KC Green Reflects On 10 Years Of “On Fire”
Internet anniversaries are a dangerous thing for internet culture writers, I think. I find them to be something of a trap. They sound great as pitches and then when it comes time to write about them, you find there isn’t much to actually say.
Other forms of pop culture — music, movies, paintings — tend to become more meaningful with time. Memes don’t really work that way. For instance, Dat Boi, the image of a frog on a unicycle that went viral in 2015, will be 10 years old in a couple years and I’m not totally sure I’ll have much to say when it does. Though, I suppose, in retrospect, you could argue that liberal-leaning Tumblr users elevating a frog meme at the same time that far-right 4chan users were turning artist Matt Furie’s Pepe the Frog into a hate symbol is sort of an interesting statement on the platform dynamics of the first half of the 2010s.
As for why memes don’t tend to age very well, I think a lot of it has to do with both the seeming randomness of their creation and their definitely random spread. Many memes feel closer to weather patterns than they do coherent creative movements. A user puts some text on a cat picture, everyone else does too, cat memes are everywhere for a few years, and then the storm passes. A guy with an especially deep voice sings a song on YouTube, everyone you know is sharing it, and then, one day, it’s over. There are some interesting technological quirks that explain why LOL cats or Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain” were popular at the end of the 2000s, but I’m not sure you could say that they really tell us anything larger about that era of human history other than that we really liked sharing some silly stuff at the time.
But the comic “On Fire,” by KC Green, two panels of which became the meme probably better know as the “This Is Fine” dog, is a bit different. It has a known creator and it was created with an intended purpose and it has, in many ways, grown over time and in a way that is totally in line with its original meaning. In other words, it’s piece of art and has aged exactly like all good pieces of art. Though, that doesn’t make its legacy simple to deal with.
In a recent Tumblr post, Green reflected on a decade of “On Fire,” and explored some of the bizarre existential questions that come from being the sole originator of a piece of internet canon. “When a work gets as big as this has, is it still yours,” Green asks. “I got lucky being able to ride it out a little. But it's not perfectly in my grasp.”
In 2016, Green explained the inspiration behind the comic in an interview with The Verge. “I think I was still struggling with myself — with getting my anti-depressants and stuff right,” he said. “You know, every now and then you have these off days where shit is worse, but you’re trying to ignore it. It’s just a feeling you have. I wrote this comic and that was all there was to it.”
And that original meaning is still very much intact. Like Mona Lisa’s eyes still following you around a room 500 years later, most people look at that dog (his name is Question Hound btw) and immediately understand how he feels. It turns out there’s more things than ever that feel noticeably worse that we’re tasked with trying to ignore — climate change, fascism, late-stage capitalism. This dog is exactly how it feels to be alive at the height of human technological progress and utterly terrified and miserable about it.
In fact, “On Fire” has even become an apt metaphor for its creator’s own relationship to it. Further down in Green’s essay, he writes about the uncanny feeling of watching something you made be pulled away from you by the forces of viral engagement.
“I've been forced time and time again with these six panels, to be the party pooper, gate-keeper, girlboss, etc., and just to get people to recognize there are artists behind these drawings online. These memes we share,” Green writes. “The best I can ask for is for people to simply forget, but the dog persists. So I do what I can and try to keep in good humor and be thankful that I can still do what I do for a living.”
In other words, this is fine.
I’m not so old and cranky that I think memes like “This Is Fine” can’t happen again, but I do think it’s less likely now that memes become part of what I’ll call “the grammar of the internet”. I personally think “cheugy” in 2021 broke something about the way American mainstream culture interacts with web culture, but I’m not ready to articulate an explanation as to how or why just yet. Though, I think maybe it was because of how obviously stupid it was. But I will say that in the 2010s, viral images and GIFs and internet slang were being immediately archived by digital media companies churning for boomer traffic on platforms like Facebook and then were turned into keyboards and emojis and stickers and messenger integrations by those same massive tech platforms. Which doesn’t feel like a thing anymore. Like I said, I think “cheugy” was the end of that.
That doesn’t mean the life of a meme creator is better, of course. TikTok’s entire strategy is to turn viral content in public domain “trends” that anyone can participate in, thus robbing any singular creator of ownership. But I think it’s telling that Green’s bittersweet post about 10 years of “On Fire” dropped the same week Popeye’s announced they were officially partnering with the now-grown-up Dieunerst Collin, the “Popeye’s meme kid”. It does feel like we now have a slightly better understanding that memes come from people.
My two hopes are that by the 20th anniversary of “On Fire” we, one, stopping relating to it so much and, two, find better ways to support and compensate the people who make the internet such an incredible resource. Also, for the record, my personal favorite of Green’s comics is this one.
Subscribe And Get The Garbage Weekend Edition In Your Inbox Tomorrow
It’s a fun rundown of all the stories of the week I didn’t cover, along with some more buttoned-up analysis. I think of Garbage Day like a reverse mullet. Party in the free issues, business behind the paywall. If you’re interested, hit the green button below.
A Good Tweet
Medium Investing Resources Into Mastodon Is A Big Deal
As I wrote on Wednesday, Mastodon is stabilizing into a much bigger platform than it was last year. Its peak has worn off, but it ended up with about three-times as many users. Not bad! I’ve even started to see Mastodon screenshots shared on other platforms, the real sign of whether or not a platform is popping off.
But Mastodon is still like email pre-Gmail. It’s a little clunky and a little confusing. So any large company taking interest in it is, at this point, notable and promising. Medium now has a Mastodon instance and it seems like the company is really taking it seriously.
Medium is one of those companies that I can’t help but root for. Sure, they’ve “pivoted” more times than any other publishing platform and tend to liquidate their editors and writers every three years, but I think the folks that run it actually have their hearts in the right place even if they never quite get it right. There’s all this chatter about Musk buying Substack and integrating it into Twitter, but wouldn’t it be a lot more fun of blogging companies like Medium and Tumblr-owner Automattic integrate with Mastodon and create something totally new and interesting?
We Should Know Why An A.I. Knows Stuff
Semafor has a wild story this week about ChatGPT essentially lying to users about how it knows certain things. ChatGPT’s “knowledge cutoff,” as it calls it, is 2021. But users are reporting there are certain things the A.I. knows from after the cutoff. Mainly it’s aware of Elon Musk owning Twitter and the fact that the Queen of England died. I tried to get it to tell me about Prince Harry’s new book Spare, but it didn’t know anything.
A representative for OpenAI told Semafor that it’s possible ChatGPT is learning new information from recent research sessions, but here’s the thing: It’s totally unacceptable they don’t know or aren’t willing to say for sure how this happened.
The only way this technology works going forward is if the companies at the helm know exactly what is in the datasets these tools are learning from. I’ve often used the metaphor of a nutritional labels for algorithms, which isn’t totally applicable, but it is absolutely applicable for A.I. We need to know what these things know and why.
Another Podcast Goes On Hiatus
My podcast The Content Mines put out its last episode today. And I think our decision to end it mirrors some larger issues in the podcasting world that are interesting maybe.
The first and most important reason is that it never could hit the downloads per episode needed to slap some ads on it and turn it into its own sustainable business. We’ve been stuck around 5,000-6,000 downloads an episode a week since last spring, with about 25,000-30,000 downloads a month. We also spent a lot of time over the last few years getting interest from podcast companies about either buying the show or commissioning spin-offs and all of that sort of fizzled as the podcast market, overall, has fizzled.
But I also think podcasting tends go in cycles and we’re back in an era where bingability is key, which our show increasingly did not have. In 2023, I think it’s much more important to have a show with one clear starting point — every week we read a book, every week we watch a movie, every week we answer advice, etc. Why is bingability back? Well, because podcasts aren’t just audio anymore. YouTube and Spotify are both turning podcasts into long-form videos and TikTok clips are the number one way of advertising a show. We recorded our podcast on Zoom and don’t have streamer setups really. So a video version of The Content Mines was never going to happen. In a perfect world, we’d stream the show on Twitch, cut it down into a podcast, and then release clips. But that is a lot of work!
More broadly, internet culture podcasts, in my opinion, don’t make a lot of sense anymore (and, honestly, never really have). First, internet culture is almost entirely visual. Describing a meme in audio is simply not interesting. But also every podcast has, over time, become a “let’s talk about at what’s on Twitter right now” show. Or worse, the hosts talking about something online “they just can’t stop thinking about.” This is true for all media, of course, but particularly true for podcasts because, once again, most internet culture is visual — except for tweets. So it’s real easy to just read some posts and talk about them. And Twitter is becoming a much smaller source of content and you can really feel it. There’s like five big stories and 10 smaller ones every week and, increasingly, it feels like none of them really matter. (This is a constant battle for Garbage Day as well tbh.) Which, to bring it back to the first point, doesn’t help with a show’s long-term bingability.
But, finally, as you can probably tell from my somewhat prickly demeanor, my co-host Luke and I just really needed a break. We made 127 episodes across a little under three years. That’s a lot of content! But if you liked the show and want it to come back, shoot me a message and ask us to investigate something. Maybe we’ll take the case.
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A DAO Published A Paper About Furries
Friends With Benefits, a decentralized autonomous organization and crypto culture collective, released published a paper called “On Furries And The Limits Of Trustlessness,” which aims to take learnings from the furry subculture about digital ownership and community building.
If you don’t remember this, at the height of the NFT boom, furries were one of the most outspoken communities attacking crypto-based art sales. And now we’ve reached a deep enough bottom of the crypto market for at least some people in that world to start saying, “maybe the furries know a thing or two about all of this.”
The paper is interesting, if only as an artifact of a very dead internet movement doing some much-needed soul-searching probably too late. But I also couldn’t help but laugh at the idea of a crypto collective trying to study furries and figure out their secret for using avatars and artwork to create an online community. The secret is furries are happy to do all the hard messy work that crypto evangelists think they can automate. It’s just that simple.
What A More Popular Tumblr Looks Like
If you didn’t know, Tumblr has a global trending section. I don’t personally use it that much, but sometimes it’s interesting to check in on. Users are currently complaining that it’s filling up with tag spam, however, and starting to resemble Instagram’s Explore page a couple years ago.
I actually see this as proof that Tumblr is growing. For years it’s been a place where, aside from a couple weird blogs run by very unwell creepypasta bloggers, most users were not trying to become popular. There really wasn’t a culture of trying to go viral. Now, that’s starting to change. I don’t think it’s totally a bad thing, as long as it’s managed. But I think this is probably the start of some big cultural shifts on the platform.
…Could “Tumblr book deals” be right around the corner?
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s a very important birthday message.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***
I liked your YouTube channel
I don’t agree with your take on podcasts, and Internet culture podcasts. One of the biggest narratively driven podcasts was Reply All and it worked until that team completely fell apart. It invoked theatre of the mind and would have been hindered by video. Now mind you it had an insane budget and lots of talent which the average podcast is not going to be able to pull off which is another issue in that medium entirely. A better example is DarkNet diaries. I think it’s another podcast that would be hindered by video because subject matter taking place in smtg as abstract as the vast corners of the internet lends itself well to imagination.
Not specifically internet culture but Underunderstood is another culture podcast that works entirely in sound. I don’t need to see the MTV sticker, Cooler Ranch Doritos, or Jeff Goldblums mystery tattoo.
Also not to diss, but I had zero clue your podcast was even available in any feed besides the substack feed. Which also leads me to my next point -- it’s ridiculous that with so many platforms emphasizing streaming podcasts instead of downloading them that downloads are the metric that advertisers still base funding on.