The other night, my wife flipped her iPad screen toward me, flashing me an image of Momo. With its deep-set, marble eyes, black matted hair, rictus grin, and hybrid female/bird body, Momo is a deeply unsettling image. I instinctively turned my head and asked why she’d shown me that nightmare right before bed.
Of course, why should I be spared? The image of Momo has appeared on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, newspapers, online media, and local and national TV. It haunts every corner of media and social media and, according to reports, may be inspiring impressionable young minds to carry out horrifying acts of self-destruction.
Except that’s not what’s really happening here.
Momo is in reality “Mother Bird,” a bizarre Japanese sculpture of indeterminate origin. “Momo” refers to another part of the Momo Challenge origin story. The image originally started appearing on the wildly popular Chinese Momo flirting app where it was shared widely as an example of something they call “Kimo Kawa” or “disgusting but cute.”
However, the Momo mythology didn’t take off, according to Know Your Meme, until 2017 when the image became associated with a WhatsApp number. Why you’d want to call that face I will never know. Even so, the number was quickly debunked as meaningless and yet that Momo/WhatsApp connection persisted as a crucial element of the Momo Mythology.
Momo transformed from a persistent and disturbing meme into something more serious when the Buenos Aires Times reported that a 12-year-old girl might have committed suicide based on a command given to her through WhatsApp, and that the act was potentially part of what was then known as the “Momo Game.” In this “game,” a person (or maybe Momo) directs a victim to perform a series of challenges that can ultimately lead to self-harm or suicide.
The Buenos Aires Times’ reporting wasn’t exactly solid. It repeatedly claimed that the Mother Bird Sculpture was the work of Japanese artist Midori Hayashi whose Instagram page bio now starts with, “I didn’t create “Mother Bird”. Keisuke Aiso created it. Link Factory is his company.” Aiso, as far as I can tell, has never spoken publicly about the sculpture, though he has authored a book filled with disturbing female-like sculptures called “Grotesque Girls.”
The newspaper never followed up on the story and there’s never been any confirmation that the “Momo Game” had anything to do with the girl’s tragic death.
There were some scattered reports after that of people inserting images of Momo into Minecraft or, as the New York Post liked to say, Momo had taken over Minecraft. Yet, even with that story, there was no video or photographic evidence.
Momo faded from public consciousness for six months until fresh claims emerged of the Momo image popping up inside children’s YouTube videos, a claim YouTube quickly denied. Momo’s bizarre, bird-like image was everywhere again, as was the unfortunate tale of the 12-year-old who committed suicide, which is often used as the lode stone that somehow verifies all other claims.
In a Today Show report, which acknowledge the possibility that the “Momo Challenge” might be a hoax, they earnestly asked the question, “Who’s behind it?” I wanted to shout at the screen: We are!
Like any high-quality meme, “Momo” (and the “Momo Challenge”) has firmly embedded itself into the central nervous system of the Internet. It’s like a latent gene, not always noticeable, but ready to present itself at any moment.
It can be hard to understand how this kind of virality works unless you experience a little bit of it yourself. A few years back, I worked on a story about a company that could take any photo and turn it into toast or more specifically, a toaster that could create “Selfie Toast.” I worked with them to get my own selfie-making toaster and soon I had an entertaining story and at least one good photo of my toaster with the original image of my face printed on it and a piece of toast with my burnt-on visage popping out of it. I like to call this image Toaster Face.
The story was popular enough that the image got picked up on Tumblr. Then it got passed around, sans context, all over the place. My daughter, then a frequent Tumblr user, would groan every time it reemerged in her feed, which was about every six months. Eventually the image made its way to the Bill Maher Show, where the comedian made fun of it, but clearly had no idea about its origin, As for me, I no longer had control of the image or story and had to sit back and watch as people made up ideas about what it represented.
Obviously, the sentiment behind Momo and the Momo Challenge is much darker, but the cycle of virality is similar.
Momo thrives on a grotesque image, one potentially apocryphal story, and the Internet’s willingness to insta-share any notion without a moment’s hesitation or investigation.
Everyone believes the Momo Challenge is a threat to our children because everyone tells them so. Even worse, the media reinforces this notion by reporting and re-reporting the same story every six months. There is no evidence that the Momo Challenge exists. There’s not even any evidence that the image is popping up like an insane interstitial inside children’s YouTube videos.
Momo is, instead, a perfect reflection of everything that’s wrong with Internet culture, social media, knee-jerk reporting and a reminder of how we got ourselves into this mess.
It’s a confirmation tale that reinforces the idea that the Internet is teeming with predators looking to harm our children. It’s also a tool for those who feed on those fears. Just as Russian Trolls used our social media reinforce existing biases and swing an election with fake groups and with planted stories, there are people grabbing the Momo image, which no one seems to own, and reproducing it in all kinds of media, stirring up fears based on a fearful image and nothing else. They do it because they can, and they know that it’s an easy way to get a response. I found it easy enough to grab a Momo image and, using Snapchat Face Swap lens, make a semblance of the gargoyle talking with my voice.
In the Today Show report, a woman holds her small child who, according to her, knew Momo was the character with scary eyes and black hair. But no one explained where the child had seen the image. On the other hand, by now we’ve all seen Momo; her mirthless grin is inescapable.
The mother’s concern was real but the threat to our children? It’s not.
We may never truly understand why the Momo meme persists, but the idea that a single entity might be behind the Momo Challenge is preposterous. If you want to understand where the Momo Challenge is coming from and how to stop it, go look in a mirror.