Most of us consume memes as routinely as tea or coffee. Whether sent in our WhatsApp groups, or shared directly via Instagram, they're a key part of our online ecosystem in 2019.
Where did they come from? The word “meme” was first coined in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, where he described them as a “unit of cultural transmission”. Since then, memes have taken on a life of their own.
But, honestly, who actually stops to think about the people behind some of our favourite memes? What happens to your life when your face becomes endlessly plastered across the internet - mainly just for lols? Can you ever live a normal existence?
We spoke to the faces behind some well-known memes to find out.
First world problems meme
Silvia Bottini, actor
At first, I was really angry about becoming a meme. It happened when I was in China in 2008 with my then boyfriend, who was a photographer for stock photo sites. He was always taking pictures of me, and one day when we were doing some sightseeing at a temple in Shanghai, he asked me to cry for the camera. I did – and that’s how the picture happened.
I first realised I’d become a meme in 2011. Someone basically took my picture off the stock photo site, and started using it to make memes, which was actually against the rules of the site. They posted my image into meme generators, which meant that anyone could write a caption over it. People called me the “First World Problems” meme, and they’d post really trivial captions like, “My bed is so big” or, “There’s not enough dressing on my salad” over my image.
For a long time, I wished it had never happened. I was actually thinking about a person I’d loved who’d just died when the picture was taken. As an actor, I’m used to having to tap into my emotions for work, so it doesn’t bother me that my private moment of grief was used for the image, but it’s the way it was used [as a meme] that upset me.
People could write things like, “She’s a bitch” and put it over my picture. I’d been working my whole life to build a career as an actor, and suddenly I was just known for being the person in that meme. I never even made any money from the image.
Today, I’m more at peace with it. It’s actually quite funny to introduce yourself to people as a meme. Everyone’s so happy to hear about it – it’s like you have a superpower! Some people react as if they’re meeting a celebrity. They’re like, “Tell me your story, how did it happen? I’m going to text everyone I know."
I’m now working on a feature film about how I became a meme. It’s going to make fun of the situation, by telling my story in a humorous way. It’s my way of turning that experience into something empowering – for me.
The nightclub cliche
Patrick Richie, student, 18
Last September, I was in an Edinburgh club when someone took a photograph of me talking to my friend, Lucia. I have no memory of the picture being taken. Not because I was drunk, but because it was such an ordinary evening: nothing stands out about it.
The picture was taken on a Tuesday night, and published on Facebook the following evening. By the following Sunday, it had turned into a meme. People were saying things online like, “This would be a good advert for an anti-harassment campaign." That really upset me, because Lucia and I are friends, and I wasn’t harassing her, but people looked at the image and got the wrong idea because she does look very unimpressed with me. (Lucia has spoken publicly about the experience, reiterating Patrick’s assertion that they are good friends.)
My mates now introduce me to people as, “He's the meme guy!” and I say, “Yep, that’s me." I got recognised by some Swedish people on a skiing holiday recently. They said, “We recognise you from somewhere." I said, “I don’t think you do.” But then they worked it out, and we realised they’d seen the meme.
The worst thing about becoming a meme was definitely the suggestion I was harassing my mate! That felt really unfair. Because of that, there was a period where I really hated the fact I was a meme. Now, I’m OK with it. Everyone back home knows that Lucia and I are friends – and that’s what really matters. What have I learned about the internet, as a result of becoming a meme? That sometimes things will happen to you online, and you lose control, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The ‘Royal’ town crier
Tony Appleton, retired, 83
Thirty years ago, I was at a village fête and someone said to me, “You look like a town crier to me.” That’s how it all started. I hold the manorial rights [an honorific title] to the village of Great Baddow in Essex, where I lived at the time, so I used to open all the village fêtes and got good at addressing large crowds. Being a town crier is an unofficial position, so I’m not paid by anyone.
I’ve announced the birth of three royal babies, Prince Harry’s engagement, and I was at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle for two days. I was going around, ringing the bell and doing proclamations the whole time in Windsor. I even had a Japanese camera crew following me.
I’ve always loved to dress up, and if I’m being honest, I enjoy being noticed, too. I get a buzz out of it - I even travel in my uniform.
When Prince George was born, I turned up and the world’s press thought I was a member of the Royal Family's staff, but that’s not the case. Still, I made the announcement. The second time, when Princess Charlotte was born, the press were more or less waiting for me. And the third time, when Prince Louis was born, well, the rest is internet history.
I actually had some inside information when Louis was born, but I can’t tell you where I got it from - that’s top secret! That’s the beauty of being well-known: people communicate with you. I’m recognised all the time. People say, “Are you the person who announced the birth of the royal babies?”
I’m working on how I’ll announce Harry and Meghan’s baby at the moment. It has to be planned like a military operation. I have a friend who helps me with the logistics for free - he says it’s a bit of fun. We’re on the countdown now: I’ve got my cry that I write on my scroll that I practise every day. I can’t tell you what’s in the cry - that’s also top secret.
It feels great to be a meme - all you have to do is type my name in the internet, and I’m everywhere. It makes me feel on top of the world. I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I love the Royal Family.
Zoe Roth, student, 18
I was four when I became one of the internet’s first memes. It was 2004, and my dad had just bought a new camera and wanted to try it out, so we’d gone for a walk near my house in North Carolina, US. The fire department was doing a practice run, putting out a fire in a house two blocks over from where we lived.
I remember the picture being taken. I thought it was an actual fire, so I was freaked out. I didn't know that it wasn’t a real fire until years later. I thought that people were in the house still, and I was worried for them – but not that worried, I guess, as I was still smiling. I can see now, that it probably later went viral because of how evil I look.
My dad posted the picture online in 2004. He also entered it into a magazine’s photo competition a few years later, because he thought it was a cool picture. The magazine then posted it on their website and put it in their print magazine in 2008. After that, things went wild. People started sending me the memes, with the image overlaid saying things like, “My Neighbours Used To Listen To Justin Bieber...Used To”, or posting them on social media. It was suddenly everywhere.
Mostly, the experience has been positive. It has never been scary. In college, a few people have come up to me and said, “Are you the girl from the internet?” I’ve never been recognised by random strangers, though.
My favourite meme of me is the one that says, “When you rap the whole verse correctly.” I love that one! The worst moment was when Chris Brown shared my meme once. That was gross. I didn’t like that, because I don’t support Chris Brown due to his assault of then girlfriend Rihanna in 2009.
Apart from that, I generally don't take issue with any of the memes: as long as they're not offensive, I'm fine with them.
A social media marketing company actually bought the rights to the image a few years ago. That helped me pay for a little bit of college. Other times, people have paid us a few hundred dollars to use it in games or advertising campaigns.
It’s fun when I meet people and see their reactions when I tell them about my meme past. That’s my favourite thing about it. Apart from that, it hasn’t really affected my life that much - people don’t recognise me from the image, as I was a kid. But the money has helped, of course.
The accidental hipster
Ivor Noyek, art director, 35
I became a meme three years ago. It all happened when a friend took a photo of me when we were in upstate New York, celebrating a friend’s birthday. He showed me the photo, and I thought it looked kind of cool, so I made it my Facebook profile picture. The next morning I’d had all these likes and comments from my friends, taking the piss out of me because I looked like a hipster in the photograph. They were mostly laughing at the outfit, although the pose - with my hands squeezed into my slightly too tight jeans pockets - didn’t help.
I’m a graphic designer, and lots of my friends are in the same industry, so they had access to photo editing software – and knew how to use it. They started editing me into all these different memes, and it picked up from there. I started getting friend requests from people all over the world and there was even a hashtag: #IvorIsComing. A friend created a Tumblr blog and uploaded all the memes she found on there. It all happened so quickly, it was bizarre, but I found it hilarious - if a bit random.
There were so many good memes. One had me popping up in Game of Thrones as a White Walker next to Jon Snow, which I found pretty funny. In another, I’m racing Usain Bolt in the Olympics. I think part of the reason it was so popular was that it was so generic: you could edit me into almost any scenario. Turns out, I’m pretty universal.
After about a week the hype wound down. Luckily, I don’t get recognised, which is good. I’ve never been spotted on the street or in a restaurant. But my friends will take the mick out of me when we’re out, and say, “Look, there’s the meme guy!” As for my parents, they were definitely confused by the whole thing because they’re not really up to date on meme culture, but my sister saw the funny side.
I never would have thought a random photo of me would go global. But that’s the thing: you don’t choose to become a meme, it just happens to you.
Originally published March 6 2019