Around 2013, a relatively new meme format went mainstream. Stock photography juxtaposed with lines of surprising text was suddenly comedy gold, as Redditors proved — particularly when they took the benign and made it dark.
But there’s a lot of life in stock photo memes besides rude subversions. The “distracted boyfriend” meme will probably turn out to be among 2017’s most recognizable, as users assign the role of disloyal man, offended girlfriend, and “other woman” to all kinds of concepts. Stock photos, with their exaggerated reactions and comically generic situations, have become core to the internet humor tool set, and their popularity reveals a lot about us when it comes to shifts in digital identity, the way we conceptualize others online, and even the ways we contend with new definitions of reality.
It took only a couple decades for the internet to transform from a weird underground hobby to an entirely new medium for the self. One of the earliest draws of internet society was the invitation to become someone else — to obscure the dull strains of your real life behind a veil of mysterious text or behind an avatar, the image or persona you create to represent you online. In those days, it often seemed like people had collectively assented to participate in some degree of fiction about one another. The person on your forum or in your channel who loved to say inflammatory things was just some troll; you could even assume that he wasn’t like that in real life. That these were only mechanisms specific to the character he lived as online.
Today, there is no in real life. The internet is firmly a major component of real life, a continuously accessible medium we use for work, self-expression, entertainment, commerce, and information. By some definitions, perhaps it’s realer than real life; we’re more honest in Google searches than in surveys, and advertising algorithms have begun to demonstrate an eerie ability to sense us, to know what we want before we’ve said so. Each of us daily creates our own prolific constellation of metadata, which will eventually be more revealing than any self-concept or user profile we create for online use. The aging contingent who say things like “then just turn it off” or those coffee shops with the smug “no Wi-Fi” signs are trying to rebag a cat that’s already halfway across the universe.
The loss of anonymity online has created a significant cultural shift. It now takes some degree of literacy and precision to move through the digital world without leaving any clue as to one’s identity. Commonly used services are interconnected, importing names, profile pictures, and other personal information among one another, sometimes without even asking. Anyone in an even gently public-facing role has reams of Google image search results for themselves, their faces: images independent of their control or consent.
It’s disturbing to lose control over our online selves. Yet many still feel that anonymity is actually problematic. Anonymity, some say, enables harassers to abuse platforms and communities without consequence. Others suggest it encourages people to ventilate hateful views or destructive behavior they might otherwise conceal. Thanks to countless high-profile episodes of online harassment, mostly targeting women, people of color, and otherwise marginalized individuals, anonymity has become associated with illicit acts; new users to a service or those who don’t identify themselves with a real name and photo are often mistrusted by default.
Amid this shift come new considerations on how real we want to be with one another in virtual space. We are reconsidering and rediscovering what “truth” means in a world where plentiful, malleable, manipulable digital society looms larger and larger. On one hand, the word “empathy” comes up frequently in tech industry conversation around how to help users feel a sense of human relationship toward others when they are not present or “real” in the familiar sense, or when some kind of interface is involved. On the other hand, many people say they struggle with overwhelm, suddenly hyperconnected to the real, daily stories of people suffering from natural disasters, state violence, racism, or abuse.
Under these circumstances, stock photos are the ideal medium for public cartooning. They are the only thing left on the internet that is “anonymous,” in a sense — the people in the photos are often white actors pretending to be people in generic or inane situations, and thus are some of the few uncomplicated targets left. They are pictures of what we used to believe the world looked like, before the internet made us real to each other, for better or worse.
The images often have garish watermarks, satirizing the naive age when every new piece of content you encountered could be attributed to a source — had to be, lest you were in ethical breach. Mocking an image of manufactured serenity is fun; stealing it from a reputable database and writing on it is an extra layer of defiance in the content economy. Generally, the more artifacts a JPEG has, the funnier it is, because the artifacts are a clue as to how far the image has traveled from its “proper” source.
The now iconic “distracted boyfriend” walking down the street is actually part of a Shutterstock series, where the titular boyfriend’s wandering eye crops up during an embrace and even a marriage proposal. The series’ full name is “Disloyal man walking with his girlfriend and looking amazed at another seductive girl.” It almost sounds automated, ramping up the absurdity of the image. This is because in the stock photo biz, photographers often shoot the same actors in variations on the same narrative so clients will have a few different choices.
That can lead to some effortlessly funny results — users have extended the Disloyal Man mythos on their own, for one. For another, a pharmacist defending his counter with an assault weapon is later shown cheerfully dispensing a prescription to the would-be thief. No text is needed. In an era when the U.S. president’s old tweets are uncanny opposites of his new positions, suddenly anything can be ridiculous. Simply placing two absurd photos alongside one another can reveal the dizzying faults in our present idea of reality. Who’s the true Disloyal Man, et cetera, lol.
It used to be that ordinary strangers could readily gain bizarre microfame for looking a little weird in a photo. But memeing real people has begun to feel loaded, now that social media users can — and will — hunt down any tall poppy. Most viral fame today only lasts as long as it takes to find evidence of the subject’s secret racism. Stock photo memes have become safe places to chop, screw, and subvert various utopian ideals — without actually causing harm to any real person, which sometimes feels like a rarity in digital society. The polished visages are all lies, safe to dissect.
But perhaps just as important, stock photos also allow users to take shots at the very idea that truths on life can be gleaned from calculated moments stored in databases. It’s a joke at the expense of the medium it’s using and a decompression valve for the anxieties about identity, privacy, expression, and “‘the truth”’ that have built up among us in this new, unreal reality.