained 112 photos from the yearly 10K Bridge Run, which takes runners over the Cooper River in South Carolina, across the Ravenel Bridge that connects downtown Charleston with its neighboring suburb, Mount Pleasant. King_of_Games had been posting photos from around Charleston to Flickr since early 2011, usually garnering only double-digit views. Like so much of the content posted every day on the internet, King_of_Games’s images were a barely noticed strand in a vast tapestry of communication. They weren’t reaching the whole world, but they were there for those who wanted to see them.
On March 31, though, that changed — at least for a moment. Photo 28 of 112 in the Bridge Run album captured runners along Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant at the beginning of the race. Flipping through all 112 photos, it may be easy to skip over photo 28. It’s just one more collection of pixels, barely distinguishable from the countless others that surround it. But something in photo 28 resonated with King_of_Games, something meriting a unique caption. All the other photos in the album are labeled in sequence: “35th Annual Cooper River Bridge Run-26,” “35th Annual Cooper River Bridge Run-27.” Photo 28 is the sole exception; it is labeled “Mr. Ridiculously Photogenic Guy.”
The label refers to the focus of the photo, a man in a dark purple shirt looking — gazing, even — into the camera with a white-toothed smile and hair that appears to be bouncing in the sun. Far surpassing the modest attention attracted by the rest of the album, “Mr. Ridiculously Photogenic Guy” has been viewed 4.7 million times on Flickr alone. In the years since it was first posted, the photo has inspired massive media coverage and has found its way to countless forums, threads, and posts online. Its page on the comprehensive internet reference site Know Your Meme charts its place in meme history. And its story holds lessons about the ways celebrity, collectivism, and even cruelty operate across media platforms today.
In the case of “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy,” attention from both social and traditional media made the photograph and its subject famous in 2012. The attention began when King_of_Games posted the image to Reddit’s /r/Pics on April 3, 2012, under the heading “My friend calls him ‘Mr. Ridiculously Photogenic Guy.’” With the attention of participants on Reddit, a meme was born. Variations of the photo began appearing almost immediately. “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy” was cropped and captioned in dozens of different ways. His face was mapped onto that of every other runner in the photo. He replaced Marvel’s Jean Grey as the object of Wolverine’s unrequited love. He outran a plane with Cary Grant in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest.
As the fame of “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy” spread across social media, traditional media outlets began to join the conversation. The coverage started locally. On April 4, 2012, Paul Bowers of the Charleston City Paper, a free alternative weekly, identified the subject of the photo as New York’s Zeddie Watkins Little, and also credited its photographer, King_of_Games, as Charleston’s Will King. King did not hide his identity on his Flickr, but Little’s identity was unknown until Bowers identified him by the race bib pinned to his shirt in King’s photo. King spoke to Bowers on the record for his article, but by the time of its publication the City Paper hadn’t yet tracked down Little for an interview. “We’re doing our best to find Zeddie Little,” Bowers wrote, “and if he does eventually pick up the phone, we’ll barrage him with Seventeen magazine-style personal questions.”
By April 5, Bowers still hadn’t been able to get in touch with Little, but he had uncovered enough to publish more details about his life. He talked to Little’s father, along with a former employer. Both confirmed that Little had grown up in Charleston, went to the College of Charleston, and worked at a local pizzeria before moving to New York. That same day, Christina Elmore covered the Little story in the Post and Courier, Charleston’s major daily newspaper. She interviewed King as well as the friend who had coined the name “Mr. Ridiculously Photogenic Guy.” A day later, the meme, and the story behind it, started receiving national and international coverage.
Up to that point — as piece after piece noted with a hint of disappointment — Little himself had yet to come forward. But his silence would be broken on a massive media stage only a few days later. On April 11, he appeared, along with King, on ABC’s Good Morning America. After a short background segment on “the man everyone loves,” anchor Robin Roberts interviewed Little and King together, commending the former for his role in a story that had “made people so happy.” She praised King for taking a photo that had “captivated the entire web.” Little called the photo a “fluke,” and said it had been captured as he was looking at a friend standing near King. He and King said they hadn’t known each other at the time the photo was taken. Roberts, feigning disappointment, announced that Little had a “beautiful girlfriend” just off camera. When asked how it felt to become so immediately and accidentally recognizable, Little said,
I kind of feel honored to be part of like a joke that’s in good spirits, you know, because sometimes the internet can be a little vicious or, you know, jokes can get bent the wrong way. But these are all kind of for the most part positive. … It’s, I guess, the most flattering way to get spread across the internet.
Roberts then asked for “one last big smile,” thanked him and King for “being such great sports,” and moved on to the next segment.
The Good Morning America appearance was the height of Little’s traditional media coverage, but social media platforms weren’t done with him just yet. On April 16, 2012, he took to Reddit for an /r/IAmA thread (/r/IAmA is a subreddit dedicated to “Ask Me Anythings,” Q-and-A sessions with notable people). In the thread, Little fielded lots of playful expressions of lust (“I started running. Not because of you, but for you”; “Today is my birthday. Thank you for the gift of your face”; “What do you smell like?”) and discussed his unconventional celebrity. He said that he found out about the meme when “redditor friends” called him after King’s post had reached the front page of the site. He was initially surprised, but once he saw the photo he “laughed for about an hour. It was just surreal. It’s still surreal.” He said that he had stopped looking at the different memetic iterations of the photo, commenting that eventually “it felt weird looking at a billion pics of myself.” When asked how people he knew were taking his newfound fame, he replied that “my dad was so proud he would have given away my complete biography, complete with SSN to a journalist until I had to ask him to dial it back a little bit.” He expressed his appreciation for Reddit, the site that had pushed an obscure photo, and person, into mainstream prominence: “Thanks to all of you for making this random picture such a phenomenon,” Little signed off. “It would most likely have gone entirely unnoticed without your collective powers here.”
Of course, those “collective powers” were soon redirected toward new memetic moments. Though Robin Roberts predicted during Little’s Good Morning America appearance that “the spotlight shining on that high-wattage smile doesn’t appear to be fading any time soon,” Google Trends data shows a massive spike in search interest for both “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy” and “Zeddie Little” in April 2012, and a massive drop-off right after. Little’s Reddit account has lain dormant since his AMA. His Twitter account, which has around 5,000 followers, has only 98 tweets, and none since December 2012. Meanwhile, King — despite Roberts’s prognostication on Good Morning America that the Little photo “is gonna really help you here” — has returned to addressing small audiences on Flickr, with “Mr. Ridiculously Photogenic Guy” being orders of magnitude more popular than any of his other work.
In fact, the most enduring part of Little’s brief fame is a memetic mutation. The modifier “Ridiculously Photogenic” has become a meme of its own, attached over the years to more and more iterations of unexpectedly “photogenic” icons. Know Your Meme lists “Ridiculously Photogenic Surgery Girl,” “Ridiculously Photogenic Metal Head,” “Ridiculously Photogenic Syrian Rebel,” “Ridiculously Photogenic Prisoner,” “Ridiculously Photogenic Jiu-Jitsu Guy,” and “Ridiculously Photogenic Running Back.” It is the turn of phrase “Ridiculously Photogenic” that has survived in the spotlight, not the ridiculously photogenic Little himself.
Since King and Little’s salad days of 2012, memes have increasingly become tools of entities bigger and older than the internet. For good or for ill, the spontaneous, vernacular products of social media are now subsumed by the same publicity system that envelops television, film, and print media. “Internet famous” is a shorthand label for individuals, like Little, who have gained esteem or notoriety via collective online attention. But just as “The Internet” cannot be understood as a discrete entity, “internet fame” is rapidly converging with good old-fashioned celebrity. And the stakes of what we share are consequentially higher than ever before.
These practices go all the way to the top. President Barack Obama — who from the earliest days of his 2008 presidential campaign successfully mobilized support through digital media — frequently plays with memes. For example, on November 15, 2012, Obama welcomed US Olympic gymnasts to the White House. During the meeting, Obama posed with Olympian McKayla Maroney, who in the summer of 2012 had inspired a meme by sporting a “not impressed” face on the podium as she received a silver medal.
In an official White House photo, Obama and Maroney recreated the famous expression. This memetic moment, and its subsequent post to the official Obama tumblog, were, according to The Atlantic’s Megan Garber, both politics as usual and a new take on familiar publicity work. “The image of a meme-faced Commander-in-Chief, cheeky and epic at the same time,” Garber says, “was — or at least, seemed — tailor-made for social media.”
But Obama’s controlled engagement with social media is a far cry from the accidental fame of Little, not to mention others whose experiences with “internet fame” has been less positive. People playing with memes sometimes focus their attention to figures already widely considered “public” (though the line between “public figure” and “private citizen” is, as always, a blurry one). When Obama and Maroney pose “meme-faced” in a press photo, we know they know what they’re doing: these are politicians and athletes, members of professions that have long had to balance the benefits and drawbacks of celebrity.
But, as Little’s case shows, collective attention is not only directed toward individuals who are considered, and consider themselves, public figures. Instead, memetic play often pulls regular people out of obscurity and places them in the spotlight. Participants on Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, and YouTube can make a citizen suddenly public, or amplify a small audience into a massive one. How far does the expectation of privacy extend in a culture when anyone can be rendered “famous” at any moment for any reason?
Sometimes individuals who are made “internet famous” embrace the mantle, as we saw with Little and King. Another example is Blake Boston, who gained attention in January 2011 when a photo of him wearing a fur coat and a backward baseball cap was taken from his MySpace profile.
Boston’s picture was captioned with jokes about rude social behaviors (“Borrows your lighter … permanently”; “Sold you weed … hangs out and smokes it all with you”; “You buy the liquor, I’ll buy the beer … case of Natty Light”). These images were posted to the subreddit /r/Funny with the title “I Hated This Dude.” The top comment read, “We all hate Scumbag Steve!” and an internet meme was born. “Scumbag Steve” became one of the most popular macros of 2011 and 2012. Despite the apparent invasiveness and negative connotations of the meme, Boston has embraced his fame. He has spent the years since 2011 making appearances, giving interviews, and performing as his crowd-sourced doppelgänger. In an interview with Rough Draft TV posted to YouTube in March 2011, Boston reflects on the tensions that have come with his unexpected notoriety. “Blake Boston is my real name,” he says. “Scumbag Steve is a meme. So he’s like a character. Like an alter ego.”
Boston is one of a cadre of individuals who have unwittingly gained memetic prominence and embraced their anointed alter egos, parlaying them into more established personas. The popular 2012 stock character macros “Overly Attached Girlfriend” and “Bad Luck Brian” have followed similar trajectories. “Overly Attached Girlfriend” (the joke is that she’s too zealous in her relationships) had her image taken from her YouTube channel, captioned, and posted to Reddit. “Bad Luck Brian” (the joke is that bad things happen to him) also had his likeness, taken from an unflattering school portrait, uploaded to Reddit. In the months after they gained internet fame, both parlayed memetic attention into public performances. In August 2013, they produced a YouTube video together, “Overly Attached Girlfriend Meets Bad Luck Brian,” which depicted their characters on a blind date. The video has been viewed 3.9 million times.
For people like Little, Boston, and Kyle Craven (the person behind “Bad Luck Brian,” who now regularly appears at conferences and sell T-shirts), the identity trade-off that comes with memetic attention has seemingly been worth it. “That’s the beauty of the internet,” Boston tells Rough Draft TV. “You can find something so simple, so plain, and then you just write one thing on it and then everybody goes fucking nuts.” But memetic play can also leave real damage in its wake. One of the most prominent examples is the viral “Star Wars Kid” video, a clip of a teenager fighting with a pretend Star Wars lightsaber that has been widely shared and widely mocked on and off the internet since 2003. Alex Pasternack, writing for Motherboard in 2010, estimated the total views of “Star Wars Kid” iterations to be over one billion — and that was a half decade ago. He also charted the extensive harassment, and subsequent depression, of its subject as a result of his rising notoriety: “Star Wars Kid” was so traumatized by his flattened fame that he dropped out of high school and entered a psychiatric institution, and would later sue the families of the other kids who leaked the video.
In her 2015 book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, the media folklorist Whitney Phillips chronicles similar harassment faced by a preteen girl who posted a combative video to YouTube in 2010, garnered unfavorable attention from participants on 4chan, and thereafter received a slew of threats, including the public posting of her home address and phone number. Her father appeared on her tearful response video, telling 4chan users they had “done goofed,” that he’d contacted the “cyberpolice” to “back-trace” them, and that “consequences would never be the same” after their actions. All four phrases have become memetic touchstones in the years since, their origins dulled by persistent use, but Phillips reminds us that “by intervening on his daughter’s behalf,” a concerned father attracted further harassment to them both.
The story of “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy” is a more ambivalent example of the consequences of internet fame. On the one hand, Little embraced his memetic fate, and seemed grateful at the time to the online collectives that brought him his taste of celebrity. On the other hand, whether or not Little appreciated that attention, the fact remains that a stranger posted his picture to a public forum without his consent, and a local paper subsequently revealed his identity, going so far as to contact his family and former employers. As Little’s image has spread across social and traditional media, his likeness has become public domain; he now has little control over that likeness or how it is employed.
My discussion of his story here, including the images I’ve embedded and the sites I’ve linked to, is yet another step in this cycle. I’ve made the determination that Little volunteered to be “public” enough to merit analysis, as I did with Boston and Craven. I’ve made the determination that other “internet famous” figures shouldn’t be named, embedded, or linked to, due to their age, vulnerability, or public silence. Even if I’ve done my best to handle these decisions ethically, my ethics are imperfect, as are the ethics of the millions creating, circulating, and transforming memetic content every day.
It’s easy to overlook the collateral damage that occurs when real people are flattened to pixels on the screen. For instance, Little accepted his fame, but what about the 10 other people whose faces and bodies are clearly visible in King’s original photo, none of whom were granted the social benefit of being deemed “ridiculously photogenic”? Though they were participating in a public event, very few likely expected they’d end up as extras on Good Morning America when they signed up for a neighborhood 10K. We’re still struggling to develop clear ethical boundaries for this sort of memetic attention; even as Good Morning America broadcast their likenesses on national TV, and subsequently uploaded that likeness to YouTube for posterity, Roberts assured Little that they would keep his “beautiful girlfriend” off camera. Her privacy was protected in a way that the others in King’s image were not.
Finally, let’s not forget why Little was singled out in the first place. Across multiple stories, Little’s physical attractiveness — and the fact that much of the attention he received online was positive — was used as a justification for spreading his likeness. Is it okay, then, for us to publicize people’s images without their consent, as long as we stipulate that they’re attractive? That we’re being positive, by whatever standards, while we do? Little was happy that he had sidestepped “vicious” interaction with the collectives who became interested in him and has apparently seen few negative long-term consequences from his brush with fame; other internet-famous figures, less “ridiculously photogenic,” have not been so lucky.
Memetic play on a mass scale, especially when captured and amplified by powerful publicity machines, has made our choices about what to create and circulate more complicated. The same collective tools that can land someone a merchandise deal or call attention to police brutality can also rally harassers and engender unmerited suffering. Solutions at platform and policy levels can and should be prioritized as social expectation catches up to technological change. But the solutions can start small as well. Memes, even the massive ones, are made by people making individual decisions: individual screenshots, individual captions, individual comments, individual stories, individual links. That means every one of us has the power to consider before we record, pause before we share, and think for a moment about the real lives behind the pixels on our screen.
Adapted from The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media by Ryan M. Milner, published by The MIT Press in 2016. Copyright Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.