The Rat Has A Hunger
Reflections on a post-meme internet
By Alana Levinson
The rat has a hunger so deep he feels it vibrating in his bones. But there’s no shortage of options — New York City is littered with garbage. There’s always a plethora of discarded hot dog nubs, french fries dropped in transit, nearly naked sour patch kids.
It’s only when the rat sees the slice of pizza, with its hours-old sheen and crusty edges, that he knows what he wants. He is overcome with feels, with delight, with a kind of non-sexual horniness. He digs his teeth in and begins to drag the forgotten beauty down the stairs, to bring her along with him on his ride home.
He sees in the pizza not just a meal, but a piece of himself. And for that reason alone he must have it, consume it, be one with it. Only then will he achieve his true identity, the one he was destined for:
The Pizza Rat.
You never forget the first time. For me, it was in a dorm room, Freshman year, with a boy from Ohio. He had big brown almond eyes, a skateboard and obsession with Explosions in the Sky. I still think he’s one of the cutest people on the planet.
He lived right next door so it was easy to sneak over in my Emerson sweatpants with a bottle of coke (filled mostly with rum). I sat on his bed and took swigs from the hastily made concoction, while he opened up his new white Macbook. He’d prep me for what was to come:
“Oh god, It’s so good, I can’t wait to show you.”
I didn’t know what to expect but I was eager to share this experience with him, because I could feel the energy bouncing off his face. It was that kind of uncomplicated young love when all you really want from the other person is a smile. I knew I was about to get one.
He pressed play on a video from Mobile, Alabama, a place thousands of miles from Boston. I have no idea where he found it; probably in a forum of some kind, or from his boys back home. It was a local newscast segment that explored how an entire town was convinced a leprechaun was living in a tree. And damn, they wanted his gold. The amateur sketch of said leprechaun still gets me, to this day:
That was the first time I experienced the now-common rollercoaster of human emotion one gets when consuming good shit online. There was the calm, the shock, the pleasure, the delight, the disbelief, the doubt, and then finally, sublime acceptance. The ensuing deep belly laughs inspired an instinctual, guttural desire to share this with others, to give them a free ticket to the feelings ride.
But this was 2006. Facebook had age restrictions and had only recently introduced the feed (which we all hated). YouTube and Twitter were nascent. And most of the news sites that dominate the media ecosystem today weren’t even a glimmer in venture capital’s eye.
So the best we had was an IRL share, the kind that involved actually walking over and talking to someone. We headed to the common room, where my boyfriend’s roommates were hiding out probably because they thought we were having sex. We’d both emphatically mumble a variation on “you’ve got to see this,” before signaling them to join us.
Over the course of the next year, the crew would gather ‘round, drink some, bullshit some, and watch videos online, like the Star Wars Kid and Bubb Rubb and Lil Sis. Watching these before we went out, and then telling other people about them later at a party, became a semi-private ritual. Every Friday, we’d slurp down contraband booze, smoke weed out the window, listen to punk or rap so loud the walls would shake, and maybe pause to watch a little Chocolate Rain.
At the time, these videos, and their ensuing popularity, weren’t wrought with complexity. They weren’t a distraction from some kind of sick, sad reality. They weren’t a problem, and they didn’t reveal any bigger problems. They didn’t say something complex about the subjects, or about us, or about greater humanity. Not yet, at least.
They were just fun, to watch, together.
There is a secret the rat doesn’t want to get out: he can’t become his best self alone, and he needs more than just a slice of pizza. His full transformation into Pizza Rat requires a Human, with their opposable thumbs, camera phone, and wifi connection. Luckily, this is a truth that’s easily obscured. Humans seem to be everywhere, always holding their rectangular black boxes at half mast, eagerly waiting for a moment just like this. A moment the rat can easily provide.
The Human — quite simply — can’t resist him. After all, his black box has been hovering mid-body all day, like a kind of appendage, in preparation.
“Live your best life,” the Human will whisper as he dutifully captures, for all of mankind, the beautiful waltz danced by a rat and his beloved pizza.
Each word has the weight of the world’s loudest gong behind it. Emotional confetti flies through the air spelling out #goals before evaporating into mist. A tiny man with a painted face and an accordion sings opera while he weeps. Strangers smooch.
The buck doesn’t stop there. Oh no. The Pizza Rat, an experienced performer, knows that’s not enough to spark global intrigue. So, he decides to drop the pizza. Not because he wants to — in truth, he desires nothing more than to spend the night nibbling on neglected crust.
But something bigger than his individual hunger compels him now:
The thirst of the internet.
The crowd at Josh “the Fat Jewish” Ostrovsky’s New York Fashion Week show is heavy on the bro. There are some of the traditional industry people there, dressed without irony in black, but they are drowned out by louder sartorial choices like flat brims and chains. Guys in sunglasses stand outside in the sun on a Standard Hotel patio and grab PBRs out of a red and white cooler. They slip them into coozies that say “#1 Dad Fatherhood: A Lifestyle,” in anticipation of an event that will celebrate “the many moods and personalities of dads at all ages.”
It’s not clear which Ostrovsky, of the many, the crowd will be getting today. He’s a self-proclaimed z-list celebrity and plus sized model. He’s a successful wine entrepreneur that sold two million dollars worth of White Girl Rosé in two months. He’s been a spokesperson for brands like Virgin Mobile, Burger King, and Bud Light. He’s had dalliances in rap, comedy and acting and journalism. He’s taught homeless people to spin on citibikes and paid migrant workers to act out Braveheart. He’s even written a book (Money, Pizza, Respect), which will come out in November.
But ask the average digitally-inclined person how they know him and they will say one thing: memes. With 6 million Instagram followers, he’s the world’s first meme celebrity, having built his career on curating, or aggregating or stealing (depending who you ask) things on the internet. Though people have accused him of joke theft in smaller online communities for years, it was Ostrovsky getting signed by CAA — a top talent agency in Hollywood — that sparked a critical mass of media coverage. It’s rumored, and denied by his team, that the negative press delayed Ostrovsky’s book release and caused him to lose a deal with Seamless. (Regardless, he now credits all his posts and is going back retroactively through old ones.)
“If he wasn’t making money then I don’t think it would matter….it’d be annoying, but who cares?” asks Ben Rosen, a senior creative at Buzzfeed whose work was posted without citation by Ostrovsky. Rosen is just one of many that take issue with someone monetarily profiting off the work — the memes or jokes or viral goodness— of others. Though Ostrovsky is just one of many aggregators who doesn’t credit (cc: @fuckjerry), he is the first to really become famous doing it.
“Meme culture is still kind of a wild, wild west,” says Brad Kim, editor of Know Your Meme, the Wikipedia of memes. “It’s intrinsically resistant to copy right because the concept of memes focuses on the lifespan of a joke beyond the creation of the original author.”
In an ideal world, before a meme reaches mainstream culture, it would originate in a small online community, forum or social network. It would change and adapt as it travels from person to person. Ultimately, thousands of different versions would exist. No one would really own it and that would be besides the point. “In this context…people just borrow them for a brief moment until they continue their life cycle,” says internet artist Tom Galle, who recently created a site that sends a poem to your unfollowers on Twitter. “Creators seem happy if their joke lives a life further than their feed….They are part of a bigger thing, a community, where people just have fun creating memes and don’t take it too seriously.” A recent example is this summer’s most popular meme, What are those?!, which landed itself in a Samsung commercial featuring ASAP Rocky. The original creator, Young Busco, doesn’t seem to care that his meme is being used to turn a profit:
“Everybody’s telling me I gotta copyright this,” he told Vice. “I made a public statement saying, ‘I want you to copy and remix [What are those?!] a million times.’”
But this more pure form of content creation isn’t what Ostrovsky does. He sees himself as a curator on “the forefront of what’s cool and what’s hot and what’s funny.” And he also thinks meme curation is only one part of his empire, which he describes as performance art. Kim calls people like Ostrovsky (and places like Buzzfeed) “amplifiers,” existing solely to spread things to the mainstream. A more traditional interpretation of the word “curation” taken out of the context of the internet reveals Ostrovsky’s work to be even more problematic. Would a curator at a gallery hang a painting without an artist’s name attached? Joe Veix, an editor at Death & Taxes, the site that published a comprehensive list of plagiarism accusations, suggests that what Ostrovsky does isn’t meme curation, which actually has some value. Instead, he “exploits the nature of meme sharing” for personal gain.
A better comparison may be the world of stand-up comedy, which has been having this conversation for decades. In the 1950s, it was common for comedians to steal each other’s jokes. But in the mid to late 60s, the style of comedy changed to favor stories, narrative and persona. Comedians felt ownership over their jokes, which like memes, are not protected by intellectual property law. Lawyer Christopher Sprigman studied how comedians then created a set of social norms to protect against joke theft. “These aren’t formal legal rules but they have force,” Sprigman says of tactics like bad mouthing and boycotting, which are still commonplace today.
This isn’t a perfect analogy, because as Sprigman points out, “memes by nature are antithetical to ownership.” It’s for this reason that one of Ostrovsky’s most vocal defenders has been internet artist Ryder Ripps, whose website dump.fm, for example, was a driving force behind the “deal with it meme” that ended up on the cover of Time. “Do we really want to live in an internet where the [freedom to appropriate] doesn’t exist?”
But admittedly something just feels off about a man who got famous on memes drawing a fashionable, hipster crowd to the Standard during fashion week. These people aren’t concerned with the ethics of memes (and it’s clear most aren’t: his Instagram follower count went up more than 200,000 followers since the plagiarism controversy). The fashionable crowd will gleefully watch a parade of real dads Ostrovsky found on Craigslist saunter down a fake grass runway as YouTube videos play in the background. They will laugh at the golf dad and the blue collar dad and the hippie dad and the bbq dad.
And no one will care that they are dressed in clothes he didn’t design.
Pizza Rat knows he doesn’t have much time. As Humans live longer, their viral attention span grows shorter. Their thirst is at a Sahara-desert level and they are getting even more desperate. Soon, even though they don’t want to, the Humans will be forced to drink from another well. Pizza Rat needs to stay focused; he has less than 24 hours to change the world. Clears eyes, full heart, can’t lose internet celebrity, he thinks to himself. Thankfully, his Human — an actor/comedian — will act as an accomplice by stoking the soon-to-be raging fire.
It starts with a hashtag. Sure, that’s good, but we aren’t cookin’ with oil until we are trending world wide. It’s not longer good enough to just “go viral.” Pizza Rat wants concrete evidence that people loved him enough to photoshop; we need gifs, and memes and of course, BRANDS. We have to have DiGiorno, Random House Canada, and Claire’s all using the hashtag to shill products. We need psuedo-celebrities, and real celebrities and musicians of all kinds compelled by the Pizza Rat.
The Media, a collection of Humans with meme chips installed in their brains at birth, should be tweeting, facebooking, writing articles, creating quizzes with ten person bylines. We need a Shouts from The New Yorker, a take from Wired, a Spotify playlist from Mashable. Ideally, Buzzfeed and The New York Post will fight over an “exclusive.” Why didn’t the Rat go back for his Pizza? Or did he? Maybe he did? Is there more footage? Those are the kinds of questions we need people asking in order to get on NPR, CNN, and the Today Show.
The key to getting these Human freaks foaming at the mouth is simple. We just need to convince them that this isn’t just a rat dragging a piece of pizza. No way. This is them. They are the rat. They are the pizza. They are the concrete and the subway and whole damn city. Pizza Rat becomes them and they become Pizza Rat. And they are both, in some way, a part each other forever.
Alfred English was shocked to be recognized out at the club recently.
“I love your memes,” two separate fans told the 23-year-old who only casually started making them 5 months ago in his free time. Naturally, he took to social media to share this moment with the caption “when you become meme famous.” “Goals af,” one user comments. “Didn’t even know you made music or art,” says another.
“There is a shift that’s happening in memes right now,” says English, who goes by his real name. “It’s not just a brand that’s putting out memes; It’s a personified human being, but we are branding ourselves.” His perspective may seem similar to Ostrovsky’s, but in terms of how he is going about gaining celebrity, he couldn’t be more different. He makes all of his own memes from scratch, and doesn’t feel ok posting the work of others, credited or not. “These are people that work hard to craft their style and language,” Galle says of artists like English. “They see their memes as a creative output that they own.”
A graphic designer/music producer by day, English says sometimes the memes just “come to him.” He will dash off to the bathroom during work, sit on the toilet for 15 minutes while he makes one and then post it to Facebook or Instagram. Other times, he will take an intentional short break and have a brainstorming session with himself: What’s something that’s topical right now? What kind of angle can I create on that? What feels like an inside joke to my followers? “I want people to know the meme was made by me,” English says. For him, making memes is part of a larger effort to create a brand for himself that might someday help him out IRL.
Creating something with the purpose of going viral does make me think of The Family Guy Effect. As the writers of the show have been known to slip obscure memes and internet jokes into their scripts, the term has been used to describe what happens when online phenomena are exposed to the mainstream. It should surprise no one that The Family Guy Effect ultimately means one thing: death. Death by virality — the cruelest kind. English’s work and growing popularity exemplify how social media has made internet culture more and more synonymous with popular culture. Pretty much every meme nowadays falls pray to The Family Guy Effect — maybe we should call it the Fat Jewish Effect — eventually. The dorm room, that roller coaster ride, that communal moment, doesn’t even really exist anymore.
“They are just memes, you know. It’s not like we are creating major works of art,” English muses. “Or maybe we are? Maybe they are a new form of modern art!”
It takes a long time to figure out the cold hard truth. No one tells you when you’re a young, impressionable rat that virality is a fool’s game. In the meme biz, you rise fast and you fall faster. With each passing day, the meme lifecycle is getting shorter; The words “viral” and “meme” more interchangeable and meaningless. What used to take months to reach Mom, now comes to her via an email from Debbie within hours. We are post-meme.
But this is a lesson the rat needs to learn for himself, the hard way. The Colbert and Kimmel mentions will keep him content, for awhile. He’ll think of the almost 6 million views as he hides away in a dirty nook of the subway platform, with only the sound of his own chart beat to keep him company.
It’ll take months for the rat to realize, but one day as he’s nibbling on a piece of General Tso’s it will come to him: he never really stood chance. And not just because there’s already been a Milkshake Squirrel and a Smoking Crab. The rat was too hyper-aware, to calculated in his steps. He’ll remember what his old buddy, The Bronx Zoo Cobra, once told him: Real genius isn’t made, it’s born.
And always, always keep the pizza.🍕