three short things about internet archaeology
a couple of half-finished research projects, and then a victory lap
One of the foundational thing to know about meme culture is that it thrives on a lack of context. A good meme is legible to the reader without having to know any additional info. Some memes trade on and play with how memes assume knowledge, but the general idea is that the less specific a piece of viral media is, the more universally it appeals. The fewer proper nouns a meme has, the more space there is for the viewer to fill in the blanks with their own experiences.
Context, on the other hand, can kill a meme. My favorite, most straightforward example of this is Success Kid, the kid raising his fist in triumph. Here he is:
Now here is some context you didn’t need: he’s actually got a fistful of sand and he’s trying to eat it. For many people, I assume this fact might break the illusion of the meme and the tone they imagine that Success Kid speaks in. Meme culture incentivizes reducing context and specific detail, and its why videos and pictures and blocks of texts that seemingly originate from nowhere and go viral online. It’s also why Instagram meme accounts have been so reluctant to credit the people they steal jokes from. Meme culture disincentivizes acknowledging ownership or individual creators.
Which hasn’t stopped people from trying to claim credit anyway. There’s an immortal post that has been floating around Tumblr for years. It’s this image.
“I petition that the entire website of Instagram needs to be shutdown forever. No picture could ever live up this masterpiece,” wrote the user westbor0baptistchurch.
“This meme is so good it has end credits,” awashinreverb commented in their reblog.
I thought of this because this image macro reappeared in my feed earlier this week. One user had written, “you’re laughing. i asked you who sings party rock anthem and you’re laughing.” Another responded with an even more degraded, and compressed version of this macro and the declaration that, “we have no choice but to repeat history but there is comfort in familiarity.”
There is so much history embedded in this image. It is scripted like a Vine, except for the fact that it’s not. Before short-form video became a mainstay of digital culture, we had these hokey four-panel comics. Also, they are talking about LMFAO, the music duo that famously produced just two albums, 2009’s Party Rock and 2011’s Sorry For Party Rocking. The final panel is a branding exercise that is now commonplace in the creation of media for social platforms. Also also, I absolutely must draw your attention to the Snow Patrol lyrics on Hayley’s wall.
This image is now so much of a specific era that the sort of sneering tone of the commentary with which it first appeared on Tumblr now reads as sincere. “Remember a simpler time? When the height of internet comedy was this?” Revisiting it years later, the significance of it only grows.
With that in mind, I tried to track down Hayley, but I came up short. All I could find were a handful of defunct Instagram accounts, long-dormant YouTube channels, and dead Twitter accounts. I couldn’t even find a last name. Just as mysteriously as Hayley appeared on the internet, she seems to have vanished.
Aaron Carpenter, on the other hand, stuck around. He is now a musician with 3.5 million Instagram followers and hundreds of thousands of followers on YouTube and Twitter. You’re correct to assume that most of those followers did not find him through a stale image-macro joke circa 2011 — it turns out Aaron was part of the Magcon Boys, Vine stars who basically got famous because they were cute.
As far as I can tell, Aaron does not follow anyone named Hayley on Instagram. I also couldn’t find Hayley among his millions of followers. Another wrinkle, one that suggests that the original LMFAO comic might not have been a collaborative effort. Maybe it was just an imagined conversation between Hayley and her internet crush Aaron, rather than something they both came up with together. In other words, this dumb joke is somehow also an act of fandom.
At least, that’s my guess.
You. Come. Now.
Shortly after large swaths of the United States shut down in March, and schools transitioned to online classes, I saw this viral tweet from @1800HotMilf.
It features this GIF, which is instantly familiar to a select group of people cursed to remember its origins. The GIF comes from a Tumblr user named n4ughtybear and was popular around the time 50 Shades of Gray was having a moment. Even though it is a grainy, potato-cam GIF of some faceless guy making hand gestures.
And yet, it elicited absolutely wild responses like this.
I’m sorry you had to read this.
I consulted Tumblr expert Cates Holderness about the image and here’s what she had to say:
You. Come. Now. is truly an iconic Tumblr meme icon. To this day, the prevalence of it and its countless iterations instills nostalgia, delight, and more than a little fear whenever I see it on my dashboard.
From what I could find, the original caption for this GIF was “got bored wearing uniform ( I prefer this to my white and grey uniform ),” which is not that different from people showing off their outfits on Instagram or TikTok these days. But on Tumblr, unfortunately, this GIF was picked up by a pron blog called “yeahhletsfuck” (whose bio at one time included unfortunate posturing like, “OH! and I like sex... A lot.”) and turned into some highly eroticized fodder.
What happens when your unassuming GIF becomes fodder for horny people online? I wonder how it feels to see your headless form on the internet years later, in contexts you can’t ever hope to control.
Unfortunately, I guess I’ll never know. I managed to track down the guy in the picture, a man from England who seems to be doing well based on his social profiles, but for some reason he never responded to Facebook and Instagram messages I sent him seeking answers about his accidentally erotic GIF. I also contacted a couple of his friends who’d reblogged it, and they also didn’t respond.
I don’t really blame them! “Hi, I’m a journalist hoping to write about an ancient horny GIF from the Old Internet starring your friend! Can I talk to you on the record?” Some things were meant to stay a mystery, I guess.
a victory lap
In April of 2019, as Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” was climbing the charts, I wrote about his past as a purveyor of viral tweets within a somewhat dubious ecosystem known as Tweetdecking. His participation in this sphere was not a secret — when I began working on the piece, the fact was already noted on his Wikipedia page.
Yet his team wouldn’t talk to me about it, and had actively scrubbed the fact from other articles about Lil Nas X. So absent an interview, I used old comments and metadata from Lil Nas X’s different accounts on Twitter and Reddit to demonstrate that these accounts were all run by the same person. I didn’t need to do an interview, because the proof was publicly accessible online. That’s why the headline I wrote for the piece was “Before ‘Old Town Road,’ Lil Nas X Was a Tweetdecker.” It was not phrased as a question, or an allegation, but rather, a clear statement of fact.
Neither Lil Nas X or his reps ever contacted me, and they never requested any corrections to the facts presented in the piece. He indirectly denied that he used to run a meme account in an interview a few days later by calling it “a misunderstanding.”
Except I didn’t misunderstand anything. A month later, in a video for the New York Times, Lil Nas X confirmed that he did run the Reddit account u/nasmaraj to build an audience for the song. That detail confirmed that all of the social media accounts I cited were run by the same person.
In September of 2019, Lil Nas X gave an interview to Billboard which includes the following direct quote:
He wanted to “build and build my personality on the internet and a bigger base -- reaching wider audiences of all kinds. Keep going until you actually find something you can profit from, which I did, luckily.”
This aligns pretty well with what I’d laid out in my original piece, when I theorized about why Lil Nas X refused to acknowledge his meme-making past: “A feel-good story of ingenious platform disruption and merit-based achievement plays a lot better than using pay-for-play meme-propagation systems based on infringement and misrepresentation to build a following and then release a hip-hop track.” In other words, my piece illustrated that “Old Town Road” wasn’t a fluke of an algorithm but the product of an aggressive guerrilla markting effort with roots in Tweetdecking.
The piece continues:
He released “Old Town Road” on SoundCloud and iTunes last December, then spent all his waking hours pushing the track online, creating memes or laying search bait on Reddit to jump-start interest.
So again, I was right. The single didn’t just magically become popular on TikTok. It was memes then music, not — as most versions of Lil Nas X’s origin put it when the song initially blew up — the other way around.
And that brings us to this summer, when Lil Nas X confirmed another aspect of my report, which is that he is a Barb, a Nicki Minaj Stan. His denial of being @nasmaraj frustrated other stans who also viewed it as a rejection of Minaj herself.
I coudn’t say as much at the time but this is the other reason I assumed Lil Nas X’s reps did not grant an interview request or even respond to any of my efforts to seek comment: confirming the story also would have indrectly confirmed that Lil Nas X is gay, something that he eventually announced at the end of June 2019. (Very intentionally, the piece I wrote made no mention of his sexual orientation. Not my story to tell!)
As the title of this section states, this is a victory lap. My original piece, which stated these facts as facts right in the headline, was accurate.
And yet! I still read crap like this:
“it's long been speculated by stans that Lil Nas X is a fan of Nicki's and used to run a popular social media account dedicated to the rapper” [not speculation!]
“there's a lot of evidence contributing to the theory that ‘nasmaraj,’ a Twitter account known for tweetdecking and Minaj stanning, was really him.” [not a theory!]
“after years of speculation related to a stan account he’d never addressed … an indirect acknowledgment that Lil Nas X did run a Nicki Minaj fan page — perhaps a little stan account called @nasmaraj?” [from nymag’s very own Vulture — embarrassing!!]
Mr. Policeman… I gave you all the clues…
Anyway, I’m really looking forward to the next five years of TikTok-fueled music discovery and the accurate coverage that goes with it.
Bill de Blasio must resign