Behind The Meme: What Happens When You Accidentally Become Internet Famous

March 24, 2019

They never saw it coming…

Maggie Goldenberger and her friend Kaelyn were a couple of elementary school kids who liked to play dress-up. They’d get into character and snap pictures of each other in goofy get-ups, making crazy faces and laughing at themselves.

One afternoon, Goldenberger put on a hideous vest, pulled her hair into pigtails, popped her retainer into her mouth, and grabbed a few Goosebumps books before striking a pose. Holding the books up, she raised her eyebrows, opened her mouth, and scrunched up her nose, giving an overall effect of awkward excitement that would years later become familiar to Internet denizens everywhere as the ‘Ermahgerd Girl’.

Laina Morris wrote parody lyrics to the Justin Bieber song Boyfriend and uploaded a video of herself singing the song on her YouTube channel, gazing into the camera with wide, unblinking eyes and a creepy smile. “If I was your girlfriend, I’d drive you up the wall, question who you’re with yeah, I’ll always call and call. I wouldn’t call it jealousy, just looking out for you. Reading all your texts, watching everything you do…”

And Ken Bone was just another undecided voter from Illinois, working 12-hour shifts in a coal plant, when Gallup tapped him to be in the audience of the second presidential debate earlier this month. He asked Hillary Clinton a question about what her energy policy would be and became the breakout star of the night, due largely to his distinctive red sweater, glasses and moustache, which appeared to make him a dead ringer for Toy Story‘s similarly-named character, Kenneth Bone. But when his decidedly unsavory Internet history came to light a few days later, his admirers turned on him.

The accidental meme star

Maggie Goldenberger, who had no idea a silly snap taken with friends would turn into a viral meme.

It’s hard to say exactly what combination of magic and luck goes into making a meme go viral – or even making a meme in the first place.

Maggie Goldenberger, the Ermahgerd Girl, never meant to become a meme, although she was trying to be funny when she created her iconic picture. When it surfaced years later as a wildly popular meme, she was surprised and somewhat mystified, but she wasn’t truly embarrassed. If the picture had documented a genuine awkward moment from her childhood, her feelings might have been different. But since she’d been goofing off, just playing a character, she was able to laugh about it – for the most part. When people started trying to track her down and posted her real name online, and a photographer followed her to a beach in Hawaii and posted a picture of her in a bikini, she wasn’t so pleased. But other than that, the experience of becoming a meme wasn’t particularly distressing to Goldenberger.

So, how did it happen? Goldenberger had posted the picture to Facebook, where a Reddit user named Jeff Davis from Alberta, Canada, stumbled on it while browsing a friend’s page – he doesn’t remember who, he told Vanity Fair magazine. He thought the picture was funny and decided to upload it to Reddit, where someone else saw it and added the caption, ‘GERSBERMS. MAH FRAVRIT BERKS’. The picture spawned a life of its own after that, generating many different captions, all using the same distinctive language. At some point, someone added the ‘ERMAHGERD’ bit, and thus ‘Ermahgerd Girl’ was born.

Of the meme, Goldenberger told Vanity Fair, “It was a middle schooler’s perspective of what funny is, so I’m always surprised when adults are such fans. It’s essentially making fun of a nerdy girl for being excited about books…So what? I’m always baffled that it still comes up three years later.”

A career is born

Laina Morris strikes her now iconic ‘Overly Attached Girlfriend’ pose, attracting millions of reposts online.

In Laina Morris’s case, she uploaded her video to YouTube herself, hoping to win a Justin Bieber video contest. When a Reddit user (yes, Reddit again – it’s the birthplace of many memes) made screenshots of the video and added captions, creating the ‘Overly Attached Girlfriend’ meme, she took her newfound fame and ran with it.

Morris has since become a bonafide Internet celebrity, with over a million YouTube subscribers and a guest appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon under her belt. While she isn’t making millions from her meme-notoriety – yet – she is making a living, while also talking improv classes and doing open mic nights.

“I’m really just making this up as I go along,” Morris told Refinery 29 earlier this year.

“I don’t know if this is going to ‘work out.’ Maybe someday this will just be a cool thing that happened to me, but I’ll make videos as long as I enjoy it and people are watching.”

From hero to villain

Ken Bone at the second presidential debate, who captured the world’s attention when he asked a question about energy.

Ken Bone’s meme-hood is the most recent, and may end up being the shortest-lived of the three, given that his rise to fame came during an election cycle which is rapidly nearing its end. Bone’s story might be the hardest to explain, as well.

What was it about Ken Bone that captured the imagination of the American public so quickly, and so thoroughly? Perhaps it was his teddy-bear-like appearance and mild manner during a particularly ugly election season. Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, called him a “one man basket of adorables,” a play on Hillary Clinton’s reference to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”.

Bone became something of a folk hero, before it was discovered that he’d bragged about looking at Jennifer Lawrence’s hacked nude photos and described Trayvon Martin’s murder as “justified.” (Trayvon Martin is just one of many Black men and boys killed in acts of unprovoked violence in the past several years.)

But I don’t want to be a meme…

Once it’s online, anyone’s photo is vulnerable to being transformed into a meme and re-shared millions of times online.

So if you don’t want to end up becoming a meme, what can you do? Never post a picture of yourself online? Swear off social media? Go completely off the grid, move to the middle of nowhere, and raise your own livestock?

The bad news is, there isn’t much you can do if someone finds a picture of you online and posts it to Reddit – just ask Maggie Goldenberger or Ken Bone. Both of them were Internet-famous before they had the chance to even think about taking any sort of legal action, even if they’d wanted to.

But is the creation of memes featuring unsuspecting folks a case of cyber-bullying, or just free speech?

It depends who you ask. One family successfully sued when their son, who had Down Syndrome, became the subject of a mean-spirited meme. The boy’s father explained that while he was in favor of the First Amendment right to free speech, “This is just people being mean.”.

Another family, who also has a child with Down Syndrome, slapped Val Chmerkovskiy, of Dancing With the Stars, with a $6 million lawsuit for posting a photo of their daughter drinking a soda. The picture was captioned, ‘Letting your kid become obese should be considered child abuse’. The family also asked for $6 million from CBS, the network that aired the meme, and $600,000 from the photographer who snapped the pic.

While some people do make a concerted effort to keep their photos locked down and their social media profiles private, it’s wise to remember that things posted to the Internet occasionally have a way of getting out and having a life of their own, no matter how hard you try to fight it. The bottom line? If you really fear the thought of ending up the next Ermahgerd Girl, check your privacy settings on your online accounts, and think twice before posting that embarrassing snap of yourself, because it might not just be your old college friends and family who ‘Like’ it on Facebook.

Images via YouTube and tumblr.com.

Comment: How much control do you think you have over your online image?



Want More?

Have our best reads delivered straight to your inbox every week by subscribing to our newsletter.



You Said