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How an online fight about dogs became one of 2016’s greatest memes

Washington Post illustration; iStock

The best meme of 2016 — and let’s be real, probably any year — should be the one that was born from people arguing about dogs on the Internet. The one where, in the end, everybody won.

The meme I’m talking about is “They’re good dogs, Brent,” which first gained popularity in September. It never became as notorious as Pepe or as popular as Damn, Daniel, but as an important meme, it deserves to be considered among them.

If you know “They’re good dogs, Brent,” you will immediately agree with me. If not, please keep reading.

Here is how “They’re good dogs, Brent” began: “Brent” is Brant Walker, who got into an argument in September with a parody Twitter account that rates dogs online. Walker felt that the dog rater was too easy on the dogs, who are theoretically rated on a scale of 1 to 10. The dog rater, whose name is Matt Nelson (he tweets as @dog_rates), disagreed — pretty much every dog deserves a 10, and many deserve, say, an 11 or 12. Or more. The defense he gave for his generous evaluations of the worth of the Internet’s dogs was very funny, and it went viral:

The original tweet itself now has nearly 5,000 retweets and 10,000 likes. The most viral screenshot of the conversation has nearly 55,000 retweets, and the image has spread to other platforms, like imgur.) Nelson now sells “They’re good dogs, Brent” T-shirts on his website. He estimates that the tweet in its screenshot form has raked in about 35 million impressions across Twitter. He’s gained about 50,000 followers for @dog_rates because of it.

Both Walker and Nelson agreed to talk to me via Skype in a group conversation. It was the first time the two of them had spoken at length with each other about what happened, not counting a couple of Twitter DMs and emails in the immediate aftermath of “They’re good dogs,” Brent” ascending into memedom.

“It’s been ridiculous the impact it’s had,” Nelson said to me. The conversation, which Nelson and Walker say they did not plan or stage in any way, still gets cited as the Internet’s greatest example of the “perfect back and forth.”

“I had followed Matt’s account for a while. I think I even submitted a dog awhile ago. He never rated it,” Walker explained.

The Internet’s most famous dog rater keeps disappearing from Twitter

“I don’t want people to think that I was attacking him,” Walker said. “I don’t like using the term ‘trolling.’ I was trying to make people laugh,” he added.

Serious or not — Walker finds humor in the ambiguity of that —  he decided to tweet at Nelson with some thoughts about his very enthusiastic approach to evaluating the worth of dogs.

“I noticed that all his ratings were way above the scale of 10/10. And I was like, if you’re not gonna rate the dog legitimately, why not change your name to ‘cute dogs?’ ” he said. “I don’t want to say that the fact that I’d sent a dog to him and he didn’t respond was my motivation.”

Nelson sees his account primarily as a humor account, where the “dogs are the hot topic to deliver my comedy.” So when Nelson saw Walker’s criticism of his dog rating system, he also took it as a comment on his approach to writing jokes. As @dog_rates has taken off, this sort of work has become a bigger and bigger part of the 20-year-old college student’s life.

“Without knowing,” Nelson told Walker, “you tapped every single nerve that made me respond.”

“They’re good dogs, Brent” has been persistent for a couple of pretty simple reasons: The Internet loves dogs. One thing it loves even more than dogs, though? Seeing a “hater” of good dogs burned by the perfect, silly comeback.

Walker, a graphic and web designer who lives in the Bay Area, wanted to make sure people knew he doesn’t actually hate dogs. “I love dogs just as much as Matt,” Walker said. A lot of Nelson’s fans seemed to assume otherwise.

Walker said he has had to block only a couple of people after becoming an anti-dog meme villain, both times because people were using “the f word” at him.

Otherwise, he has gained about 1,000 Twitter followers since September and a strange but predictable phenomenon in his Twitter mentions. Every single time Walker tweets, between 3 and 20 people reply to him with some reference to the meme.

Finding a way to do this is pretty easy:

“Everyone thinks Twitter must be ruined for me now. It’s actually the opposite. It’s fun to be a part of,” he said.

“I’m extremely impressed by my fans’ ability to come up with different names for you,” Nelson told Walker, referring to the key part of the meme, the part where you mess up Brant Walker’s first name (full confession: at one point in this conversation I accidentally called Walker “Brent” instead of “Brant,” and I still feel kind of terrible about it).

“I have some favorites,” Walker said. “Some people started throwing in symbols, they started incorporating emojis that played into my name.” His wife’s favorite was a reply that re-purposed the conversation as a Walking Dead meme.

A couple of months ago, Nelson mailed Walker a “They’re good dogs, Brent” T-shirt.

“I’m actually wearing his shirt right now,” Walker said as we talked.

Walker got married in late December, and even his wedding cake paid tribute to the meme he had become. Next to the Marge and Homer Simpson cake toppers was a little figurine of Santa’s Little Helper, the Simpsons’ family dog. The dog held a sign that read, “They’re good dogs, Brent.”

Meanwhile, becoming the bad guy in a meme about good dogs hasn’t really changed Walker’s approach to Twitter. He’s not going to say anything negative about dogs, but he’s also “not watching, really, what I tweet,” he said.

Nelson chimed in, suggesting that Walker should double down on his ability to get a reaction out of people who run popular Twitter handles. “I think you should now try to do that with other accounts,” Nelson said.

Walker replied: “If you go into my account, I’ve done it before.”

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