@badluckbrian via foundation.app
Zoe Roth is 21 and gearing up to graduate from university. Sixteen years ago she was standing in front of a burning building in North Carolina when her dad, an amateur photographer, snapped a picture that would take on a whole life of its own.
The pre-schooler’s sinister expression in the face of apparent disaster made for perfect meme material; soon it was appearing on messageboards and forums, and eventually named Disaster Girl by Know Your Meme. It took on new significance in 2020 – a year defined by its own steady surge of terrible events. “It’s the perfect meme for 2020,” says Roth. “Because 2020 was like a dumpster fire.” But soon, Roth hopes, the meme will be paying off her student loans.
She is one of a small number of people whose faces came to define mainstream internet culture in the early-2010s, when image macros and the Impact typeface were seemingly everywhere and there was a photo-based character for any situation.
There’s the grip-fisted Success Kid, Bad Luck Brian (for whom everything will always go horribly wrong), the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy gliding his way through a 10k run, Scumbag Steve with his sideways cap and sullen expression, the crazed stare of the Overly Attached Girlfriend, or Clarinet Boy, who looks like he’s seen something he’ll never, ever forget. This was also a period in which early examples of viral videos were taking hold: seven-year-old David Devore Jr. tripping balls after a dentist appointment, or Chris Crocker mounting an impassioned defence of Britney Spears have become icons of the era.
Over the years, some of these people have been able to parlay their accidental fame into modest earnings – licensing deals here and there, events appearances, a bizarre Delta Airlines safety video. Now, they’re cashing in by minting and auctioning non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
The auction returns so far have ranged from very-nice-to-have to totally life-changing. Laina Morris, the Overly Attached Girlfriend, landed 200 ether in cryptocurrency – equivalent to around £335,000 – from her auction on April 4. Bad Luck Brian, whose real name is Kyle Craven, finally saw his fortunes change when he raked in nearly £35,000 worth of crypto; Chris Crocker’s Britney NFT took home a similar amount; Scumbag Steve nabbed £50,000. (They’re not all rolling in it: Ermagherd Girl scored around £3,000; Ridiculously Photogenic Guy is awaiting a first bid.) Others – Disaster Girl, Clarinet Boy, and David After Dentist among them – are lining up their own offerings for the coming days and weeks.
The smart contracts that underpin NFTs mean that, unlike traditional art auctions, the original creators can ensure they take a cut of any future sales too. Most of the OG meme NFTs are being auctioned via Foundation, which gives a standard ten per cent share of any future sales to the person who minted the original NFT.
For Craven (aka Brian), the high school portrait that he took as a joke nearly 16 years ago is now a source of “residual money every now and again”. Harry Jones, the 20 year-old who purchased Craven’s NFT, says that he’s already received messages from prospective new buyers asking for his price. Craven will receive a share of whatever Jones decides to sell for.
For the most part, these meme stars live fairly ordinary lives. Devore Jr. is studying computer science (not dentistry) at the University of Florida. Roth is at university too, studying international relations and Chinese. Craven runs a construction company in Ohio. Ridiculously Photogenic Zeddie Little runs a cocktail bar in Brooklyn. Clarinet Boy, who’s 48 and goes by BJ, lives and works in Dallas, Texas as a mental health practitioner (he used to be a primary school teacher, which he says led to some slightly awkward interactions when students found out about his meme fame).
Their plans for any NFT earnings reflect their modest lives. Roth plans to put any money she makes from her auction (which goes live this Friday) towards paying off her university debts, maybe upgrading her car, and giving her parents some cash towards fixing up their home in North Carolina. Craven is going to keep the money in crypto, and make a few NFT investments of his own. Little says he’ll take himself out for a beer if his NFT makes him a few bucks.
Coordinating many of the meme auctions is an enterprising Washingtonian called Ben Lashes. The first (and perhaps only) specialist ‘meme manager’ Lashes has helped his clients monetise their hype over the years. His most notable partners are the perma-frowning Grumpy Cat (who died in 2019), and Nyan Cat creator Chris Torres, who has earned more than a million dollars in ether from auctioning NFTs in recent months.
While Grumpy Cat’s likeness has graced everything from plushies to a terrible made-for-TV Christmas movie, Lashes says it’s generally been more difficult for the human memes to make money from their ubiquity over the years. For Lashes, though, the NFT gold rush is about more than a quick cash grab.
He’s long maintained that memes are important cultural artefacts, describing them today as “modern day pop art”. In a 2013 interview, he compared Charlie Schmidt, the creator of Keyboard Cat, to Andy Warhol. Whether you buy into this or not is seemingly beside the point when there are people liquid in crypto out there looking to invest – and deliver up potentially life-changing amounts of money to these accidentally famous people in the process.
@REALSCUMBAGSTEVE via foundation.app
Most of the memes auctioned so far have been snapped up by a small handful of collectors. One of them is Farzin Fardin Fard, or @3fmusic, who appears to run a music studio in Dubai and has gained a reputation as a “NFT whale” (though not much more is known about him, and he hasn’t responded to any requests for comment).
Harry Jones, meanwhile, has won four auctions to date – including Kyle Craven’s for Bad Luck Brian. Jones says he got lucky, having bought a couple of Beeple pieces at the very beginning of the NFT rush. The landmark Christie’s auction for Beeple’s 5,000-piece digital collage, which netted $69 million (about £50m), means Jones has got a bit more crypto to play with now. And he’s got big plans.
In 2016, a group of Redditors established a satirical subreddit called r/MemeEconomy where they would ‘trade’ and ‘invest’ in so-called ‘rare’ memes. With the addition of cryptocurrency, what started as a joke is becoming a reality. Jones is interested in new technology that will allow NFT creators and owners to fractionalise their NFTs and trade them in bit parts, in the same way that stocks and shares are traded in financial markets (Jones recently moved to New York from Michigan to work for an information markets platform).
He plans to use his growing collection of meme NFTs as a starter fund for the marketplace, and says he’s been receiving messages from venture capitalists interested in the idea. Like Lashes, Jones views these memes as culturally significant. Eventually, he says, he’d like to see smart contract technology make it easier for all digital artists to collect royalties on their works each time they’re shared or reproduced. This vision, however, is arguably at odds with the otherwise not-very-futuristic analogies of stock trading and the art market.
The meme people, meanwhile, are mostly bemused – and happily so. “Honestly, if they would like to buy this, if it makes them happy, I’m more than happy to contribute to their happiness,” says Roth.
The various meme characters have formed their own loose community, and rallied around each other’s auctions – a support group, of sorts, for the very select group of people who’ve had this life experience. While they’d previously meet from time-to-time at events and via brand activations, now they’re talking each other through the process of minting and auctioning NFTs.
Craven recalls chatting with Morris on the day she was selling her Overly Attached Girlfriend NFT. “It’s getting down to the last three hours and she’s like, ‘I just don’t think it’s gonna sell,’” says Craven, “And I’m like, ‘Just wait, it’s always in the last 15 minutes, just wait.’ And then, in the last 15 minutes, it exploded. And good for her, you know, I wish I made that much money!”
The group has been able to warn one another of companies looking to capitalise on the boom by offering their services to people wanting to mint new NFTs. Craven says that Roth was approached by one such company, telling her that they’d helped Craven auction off his likeness – despite the fact that he had done it himself, with the help of Nyan Cat artist Torres.
This kind of collective support is reminiscent of an earlier strand of internet utopianism, when social media sites and Web 2.0 more generally were seen as opportunities to connect with people – rather than just extract data (and profits) from them. Lashes, Jones, and many of the meme people believe that this nostalgia for a more innocent time online is driving some of the interest in the OG meme auctions too.
“I think that people remember those classic videos from back when the internet was, I don’t know, as far as the viral videos go, it was just a pure form of it,” says David Devore, who filmed his woozy son after a dentist trip. “It was just innocent and new, and so I think people are wanting to own a piece of that.”
Jones is enjoying the buzz of the auctions and making good money, but he’s more excited to be receiving selfies from the real-life Bad Luck Brian (they’ve been messaging regularly since the auction closed). Whether this sheen of innocence will survive the market forces descending on the world of NFT auctions remains to be seen. But for now, as with any good meme, those involved are just revelling in the absurdity of it all.
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