Successful Meme Is Successful, or Running Bear Has the Last Laugh

September 21, 2011 § 10 Comments

Kids today, honestly.

The following is an account of Over 9000 Penises, a wildly successful and much celebrated ubermeme. Because it pulls from a number of preexisting memes and locates trolling humor within a concrete example, Over 9000 Penises functions as an ideal case study. Not only does it illustrate how these worlds are built, it highlights what kinds of worlds trolls are inclined to create. Additionally it exemplifies trolls’ understanding of and desire for a particular kind of success, which can and should be contrasted with more mainstream conceptions.

Our journey begins with Pedobear, one of /b/’s most durable—and therefore flexible—images. Sometimes drooling, sometimes sweating, sometimes featuring a sombrero or the words “DO WANT,” Pedobear is always scrambling towards something. It is not until one realizes precisely what he is chasing after that his form takes on a new, and rather horrifying, significance—“Pedo” is short for “Pedophile,” making Pedobear the unofficial mascot of child pornography. Kiddie porn, known to trolls as CP, fuels a number of memes, most notably /b/’s collective obsession with Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” and its host Chris Hansen—wherever someone posts a picture of or photoshop featuring Pedobear, someone else will promptly post a picture of Hansen, usually tagged with the phrase “why don’t you have a seat,” Hansen’s standard response whenever his team confronts a child predator. Despite the fact that posting CP onto /b/ is a permabannable offense (meaning that, if the site administrators encounter any CP, they isolate the poster’s 10-digit IP address and boot the offending Anon off /b/ forever), its trolling potential is thought to outweigh whatever risks. For this reason, posting CP or (as is usually the case) threatening to post CP, or making jokes about posting CP, has become a meme in itself. Which brings us to Over 9000 Penises.

The first component of this meme is the phrase “over 9000,” a nonsense numerical value taken from DragonBallZ, a wildly popular manga series. Originally released in Japan in 1989, DragonBallZ premiered on American television in 1996 and became a cultural touchstone for a generation of gamers. In one episode, Vegeta and Nappa prepare to fight Goku; they consult their “scouter,” a device that measures an opponent’s power level. Nappa asks Vegeta what the scouter says about Goku’s power levels, to which Vegeta growls, “It’s over nine THOUSAAAAANNND!”

Someone posted this clip onto /b/ and for whatever reason, perhaps due to nostalgia, perhaps due to the vociferousness with which Vegeta responds to the scouter’s reading (he subsequently smashes the scouter in his hand, so high and frightening are the levels), /b/ adopted “over 9000″ as one of their nearest and dearest memes, making this phrase the default answer to any question involving numerical value.

Cue Oprah Winfrey. In September of 2008, some anon decided to troll Oprah’s message boards by posing as a pedophile and gloating about his various sexploits. Oprah, who had spent the previous week lobbying for legislation designed to crack down on online kiddie porn, was made aware of this exchange and decided to share what anon had posted. “Let me read you something posted on our message boards,” she gravely began, “from somebody who claims to be a member of a known pedophile network: He said he does not forgive. He does not forget. His group has over 9000 penises and they’re all…raping…children.”

Within the hour, a second anon downloaded Oprah’s warning, inadvertently featuring the well-known and often ironic claim that Anonymous does not forgive and does not forget, which he then spliced  into a music video featuring Pedobear, Oprah, the characters from DragonBallZ and Chris Hansen. The original video has since been made private, but like most things online, was downloaded by someone or group of someones and subsequently respawned as something else entirely (the fun begins at :22).

And to hint at the veritable cottage industry of videos generated by the ordeal:

To the trolling community, this was epic, a win on every front; on Encyclopedia Dramatica (1.0), the corresponding video and transcript were accompanied by a photoshopped picture of Oprah sitting with a smug-looking monster.

But why? What exactly was so successful about Over 9000 Penises? According to the authors of the ED page, as well as an untold number of anons responding to Over 9000 Penis threads (I watched the story unfold on /b/ from the comfort of my living room), it all came down to effective exploitation of both form and content. What Oprah said, in other words, was as amusing as why she said it. Simply by repeating the phrase “Over 9000,” Oprah was marking the trolls’ territory. Anyone even remotely connected to 4chan (or online culture generally) would know instantaneously, without needing any further detail, that trolling was indeed afoot, and even better, that Oprah had not a clue. The fact that “penises” was the noun of which there were over 9000 was merely icing on this cake.

Not that the cake itself is arbitrary. It is no accident that trolls targeted this forum on this issue, nor is it insignificant that the resulting lulz continued long after the initial raid ended. Trolls would not have cared, or wouldn’t have cared as much, if the issue hadn’t been such a hot button for so many people. Theoretically, of course, any issue, from best practices within animal husbandry to the precise culinary origins of the first American-style hamburger, is vulnerable to trolling. All that’s needed is a closed mind and some fighting words. Practically, however, trolls go where temperatures are most likely to flare. And child exploitation, especially when sexual in nature, is one of the few taboos unaffected by political standpoint — liberal or conservative, people reserve a special place in hell for those who abuse children. As a result, pedophilia (either threats of or references to) is one of the most efficient, and certainly the most efficacious, tool in the trolls’ arsenal.

In this sense, Over 9000 Penises was somewhat rare in that formal and contextual exploitability merged, resulting in maximum lulz for minimal effort. But the primary criterion of trolling had been met; that which could have been exploited was, and with gusto. It is this notion upon which trolling success or failure hinges. Interestingly, and as I would argue, critically, the trolls’ notion of success, as well as the impulse to exploit, is to a certain extent shared by those whom the trolls target. The difference is that trolls do it for the lulz, and their targets—at least when the target is a particular media figure or organization—do it for the ratings. Which is not to say that media output is necessarily cynical, or that media personalities can’t also have very good intentions. But without ratings there can be no show, there can be no host, there can be no network. Thus media producers must ensure that his or her audience cares, tethering the notion of “success” to notions of sustainability, both emotional and economic. Oprah’s segment on child exploitation was successful because it elicited and sustained a strong reaction in her audience. Her viewers were invested in the story, and consequently kept tuning in. Even though, perhaps especially because, said reaction manifested in the form of anxiety or distress. Oprah’s success thus fueled the trolls’ success, which further fueled Oprah’s success, which gave trolls even more material to work with. Neither story would have been nearly as compelling, and therefore nearly as successful, without the intercession of the other.

Using Over 9000 Penises as my template, I therefore propose that, in the context of media/trolling, success is commensurate to exploitability—a statement whose stripes change depending on how one uses one’s nouns. From the trolls’ perspective, the greater the media success, the higher the potential for lulz. From the media’s perspective, the greater the troll success, the stronger the audiences’ subsequent reaction. Both sides benefit from the success of the other, lending a beautiful, though perhaps unexpected, symmetry to the proceedings.

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§ 10 Responses to Successful Meme Is Successful, or Running Bear Has the Last Laugh

  • Kato says:

    Aw this takes me back. Over 9000 penises’ worth of memories.

  • This is a terrific framing: I wish I was at a similar level of clarity with my dissertation cases.

    On thinking about this post, it seems that trolling falls into three main categories: the co-constructive relationship between trolls and cultural powers (FOX News, Oprah, Scientology) on the one hand, and troll-dominated spaces (the Mal’Ganis server in WoW and all of EVE Online), and intrusions into “mainstream” spaces (RIP trolling, which I hadn’t heard of till your blog).

    Has the balance shifted? It seems like there used to be a lot more of the third category, but that might be an artifact of the places I spend time in.

    • Howdy! Thanks, though sometimes I feel like I’m cheating somehow since the material is already SO GOOD — all I’m doing is writing stuff down.

      As for categories…there’s so much slippage between the first and last that I’m not even sure a distinction can be made. I do tend to draw a basic line between griefing and trolling, since the video game/grief space is its own can of worms, but generally trolls –I somewhat awkwardly describe them as Web 2.0 trolls– partake in one degree or another of the same basic origin story. I guess you’d call it cross-platform intangible cultural history. What’s been happening of late is that trolling humor/culture is constantly bubbling into mainstream internet culture, albeit in more sanitized forms, which is also its own can of worms. Cans of worms all the way down! It really is quite a thing.

  • Oh, that’s *interesting*!

    I almost exclusively know the griefing space (coming from STS/ethnography instead of English), and what I know of trolling comes from the /b/ overlap (e.g., one of my students did a brilliant project on design rhetoric in GoonSwarm marketing for EVE Online), so I’ve been blind to the distinction.

    I see what you mean by the trickle-down into mainstream internet culture (longcat?), but I’d love to hear a little more about the divergence between griefing and trolling.

    Gods, I’m really sorry to make you do all this extra thinky/talky stuff – you really should’ve picked a more boring topic!

    • Hmm, the divergence between trolling and griefing. For me, the game-space has the added layer of competition — which further scrambles the attempt to clearly demarcate trolling (well “griefing”) from not-trolling (“just being a dick player”). Mia Consalvo has written some about this, how griefing is built into the gamplay, for purposes of gaining various forms of advantage. There is of course “pure” motherfuckery (to borrow a great term from Biella Coleman’s work on Anonymous/Scientology), but people also screw around for reasons other than lulz. For that reason I would be very, very reluctant to lump trolls and griefers together, even though they too share some of the same cultural heritage. The again, at a certain point on the long tail that is internet culture, who DOESN’T. Given all this constant slippage between everything, I’m inclined (well would be inclined, if I were addressing any of this stuff formally) to treat each game space/forum separately (though with an eye to overarching trends/cultural spiderwebs), and to examine whatever behaviors through the lens of that particular game and its rules/population etc.

      And no apologies necessary! I’m delighted, and frankly a little taken aback, that there seems to be some interest in this stuff. Well not taken aback that people are interested in trolls, I mean I picked the topic because I thought it was really weird and awesome, and was genuinely interested in trying to make sense of behaviors that initially didn’t entirely make sense to me. But I’m taken aback when people want to talk to ME about it. Still I think these conversations are great…so thanks!

    • Kauan says:

      dweeb: Bullshit.Any moral principle which steats I must absorb lunatic ravings and attacks and leave them on display is a broken principle.Catch me censoring polite, logical, well-thought arguments? Then you can call me a hypocrite (or even a hypocrit, but that’s over the top.)Censoring trolls is just like cleaning up graffiti. Nothing more.

  • [...] no idea) that they’re ultimately just pawns in the troublemaker’s game. See Jenkem, see Over 9000 Penises. I’m curious to see how –or more interestingly, if– this mutually-beneficial [...]

  • [...] the alleged poster allegedly posted. This might not be an explicit memetic reference –a basic calling card of much trolling, particularly trolling emanating from /b/– but it does gesture towards an ongoing [...]

  • [...] the alleged poster allegedly posted. This might not be an explicit memetic reference –a basic calling card of much trolling, particularly trolling emanating from /b/– but it does gesture towards an ongoing [...]

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