Wednesday, June 19, 2024

What Doge Taught Me About the Internet

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In the early twenty-tens, one cottage industry in digital journalism was the unmasking of Internet memes: a journalist would identify the source of a popular image or joke just as one might dig up the etymology of a word. I was chasing that trope as a freelance writer, in December, 2013, when I found myself curious about the origins of a meme known as Doge. It was a photograph of a Shiba Inu dog lying on a couch with its paws crossed, giving a baleful side-eye; social-media denizens covered the image with multicolored text phrases like “so amaze” and “much wow” in Comic Sans. My investigation was not, I admit, a Watergate-level affair: I did a reverse Google Image search for the photo template; found the popular pet blog of a Japanese woman named Atsuko Sato, who shared photos of her cats and her fluffy yellow dog; and contacted her via the site. Sato and I eventually discussed the dog’s surprise Internet fame through a translator. A subsequent article that I wrote for the Verge came out on New Year’s Eve, after a lightning-speed edit. Unsurprisingly, the piece proved to be a big hit on Twitter, which was in its heyday. Sato told me that the dog, who’d been rescued from a puppy mill, was named Kabosu, after the Japanese citrus that the pooch’s round face resembled.

Two weeks ago, Sato announced on her blog that Kabosu had died, at the age of eighteen. Kabosu was not the first animal behind a meme to go; Grumpy Cat, the famous frowning feline, died in 2019, at the age of seven. But Kabosu’s death reminds me how much has changed in the decade or so of Doge’s fame. Internet memes once functioned as shibboleths, references that signalled one’s belonging to a particularly online tribe. I now cringe remembering that my friends would use Doge vocabulary aloud, saying “much wow” and the like, during the same peak-millennial moment that included American Apparel skinny jeans and side-swept bangs. The infantilized language spoke to the peculiar twee-ness of those years, a post-financial-crisis desire to forestall an already halting adulthood. My favorite riff on the meme was a photo of Kabosu tucked cozily into bed between fuzzy blankets: “such tired,” “so beauty rest.” I confess that I designed at least one party invitation in the style of Doge. Boomers were only beginning to take over Facebook at the time. Instagram had barely entered into mainstream consciousness. The Internet, over all, felt more isolated from day-to-day reality–an illusion that would be fatally punctured by the election of Donald Trump, in 2016, with the help of targeted social-media advertising and the fragmentation of news consumption on personalized social-media feeds.

Doge had no defined symbolism or agenda; there was no corporate entity behind its popularity, no sponsor or dedicated platform promoting it. There wasn’t even an official social-media account when the meme emerged—no @Doge on Twitter, only Sato herself. The word’s origins might be traceable to a 2010 post on Reddit, when a user titled the photo of Kabosu on the couch, “LMBO LOOK @ THIS FUKKIN DOGE.” (Creative misspelling had already been established as a key feature of Internet humor; LOLcats, the meme that spawned such phrases as “I can has cheezburger?,” had emerged in the mid-two-thousands.) The image template and its attendant goofy phrasing came about their digital omnipresence honestly, belonging both to everyone and to no one. As a result, Doge projected a sense of hopeful naïveté about the Internet which has lately disappeared from digital culture, as we have been increasingly confronted with the darker consequences of social media on a global scale. Compare Doge, for instance, with West Elm Caleb, a male designer in New York City who, in 2022, became infamous on TikTok for ghosting his dates. As Caleb became a meme, an online manhunt and harassment campaign ensued against the real person; TikTok creators jumped on the topic in order to leverage its potential for algorithmic promotion. Today, virality has become either immediately exploitable or punitive, something to avoid at all costs. Unveiling Doge, by contrast, seemed only to increase its charm. Sato regarded the meme back then with warm bemusement. “To be honest, some pictures are strange for me, but it’s still funny!” she told me. She added, “Maybe I don’t understand memes very well because I’m living such an analog life.”

The fact that Doge was not pre-optimized for fame may be what sets it starkly apart from what tends to succeed on the Internet today. Internet popularity was still decentralized, taking root in many different spaces at once, and, thus, harder to use to sell advertising or promote products. In the end, the twenty-tens established a clear path between online exposure and financial gain. Now, fame on the Internet is concentrated among a smaller number of platforms and is more rapidly commodified. When the marketing videos of a Chinese glycine factory called Donghua Jinlong went ironically viral this past spring, influencers immediately capitalized on its exposure with slews of T-shirts and other swag. There are more than two hundred Donghua Jinlong-related products now listed on Amazon. Social-media accounts have become tools for strategically funnelling attention; an aspiring influencer might route viewers of, say, a popular TikTok video via “links in bio” to a series of other accounts—Instagram, Patreon, YouTube—where clicks are more easily monetized.

This is not to say that the Doge phenomenon was wholly innocent or incorruptible. As the Internet changed, the meme evolved, too. Just before I discovered Doge’s source, a cryptocurrency named Dogecoin was created as a friendlier riff on Bitcoin. A cryptocurrency gains value primarily by accumulating buyers; the meme made it easier to market the currency, which in turn became a commercial proxy for Doge’s fame. Dogecoin’s value has risen over the years to around sixteen cents a coin, giving the currency as a whole a market capitalization of roughly twenty-three billion dollars. This value is theoretical, of course; only a small percentage of that currency could be liquidated before the price would plummet, similar to the stock of a public company. But the freewheeling joke has been transformed into a financial entity, something to be traded on in a marketplace of attention. In 2021, Sato sold a non-fungible token (N.F.T.) version of the original Doge photo and netted four million dollars, at the time the highest price ever paid for an N.F.T. It’s hard to maintain an air of frivolousness around a cute pup when the price tags are so high.

Bemoaning our lost online innocence feels disingenuous, though, because the Internet is made up of all of us who are on it. We can still seek out the kinds of silly, random acts of creativity that made the likes of Doge fun in its early days. But I think what enabled that fun was ultimately the way that everyone who remixed the meme felt that it, in some small sense, belonged to them, too. Doge taught me that, on the Internet, pointlessness can be the point. Kabosu the real dog, meanwhile, lived to an admirably old age and had a lovely life with a nice family in possession of comfortable furniture for her to lie on, which, judging by the proclivities of my own rescue dog, seems to be a canine’s highest aspiration. Back in 2013, Sato told me that she hoped that the meme’s popularity could raise awareness for dog adoption, “helping those abandoned animals. It’ll be nice that Kabosu can play that role.” Last year, a bronze statue of Kabosu was unveiled in Sato’s home town of Sakura—funded, of course, with the help of Dogecoin holders. ♦

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