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Virality And Memicality

[Editor’s note: As in the past, these panel recaps are based on notes typed during the session; all discussion is the nearest possible paraphrase, except for direct quotes which will be italicized.]

And so we reach the last panel of interest — and very nearly the last panel, period — at this year’s SDCC; a couple of people from comiXology (Matt Kolowski, who posed some questions, and Kiersten Wing, who didn’t get a chance to say much) talking to the author (Megan Kearney) and editor (Hope Nicholson, who should need no introduction) of a collection of webcomics that have gone all viral or memetic (follow that link and you can preview how the book came about).

They were joined by three of the folks whose work gets profiled: Nick Franco of Nuzlocke Comics, David Malki ! of Wondermark, and Shen T of Owlturd Comix. Franco was there less because of a specific comic and more because of an idea he had (a particularly difficult variant on playing Pokemon), Malki ! has had several comics blow up, but none so much as his run-in with a sea lion, and Shen’s work is widely meme-able.

The key takeaway — viral and meme are different things, and trying to achieve either is probably not a good use of your time because nobody knows when the lightning will strike. As Nicholson put it, the really viral items the ones very personal, as the internet says It me. Kearney drew the distinction: viral is when your grandma puts something in its entirety on Facebook, meme is when people begin to alter it to the point that the original may be lost in the sea of dialogue changes, inverted meanings, and crudely inserted anime character faces.

The other key takeaway, if you want to try to make things that will blow up in a viral or memetic fashion? Malki ! suggests starting in 2003 before there are many other people competing with your stuff. Except for when you find a bunch of recent stuff getting grabbed up, and who knows by whom? Shen commented on a recent strip where he sent his character into a K-Pop dungeon and that gets memed by every fandom. It was kind of scary when they get memed, and get ratioed pretty hard on Twitter. In the end, a lot of people make incredibly high-effort versions that weren’t in any way problematic, just high effort. In the end, I felt okay about it.

And, of course, if you do get something that resonates, people will not only adapt, but try to make money off of it; Malki ! noted that once you come up with a slogan, everybody assumes that it’s free to put on t-shirts, and recounted the story of the public broadcasting-themed catalog that comes to your grandparents selling a version of his Engineering t-shirt, but worse. I wrote to them and offered to license my design, I told them, it’ll look better. Their standard agreement was very poor terms, and two years I got $20 in royalties.

Franco possibly topped that: My website stopped working, and I was looking at redesigns, and there’s a link to my Twitter and to Facebook. But I don’t have a Facebook page, and I find it’s operating for years, somebody pretending to be me selling t-shirts. Shen noted that he deals with a fake Facebook, fake Instagram, and they they can do their own thing. He then told Malki !, I totally see that engineering thing around, don’t know if it’s yours or not.
Malki !: If it looked good it was mine.
Shen: It was in Papyrus.

Asked their favorite memes, Nicholson replied Anything with dogs, Franco likes KC Green’s This Is Fine, and Malki ! tried to figure out what the oldest meme would be. Kearney suggested R Crumb’s Kilroy Was Here, and Malki ! got analytical: That’s a good one. In order for something to be a meme, it had to be reproduced so many times, so the content had to be minimal. It says something about needs of human to put a mark on anyplace they’ve been. I’m gonna use the exact same thing every other human has done. The interesting thing about SDCC, this sort of event, you” see every possible pop culture and pop culture mash-up on t-shirts, and which stick around. There’s one book that’s nothing but Calvin & Hobbes walking on a log, but it’s Han & Chewie, like 50 of those. To see that it’s got cultural currency after 20 years is very powerful.

Nicholson recounted We had to research and ignore the huge world of viral/memetic photos, most popular is the stock photo of the guy looking over his shoulder. Kolowski wanted to know where that particular photo came from, and during Q&A, I was able to fill him in that there had recently been a report — the stock photo is one of a lengthy series by a Spanish photographer of that same woman giving that face at a dog, at a salad, at nearly everything. There’s even one or two of her doing something and the guy giving her that face in return.

After that, it was the usual Q&A questions: Do you like this job (Kearney: I love this job; Malki !: I love all the parts that are fun and none of the parts that make it a job; Shen: I’m like that pterodactyl from The Flintstones: It’s a living), what’s your favorite anime (Malki !: I like that you assume we would have one; that being said, in high school somebody showed me Record of Lodoss War), what’s your advice for making comics on the internet (Kearney: Draw comics, put them on the internet; Franco: I shouldn’t give advice, but that’s good; Malki !: Start in 2003; Shen: Have a regular schedule so people come back).

And it’s the very prosaic nature of those questions that underscores a key point for me — that what goes viral, or what gets memed is not the result of a mysterious process; it’s the same as everything else on the internet, and nobody (including the person who comes up with the viral/memed thing; maybe especially that person) could tell you why one thing caught fire and another didn’t¹. It’s all just stuff on the internet, but some of catches our brains. To update Warhol, in the future, everybody will be viral or memed for fifteen minutes.

Now just make sure you don’t confuse reading it and making it, and we’ll be good. Lookin’ at you, Signals catalog!

¹ Speaking from personal experience, some weeks back I had a tweet blow up to a notable degree, and I couldn’t tell you why. It’s not out of character with anything else I’d post, and it wasn’t my goal to write something that would catch the attention of so many people. The fact that SwiftOnSecurity retweeted it probably didn’t hurt, but that alone doesn’t explain it. It just made a bunch of people say OMG yes, I guess.

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