The Afterlife of Memes
Memes are viruses. In 1976, British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins defined the term as a “unit of cultural transmission” that will “literally parasitize” the brain, “turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation.” The same is true of internet memes. The online inside jokes, from LOLcats to Hipster Little Mermaid, have a way of sticking in our heads like stubborn colds. So if internet memes are viral in a very literal sense, what do you do when one infects your dog?
Atsuko Sato is a 51-year-old teacher in Japan. She’s a hiking enthusiast, a blogger, and a lover of animals. Sato owns several pets: one dog—an adorable Shiba Inu named Kabosu—and two cats. Sato kept a blog of photos documenting her pets, and eventually the blog became a big hit in Japan. Kabosu was featured in pet magazines and developed a small but devoted following. Then, in 2013, a photo of the dog—perched on a couch, paws crossed, eyes glaring—found its way into the global blogosphere. As it passed through web communities like 4chan, Reddit, and Tumblr, it gradually mutated into the meme known as Doge. The meme splashed Kabosu’s visage with rainbow-colored Comic Sans type, narrating the Doge character’s thoughts in broken phrases like “Wow,” “So scare,” and “Such amaze.”
That’s the story I told Sato when I first informed her of Doge’s existence. “Wow, scare, amaze” might also describe her reaction to the news that her pet had become a viral meme. Sato had seen the Doge images online but didn’t understand at all what they meant. She was shocked to suddenly discover that a lot more people knew Kabosu than she had thought. “I was scared that the picture had spread like wildfire,” Sato told me recently, half a year after her relationship to the meme became clear.
Followers of Sato’s personal pet blog didn’t get Doge, either. When Sato posted a translated version of an article I’d written about the meme, commenters recoiled. Sato understood their discontent. “They thought the Doge memes with Kabosu’s face on pancakes, cookies, and so on were very weird because they like cute Kabosu,” she explained. “Fans were making comments like ‘It’s not the Kabosu that I know’ and ‘I feel Kabosu became too famous, I don’t know her.’” The fans felt like they’d lost ownership of their beloved Kabosu to Doge, and they turned resentful. “I think they didn’t want Kabosu to be famous as Doge,” Sato said.
Meanwhile, advertising agencies were barraging Sato with inquiries about using Doge in commercials; a dog food brand was interested in collaborating with Kabosu. Sato was faced with a choice: she could cultivate the meme, embrace Doge fame, and let it displace Kabosu; or she could ignore the furor completely and hope that the Doge frenzy would subside and leave her to return to a peaceful life with a quiet blog and satisfied fans. The latter proved difficult. The meme had already metastasized.
In an offline sense, memes are phenomena that perpetuate themselves across people and cultures; they can take on many forms beyond a jokey digital image. A meme might be a particular linguistic quirk — uptalking, for example, or niche slang; a fashion phenomenon like platform shoes or Birkenstocks; or even a cultural tradition like Christmas. But they proliferate for different reasons, too. A functional meme might allow us to better communicate with those close to us or help identify like-minded others, acting as a shibboleth. Less useful memes might also spread for no other reason than that people like to mimic each other.
According to University of Vienna linguistics professor Nikolaus Ritt, it is this concept of mimicry—or copycatting—that explains what’s happening to Kabosu. “Humans are equipped with an instinct that makes us want to be like one another; it solicits cooperation,” Ritt told me over Skype. “The mere experience of being like somebody else can actually make me feel good.” Thus, when we observe others’ actions, we’re “motivated to try them out ourselves. When this trial is rewarded, then this makes us retain the meme.”
In other words, the content of the meme itself — Doge, Grumpy Cat, Good Guy Greg — becomes secondary to this act of communal sharing. As a collective culture, we “do something that seems to be completely meaningless, and, as long as it’s not very energy-consuming, I, as an individual, repeat it,” Ritt said. And what could be so meaningless and yet so easily shareable as a meme?
Jay Kuo, senior vice president at Ultra PRO, a manufacturer of card-gaming accessories like card sleeves, table mats (for keeping cards in place while playing), and deck boxes, was also keeping tabs on Doge’s identity. The company produces novelty runs of its products branded with internet icons — imagery like Nyan Cat, Grumpy Cat, and My Little Pony, among others — and they were flying off the shelves. Some, Kuo told me, had sold out in preorders before they were even released. So when Kuo found out that Kabosu was the real-life Doge late last year, he reached out to Sato to arrange another batch of meme goods. “We really cater to geek culture,” Kuo said. With Doge, “we wanted a lighter side of things for our products. We get the inside joke.”
Kuo had to license Doge from Sato to use the copyrighted photograph, but he also wanted Doge to grow. “We suggested to Atsuko that really now is the time, probably a little late even, to take advantage of social media and try to make a presence,” he said. But Sato didn’t immediately agree to any commercial deals. “I couldn’t believe what they were saying,” she said. “It’s like it was happening only in my PC.” But the deluge of offers was continuing, and even with the help of her friend and English translator Sarana Iwao, she couldn’t deal with the flood, nor did she particularly want to.
“She really wasn’t thinking that this could potentially make money,” Kuo said. “We explained what we would do with it, how we could help her manage the commercial side.” After Sato agreed, Kuo and Ultra PRO became Doge’s first agent and distributor in the US.; they now sublicense the Doge images to companies wanting to appropriate its viral buzz. But in typical meme fashion, Doge, as a parasite on the real Kabosu’s identity, became more famous than its host.
According to Sato, she agreed to the arrangement only because she wanted to donate the majority of the proceeds she might make from Doge to animal charities (Kabosu is a rescue dog from a puppy mill). “I thought it would be nice if Kabosu could help more animals, but I didn’t know how,” she said. Charity or not, the meme starring her pet’s smiling face became a commodity. Ultra PRO sold 70 percent of the Doge product run on preorder. Licensing interest was coming from cookie, clothing, and dog-leash companies. The Doge team even signed up Ben Lashes, the agent of Grumpy Cat, Scumbag Steve, and Success Kid, among other memes, to help. “We’ll make sure [Sato] gets what she deserves as the person who took the photo, but make sublicensing reasonable enough to help spread the joy around,” Kuo said. “We try to stay true to the funness of the image.”
I asked Jay what he thought the future of Doge might look like now that the quirky internet joke had transformed into a line of disposable knickknacks. “I think it will remain strong,” he said. “Ultimately we want to see the meme be as successful as any other big ones you see on the internet.” Yet even Grumpy Cat, one of the biggest crossover internet memes, has an expiration date, as the real-life cat’s owner, Tabatha Bundesen, freely admits. Whenever her pet’s fame ends, “I’m fine with it. I was sure it wouldn’t last very long in the first place,” she told The Arizona Republic.
Grumpy Cat’s continuing success is proving extremely profitable. The cat has brought in over $100 million, thanks to a whirlwind of popularizing appearances on the Today show and Good Morning America, and goodwill visits to the offices of media companies. An upcoming holiday movie on Lifetime — Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever — will surely add fuel to the fire. Even as Doge unravels, Grumpy Cat accelerates.
When a meme does die, it doesn’t go quickly or mercifully. It rots from within. According to Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist and editor of Slate’s language blog who wrote a viral article explaining the grammar of Doge, “the people who are most in the center of creating new memes are the ones who get tired of it first and move on to something else.” Without a source of innovation, there is a “gradual spread away” from the meme, which eventually becomes “kind of dormant.”
Take Grumpy Cat, for example. By embracing its commercial potential, owner Bundesen pushed the meme into the broader cultural sphere in the shape of plush dolls and insipid musical commercials like the Purina jingle “Cat Summer.” The meme might be out in the world at large, but it’s not as interesting on the internet anymore. “I haven’t seen a Grumpy Cat image on Tumblr in I don’t know how long,” McCulloch said. “The last thing I saw was a mash-up of Grumpy Cat and Doge.” In fact, Bundesen might be speeding her meme’s death by exploiting it.
Could internet memes ever attain the 80-plus-year lifespan of Mickey Mouse, likely America’s most enduring pop-cultural meme? I would bet on their survival. As self-interested creatures driven to take root wherever possible, memes do have a way of sticking around. “A meme that gained popularity never really dies,” McCulloch said. Similar to how quoting a funny movie, however old, is still funny, the meme “becomes part of the collective knowledge of references that we have.” What Nickelodeon cartoon characters are to today, internet memes will be to 2030. “We’re going to get meme nostalgia,” she theorized. “LOLcats will be retro-chic in a few years.”
Sato is still living with the meme as an uninvited houseguest. She’s decided to dabble in Doge without propelling it further, but without motivation she won’t be for long. Like a washed-up celebrity, Doge has turned into ironic kitsch, and it will eventually become a tiresome casualty of our truncated attention spans, buried in the increasingly packed graveyard of deceased memes.
In the meantime, however, there is still the real, live Kabosu: a lovable pet and friend who wanders through parks, rolls in the grass, and curls up on the couch. And when the Doge parasite wanes in popularity, it is this Kabosu who will remain. I asked Sato if she viewed her rescue dog any differently after the relentless exposure of internet fame. I thought she might perceive some kind of ethereal aura around the animal, or notice that Kabosu twitched her ears whenever the Wi-Fi went out — something that would reaffirm the magic of memes. “No, not at all,” she answered. “Nothing has changed.”
A meme’s aegis is temporary. Internet fashion moves on; commenters are quick to deem things uncool and indeed had declared Doge dead several times over, even before Kabosu’s identity was revealed. But move beyond the core group of innovators, users, and followers, and Doge’s significance quickly vanishes. It’s simply something that got copied, a single drop in the greater cultural flood. Most people simply don’t care about the latest in internet culture; to those outsiders, memes may have no more impact than a summer breeze, though it hit Sato like a storm.
Curious about the lasting effects of Doge, I asked the National Shiba Club of America if the meme had spurred any sudden interest in the dogs. “Some Shiba people really seem to enjoy it, but we have not heard of an increase in popularity of the breed in general,” wrote back Lori Pendergast, the NSCA’s corresponding secretary. Fittingly enough, Pendergast’s email was written in Comic Sans.