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O RLY?: Internet Memes, Plagiarism, and Reality Hunger

kgould's picture

It didn’t seem like many people in our class enjoyed David Shields’ manifesto, “Reality Hunger,” all that much (8). I can’t say that I liked it, but I did find it interesting and what he said, in between the lines as it were, was useful. It’s easy to pretend that what he did in his book was “weird” or “unusual” or even “bad,” but his use of quotes and allusions isn’t really, in the end, all the different from what we see in novels and poetry. Why is it that only fiction gets the O.K. to take what it wants from other books, culture, and other sources outside of itself without having to cite anything? Why did we read Shields as something so different from what we normally see?

The truth is that all of us, as Internet users, actually participate in Shields’ appropriation of materials (yes, even sans citations) all of the time. We all use a big facet of Internet culture, memes, to communicate with each other and express ourselves. There is almost never an author or creator attached to these ideas or images and yet we feel no guilt using them as they are. This paper is going to take a look at three popular memes, analyze them, chart their use, and then try to answer why it’s okay to use these images and ideas—publishing them on websites and in blogs—but it is so reprehensible, in our eyes, for Shields to create “Reality Hunger.” 


The Dancing Baby

It is regarded as one of the first Internet memes, ever, and probably one of the best known today—by both active users and non-users of the Internet. “The Dancing Baby” started out, in Autumn 1996, as a product sample by a development team at Character Studios, Unreal Pictures, and Kinetix, eventually being cleaned up, lit, and textured by an individual at LucasArts, from there distributed and shared by email (1). You’ll recognize it from the resulting massive email chain, commercials, and, markedly, an episode of Ally McBeal. Perhaps due in part to the collaborative efforts of the development team or because 3D animation was so new (Toy Story, by Pixar, and the first feature film made entirely with CGi, and released only a year before the Dancing Baby), the animation never really lost its creators, still linked back to its origin on sites such as Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Dramatica. But, being distributed mostly as an attachment to an email (or, as free web page developing sites became more prominent, as an embedded image) the Dancing Baby came without a creator’s name, an author, and still he was disseminated and shared as public property. Without citing Dancing Baby, is this not an act of plagiarism? Is this not what Shields did and we, as academics, squirmed in our seats in displeasure for seeing?


O RLY? Owl

It’s a snowy owl with big yellow eyes and a surprised expression, or at least as surprised as owls can get. The caption, in large white block letters, says “O RLY?” This, of course, is Internet shorthand (chatspeak) for “Oh, really?” Used to express derision for obvious statements on message boards, as genuine surprise, disbelief, or confusion, the “O RLY?” owl has been a favorite Internet meme for several years now. Wikipedia has charted the phrase as far back as August 2003 on the “Something Awful Forums,” and while the photograph has been attributed to nature photographer John White, the individual who contributed the “O RLY?” caption is still unidentified (2). This has not stopped Internet users from using the image, ad nauseum, on message boards, in forums, and on web sites. And really, think about it. Not only are Internet users using the O RLY? owl without attributing it to a creator, but the individual who constructed the meme did so without attributing it to the photographer, John White. For all intents and purposes, the O RLY? owl is plagiarism. So why do we use it without so much as an ounce of the fear or anger we express for “Reality Hunger” and plagiarism in class?



This third example is perhaps one of the most pervasive ongoing Internet memes one can find. Not only has it spawned thousands of images, including several iconic ones, produced a number of websites, galleries, and message boards, but it has generated a whole new “language,” a slang, used by users online (3). It has even given rise to a Bible translation project (4), using the memes and language as integral parts of the endeavor.

A meme in itself and a meme producer, LOLCats have, technically, been around since the 1870s and onward, essentially as long as we have had cameras available and cats as a subject. The first “real” LOLCat has been attributed to a post in 2005 on a 4chan imageboard, the term “lolcat” coming into being in as early as 2006 (5).

For those out of the loop, a LOLCat is an appropriated image of a cat that has been given a caption, not unlike the O RLY? owl—a caption written in LOLspeak. Used to function as a rebuttal in a conversation (like the O RLY? owl) on message boards, or to stand alone as a humorous image, LOLCats have been disseminated all over the internet, through email and otherwise, and more are generated every single day. Phrases like “I can has cheezburger?” (6) and characters such as “Ceiling Cat,” “Long Cat,” and “Monorail Cat” have cropped up everywhere in popular culture, referenced in webcasts, webcomics, TV shows, and elsewhere. LOLCats have even given rise to LOLDogs, using dogs instead of cats and a slightly different “slang” sometimes referred to as “goggie speak” (7).

Images, public and private photos of cats, have been taken and reshaped into LOLCats, given captions or edited in paint programs, without being cited to their origins. These LOLCats are then disseminated and used as public property, not citing the person who created them. Again, LOLCats could be seen as plagiarism—but we do not treat them that way.


Some might argue that because these are all products of the Internet, which seems to have its own set of rules, Internet memes cannot and should not be compared to the book that Shields wrote. But this is in error. Books of Internet memes, particularly of LOLCats, have been published and are sold in bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. Through advertisements on websites, T shirt designs, and other swag, money has been made (and continues to be made) off of non-cited, plagiarized material.

Shields did not ever, really, attribute the quotes to himself. He compiled them and his name is on the cover, the book jacket describes his intent (and even mentions a “group of interrelated but unconnected artists”), but he does not try to pass of the ideas of others as his own (8). He does not mark each quote as “property of David Shields” and he does not pose as the owner of these words or ideas. Like the Dancing Baby, the O RLY? owl, and the LOLCats, Shields did little more than compile or lightly edit pre-existing materials and he put them together in a new way that expressed a new idea, an idea that, alone, none of those individual works could have said.

We use them: you can find LOLCats and the O RLY? owl (as well as the “YA RLY” [yes, really] and “NO WAI” [no way] owls) on campus. We do not cite them. We do not seek out who made them, neither the people who took the photographs nor the people who provided the captions. What does this mean for us?

We’ve been molded, brainwashed by our education thus far, not only to avoid plagiarism but also to abhor it, despise it, and regard it as the ultimate evil. It’s not hard for us to take this stance. We’re told the consequences of taking the work of others, of not citing our sources: failed papers, Honor Board meetings, Dean interventions, suspension, expulsions. Oh the shame! the horror! the failure! It seems that in the academic community there is nothing fouler, more abhorrent than plagiarism.

But we need to ask ourselves why.

If we’re putting ourselves in situations where we risk committing the ultimate taboo, if we’re to consider ourselves part of the academic community, we need to think about plagiarism: everything it is and everything it is not, from our textbooks to “Reality Hunger” to Internet memes.



(Google has a little module, called "Google Trends," that can chart the global search history for a particular term. Included here are "Dancing Baby," "O RLY?," and "LOLCats.)



Flowry's picture

There is no use of holding a

There is no use of holding a debate against plagiarism, but it is high time to take serious action against the plagiarizers. Fortunately, the readers have become tech-savvy and some of them might even use plagiarism check tool ( Plag Tracker) to make sure that they are not being fed with the copied write-ups.

Anne Dalke's picture

Why foul? Why abhorent?



you've made great use, here, of the sources of the internet to both talk about and illustrate the pragmatic implications, for our offline lives, of what we can now do so easily on-line: "compile or lightly edit pre-existing materials" to express "an idea that, alone, none of those individual works could have said." My own take on this phenomenon is that the internet simply makes more visible (and easier!) the appropriation of others' work that has been going on for centuries; it just highlights phenomena that have always existed.

And, so: what? To my mind, you stop just when you get to the interesting question, that "we need to ask ourselves why," in the academic community, "there is nothing fouler, more abhorrent than plagiarism." Why are we so insistent on policing our sources, on drawing careful distinctions among our expressions? "Why have we been molded, brainwashed by our education thus far, not only to avoid plagiarism but also to abhor it, despise it, and regard it as the ultimate evil"?

For a local, concrete demonstration of these questions, see tgarber's study, Originality: A Figment of our Imaginations, which looks @ some of the consequences of beginning all BMC students' writing careers with the careful admonitions of Writing with Sources, in contrast to David Shields' invitation to play with others' work in order to express our ideas more fully.

In A Copyrighted Manifesto, platano also observed (enroute to very different conclusions than yours) that it's "so hard to regulate copyright laws online": "on the Internet, people can get away with all types of theft."  So, she asked, "should something still be considered a crime if a good portion of the population does it?"  Lewis Hyde says in Common as Air that "the digital Internet has made so many things light, swift, and global" (p. 14)--and then goes on to provide a catalog of alternatives to the plagiarism police, both cultural commons and their breeding grounds; his list includes Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia, Knowledge Conservancy, Internet Archive, Public Library of Science, Creative Commons, Science Commons, Neurocommons....

Since you have been doing lots of work in biology as well as in literary studies, and since you are interested in particular in the work of the unconscious, I might also nudge you to take the next steps in this project by looking @, and thinking more about, the way in which plagiarism assumes that all citation is under our conscious control. Perhaps thinking more sophisticatedly about the role of the unconscious in citational practices would both answer the "why" question and offer some alternative ways of answering it?
Suggesting a more intriguing way to go about thinking about (at least some versions of what we now condemn as) plagiarism: as an unintentional borrowing that we-cannot-but-do, as we assimilate what we read? Perhaps much of the current "heat" around plagiarism has to do with a misunderstanding of the process of unconscious adaptation that you've been highlighting here?