Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the past few weeks, you’ll be familiar with the viral “What I really do” meme – a sequence of five or six photos highlighting people’s skewed notions about your profession, nationality, or other social group.
According to Know Your Meme, the first example of the meme was posted by Garnet Hertz on his Facebook on February 2, 2012. (For some reason, the date on the photo is February 10.) As of today, February 20, the photo has been liked 106 times and shared a whopping 5,052 times.
Hertz is a contemporary artist whose work examines technological progress and innovation. I previously covered him in a piece about OutRun, an arcade driving game that can actually run on the road, when I wrote:
Garnet Hertz has a love-hate relationship with technology. Lately you’ll find him teaching workshops on circuit bending to low-income children, but his portfolio also includes a robot controlled by a live roach, or roachbot, and a time-lapsed video exploring our addiction to television.
Below, Hertz answers a few questions about the ubiquitous meme:
Tech Cocktail: What was your inspiration for your sequence of photos about contemporary artists?
Garnet Hertz: I had seen an image of “Role Playing” that was in a similar format before I made my image – I immediately saw that the format could be adapted to many different topics, and I chose contemporary art since that’s what I do. I had been working on a proposal for a couple of weeks, and took a 15 minute break to make the image. I slightly modified the format of the Role Playing image and uploaded it for the enjoyment of my friends on Facebook – I didn’t give it much thought, and went back to working on my proposal. I think it was the first image like this to go viral and have a clear author – I think the Role Playing image was made anonymously.
Tech Cocktail: How does it feel being the originator of such a wildly popular meme?
Hertz: With the disclaimer above about being influenced by somebody else’s image, it took me a bit by surprise that it caught on so much. For example, a few days after I had made the image, I was talking to a curator at the National Center for Contemporary Arts in Ekaterinburg, Russia, who congratulated me on my image: it was a little surreal to have such a broad distribution. The rate that the meme spread was a bit staggering.
Tech Cocktail: Why do think this meme is so popular?
Hertz: I think it’s popular since it’s easy for people to make their own image – I think that’s what differentiates a meme from something that is viral. A meme is something that people can easily participate in: it’s relatively easy to open up an image editing application and make a LOLCats image, for example. It’s the same with the “What I Really Do” images. Something viral is something that spreads fast; a meme is a format that spreads fast with a lot of different variations.
I think it’s also spread fast because it’s something that you can read and understand in 10 seconds – this makes it Facebook-friendly.
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