The true stories behind popular internet memes

Centuries from now, our telepathic, six-legged descendants will sort through the fossilized remains of everyday, 21st-century life. They'll push through dusty fidget spinners, shine a flashlight on the remnants of ancient hard drives … but then, instead of unveiling strange hieroglyphics, they'll discover the face of Doge.

Internet memes are one of the fastest ways cultural messages spread like wildfire. These popular images have become the water cooler talk of today's world, with billions of people laughing together at the many forms that the "Distracted Boyfriend" meme might take, or wondering how a "Clock Spider" ever got so monstrously gigantic. And behind every popular meme is a mysterious true story.

Doge

Dogs are man's best friend, and it's easy to see why. There might be no creature on Earth as lovable as a canine companion. Even when you leave home for too long and they chew up the couch out of separation anxiety, it just takes one loving stare from those puppy eyes to make the human heart melt like butter. It was no surprise when the internet lit up with images of "Doge," an adorable Shiba Inu surrounded by little messages written in Comic Sans. Doge fever reached such heights that the image spun off into a satirical cryptocurrency called Dogecoin, which at one point escalated to a market value of $400 million, according to the New York Times.

However, few people know the triumphant true story of the doggo that would become Doge. Before she was a meme, she was a rescue dog named Kabosu.

Kabosu was born in a puppy mill, according to The Verge. When the mill closed, she and 19 other puppies were abandoned in a dog shelter, and almost all of these dogs were killed. Kabosu escaped certain demise when she was adopted in 2008 by a loving Japanese schoolteacher named Atsuko Sato, who has since showered Kabosu with love in order to make up for the neglect she faced in her puppy days. The "Doge" photo was posted on Sato's blog in early 2010.

Slender Man

There are cute memes, and then there are creepy ones. This haunting figure — an impossibly tall, faceless man, often with tentacled arms — has become the Bigfoot of the internet age, with the character's dark mythology spinning off into a video game and a popular YouTube series, Marble Hornets. Despite Slender Man's mysteriousness, the origins of this fictional character are surprisingly easy to track down.

As told by TechCrunch, Slender Man is nothing more than the product of the SomethingAwful message boards, in which the eerie character was created by a Floridian named Eric Knudsen. The thread in which the creepypasta icon made his debut was titled "Create paranormal images," and Knudsen's Photoshop submission depicted the now-infamous figure standing behind a playground. Knudsen also dialed up the creep factor by including a campfire-esque backstory about 14 missing children.

In the SomethingAwful thread, Slender Man caught on like a virus. Other posters added their own bits of mythology, including a modified woodcut that made it appear as if the Slender Man legend stretched back for centuries. By the time Slender Man's popularity spread outside the forum, his story had become so developed that it's no wonder so many people questioned if he was a real ghostly being. But no, as the BBC puts it, Slender Man is "fakelore," not folklore. Nonetheless, this online meme stands out as the most distinctive bogeymen of the 2000s.

Overly Attached Girlfriend

If you're lucky or unlucky enough to become a meme, the results can be quite weird. Just ask Laina Morris, who was only 20 years old when an image from her YouTube video gained notoriety as the "Overly Attached Girlfriend," leading to an explosion of attention — some good, some bad, and some just plain creepy.

According to Maya Oppenheim of the Independent, Morris's original video was a parody of the Justin Bieber song "Boyfriend," told from the perspective of a "stalker girlfriend." The day after she posted it, a screenshot landed on Reddit, and the Overly Attached Girlfriend meme was born. Within hours, an insane number of stalkers tried to creep into Morris' personal life. Random users went through her YouTube, and others seized on her personal Facebook page, going so far as to message her friends.

Horrible stuff, but Morris managed to turn it all around and make her story a success. She funneled all the attention onto her YouTube channel and kept making videos. Eventually, she got enough subscribers that she could quit her job and become a full-time YouTuber. Today, Morris lives a regular life, other than the fact that her source of income is a lot more interesting than what most people do. As she says, "Maybe someday this will just be a cool thing that happened to me, but I'll make videos as long as I enjoy it and people are watching."

Clock Spider

If there's one thing on the internet more terrifying than the Slender Man, it's his emissary of fear, the Clock Spider. This early 2000s meme was a series of real photographs depicting a prehistoric-sized spider creeping from beneath a clock, much to the terror of arachnophobes across the world. Where could such an enormous creature come from?

Your first guess is right: it came from Australia, according to the original post. User "kenratboy" shared his Clock Spider photographs on the Klipsch community forums back in 2003, and other users soon expressed their terror and sympathy at his discovery. Presumably, he took the photographs of the spider at someone else's place, since he says that if the animal had been at his house, "I would literally get out my 12 gauge and blow it away regardless of the repercussions," which, well … isn't really fair, considering it's hardly the spider's fault that it got to be so huge. As HowStuffWorks points out, spiders are immensely helpful to humanity, since they eat all the pest insects. Any home would be lucky to have a Clock Spider in it, right?

As this YouTube video from noswonky shows, these time-keeping arachnids can be found all over the place. So maybe someday soon, you'll have your own Clock Spider.

Disaster Girl

From The Omen to The Ring, Hollywood has menaced us for decades with images of sinister little kids. This fear is embodied in Disaster Girl, a meme which spotlights a little girl standing before a burning building, smirking slightly at the carnage. Disaster Girl's face has appeared before countless scenes of wanton destruction, always with that same smirk. Who is she? An ancient spirit? The angel of death?

Actually, no. In 2004, she was just a regular little girl named Zoe Roth, a local of Lake Tahoe, North Carolina. According to Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Zoe and her brother, Tristan, were watching TV one afternoon when her mom came home and mentioned a huge fire taking place up the road. Zoe's dad, Dave Roth, scooped up his camera, and the family went to get pictures. By the time they got there, the flames were well under control by the local fire department, and everyone on the block had gathered to watch. According to Roth's blog, the future "Disaster Girl" portrait of Zoe was originally named "Firestarter."

Dave uploaded the photo online, and the image took off, becoming the Disaster Girl meme we know today. Now that she's a teenager, Zoe says she finds the whole thing pretty fun, other than some of the more controversial images. She also stated that, "I'd love for the meme to help me get into or pay for college somehow."

Grumpy Cat

If there's one internet pet who receives the same level of adoration as Doge, it's Grumpy Cat. Just as Doge embodies the qualities people love about dogs, Grumpy Cat is a hero to feline fans everywhere due to her perpetually annoyed expression. According to the Telegraph, the real Grumpy Cat actually has the even more awesome name of "Tardar Sauce," and the tidal wave of internet popularity that her contemptuous expression engendered has completely changed the life of her owner.

Tardar Sauce's distinct appearance is caused by feline dwarfism combined with a severe underbite. She belongs to Arizona native Tabatha Bundesen, and back when the original photo was taken, Bundesen was struggling to making ends meet as a waitress. That all changed when Bundesen's brother posted the famous photo of Tardar Sauce's face onto the internet, changing his sister's life forever.

Since those early days, Bundesen has managed to make millions of dollars from Grumpy Cat merchandise, books, a brand of iced coffee, a film deal, and even an appearance by Tardar Sauce on the bag of Friskies Party Mix, according to Business Wire. Somewhat ironically, Mental Floss explains that despite Tardar Sauce's grumpy expression, she's actually a happy, playful, frisky cat … particularly compared to her brother Pokey, who is apparently the real grumpy one.

All Your Base Are Belong to Us

Some have argued that the first meme in history was a trippy music video called "All Your Base are Belong to Us." This video begins with a badly translated video game cutscene, then launches forward with a sequence depicting hundreds of Photoshops: in each image, the title ("All Your Base are Belong to Us") is plastered on everything from highway signs to cereal boxes, accompanied by a rocking techno soundtrack.

So, what was the inside joke? Well, it's all about that badly translated cutscene. According to New York Magazine, the scene was pulled from Zero Wing, a Japanese game that also included killer lines like "You have no chance to survive make your time." In December 2000, users of the TribalWar gaming forum latched onto this hilarious dialogue sequence and Photoshopped the phrase onto every image they could think of. The overarching effect made it seem as if the villain in Zero Wing had invaded our planet, and was now informing us that … um … all our base are belonged to him?

Anyway, a couple months of Photoshopping madness went by. By February, user Bad_CMC put together a video that combined the original cutscene with all the Photoshops his fellow forum users had put together. So really, the video was almost like a class reunion montage, albeit a lot more fun.

Ridiculously Photogenic Guy

For most people, running in a marathon is a sweaty, damp, exhausting affair that leaves joints aching for days … but not if you're Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. As you can see above, Ridiculously Photogenic Guy is no mere mortal. Anytime the camera flashes, this dashing fellow possesses the magic skill of immediately presenting any lens with a perfect, camera-ready grin. 

This total heartthrob is named Zeddie Little, and his hometown is Charleston, South Carolina, according to the Charleston City Paper. His photo was snapped by computer programmer Will King, who took many photos from the race, but none that achieved the same level of fame. The Photogenic Guy himself claims the photo was just a case of perfect timing, but isn't that what they all say? Anyway, Zeddie finished the race in 47 minutes and 16 seconds, earning 242nd place in his division. As you can see, he did it without breaking a sweat.

Little's photogenic fame grew so immense that he was even interviewed on Good Morning America alongside the photographer who captured his shot. He even got to hold Tardar Sauce once. In Internet Land, it doesn't get much better than that.

Success Kid

Nothing says victory like the image of the Success Kid, that determined toddler pumping his fistful of sand in a show of conquest. If only all of us could seize the day with such confidence, the world would be a better place. The face of this triumphant little kid belonged to 11-month-old Sammy Griner of Florida. There's not much of a story behind the photo itself — it's just a great baby album addition that happened to go viral — but what's really amazing is what happened after Success Kid became, well, a success.

By 2015, according to ABC News, Sammy was well into elementary school and his dad, Justin Griner, had been experiencing six years of kidney failure requiring near-daily dialysis treatments. In a twist of fate that the family never could have predicted, the popularity of the Success Kid meme allowed them to receive a welcome surge of attention for their online GoFundMe campaign, where fans of the meme donated over $100,000 to fund both a kidney replacement operation and hospital care for Sammy's dad. True success.

Distracted Boyfriend

The vote has been held, and the results have come in: "Distracted Boyfriend" is the biggest meme of 2017. The meme's rise in popularity has been charted out by Vox, from its simple beginnings as an image with the caption "tag that friend who falls in love every month" to its more subversive later incarnations where the other girl's face is replaced with everything from "socialism" to the weird pointy "S" that middle schoolers always draw on their textbooks. As Vox's Aja Romano points out, the meme's popularity is due to its perfect combination of simplicity and versatility.

So where did it come from? Amusingly enough, before this picture was Distracted Boyfriend, it used to just be an everyday stock image on Shutterstock, taken by Barcelona-based photographer Antonio Guillem. As written by New York Magazine, the original photo wasn't the most popular one out of Guillem's portfolio, selling about 700 times a year, while his company sells over 1,600 photos a day in total. Guillem names the models in the photo as being Laura and Mario, and says the photo was only one of a 2015 series taken in Gerona, Catalonia, as a representation of an "infidelity" theme. According to Guillem, he had no idea until recently that the Distracted Boyfriend meme existed (or what a meme was!) until one of the models in the photo showed it to him.

Salt Bae

In a short time, Salt Bae has become an internet legend. His fanciful sprinkling gesture has been mimicked by everyone from chefs to athletes, and his style of skilled, sensual meat preparation has made him a pin-up. However, while the Salt Bae meme is relatively new, the man behind the myth has been cutting steaks for a long time. His name is Nusret Gökçe, and if you look at his Instagram, you'll find many more videos of him carving up slabs of meat.

According to NBC News, Gökçe is originally from Turkey, and he grew up in poverty, being forced to quit school at 5 years old. As a teenager, he worked 13-hour days as a kitchen runner at a butcher shop, dreaming of one day starting up his own restaurant. As an adult, he finally did just that: he opened up his steakhouse Nusr-et in Istanbul, and it became successful enough that he opened branches in Abu Dhabi, in Dubai, and in other locations around the world. 

Finally, in 2017 he became the Salt Bae, and his meat preparation skills gained the awe and appreciation of millions. Salt Bae's technique even impressed actor Leonard DiCaprio, who flew all the way to Istanbul so he could receive meat prepared by the man himself.