Posted at 04:25 PM ET, 01/11/2012

Where memes begin: An interview with Josh Fonner, whose photo was used for two popular memes


Josh Fonner (Facebook/Josh Fonner)
Where do memes begin?

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term to describe “the idea of a unit of cultural transmission.” The idea needs to start somewhere, but with so many memes on the Internet these days, it’s hard to tell.

A concept or photo spreads like wildfire from computer screen to screen, and we almost never think about the people behind them.

On Tuesday, one Palm Bay, Fla., man pulled back the curtain on the user-generated news site Reddit: “IAmA guy who has two of my pictures used to create popular memes without my knowledge.”

The Florida man is Josh Fonner, 23, a customer sales and service representative whose photos were taken from his personal pages on the Internet. He later found them captioned with snarky, cruel jokes and spread across the Internet for the world to see.


(Josh Fonner)
In the first photo (left), Fonner is dressed in Gothic clothing, and someone wrote: “Fat Emo. When the world gets you down, eat it.”

The photo was used in a video made by the Westboro Baptist Church, widely described as a hate group. Entitled “God Sent the Shooter!” the video depicts reasons that a number of people deserved to die. The video has now been removed from YouTube because it violated their hate speech policy, according to the placeholder page where the video once was.


(Josh Fonner)
The second photo (left) depicts Fonner dressed up as the Joker character from the comic book “Batman,” on Halloween. By the time he found it on — where else — Reddit, it was accompanied by the caption “It’s simple We Eat Batman.”

Fonner’s post on the social network Tuesday inspired hundreds of comments from Reddit users, many of them meme-lovers, who asked wide-ranging questions about the stories behind the photos, whether he was angry to have his picture used without permission, whether he was hurt by the captions written about his weight.

Fonner answered nearly all of the questions, writing that the first time he saw his photo used he was “a little angry, little outraged.” The second time, he said he laughed it off, chalking it up to the ways of the Internet.

“It's a really weird mixture of horror, shock, amusement, and leeriness,” he said of seeing himself as a meme. “It's one of those little badges of honor that people in my inner circle get to see... When Westboro used it, and when there was an FB like page about it that had 300 thousand likes and they were passing around my personal info? I didn't find it funny at all.”

After finding his post on Reddit, Blogpost (a chronicler of many memes) caught up with Fonner. Our interview:

Q. You seem pretty well versed in the Internet. Do you think that’s part of the reason you have such a good attitude about your photos getting used?

Fonner: Something I've said for years is that the Internet flows through my veins. Pardon the dramatic flair. I think my familiarity with the Internet definitely makes it easier to just let it go. Know that people are laughing at you, but not only are they laughing at other people too, *I'M* laughing at other people.

Many memes pick out something negative about a person in a photo, and amplify it. These guys picked up on your weight. ... Why do you think memes do that?

Why do stereotypes typically only pick out the negative and amplify it? It's a cheap and easy shot. Picking out the most obvious perceived fault of someone and amplifying and exaggerating it for a laugh. It's human nature. The large majority of memes prey upon stereotypes to begin with, albeit in ridiculous ways.

What’s your opinion of memes?

There are many Internet trends and especially trends on Reddit that tend to get on my nerves, but for the most part, I just tend to blame it on the individual creator and not the meme itself

Why’d you decide to share your story on Reddit?

My best friend in the entire world, Veronica ... had been urging me to tell my story to Reddit. [She] knows me like the back of her hand, knows my good side and bad side, and was positive that I would win Reddit over. I always assumed AMAs were for like celebrities and such. One day I realized r/IAmA was starting to get really pedestrian. I figured, why not. The worst that can happen is I get told to take a hike, but I didn't. Not in the least.

For more meme-making, read an interview with the real man behind Scumbag Steve, another popular Internet meme, at KnowYourMeme.

By  |  04:25 PM ET, 01/11/2012

Tags:  National, Internet culture, memes, Josh Fronner

 
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