Why don’t we care where image macros and GIFs come from?

Like a straying husband returning to his long-suffering wife, the Internet loves animated GIFs again. The 2006 version of me would never have guessed that, in 2013, some of the web’s most popular sites would be built on  GIFs. Likewise, the web loves image macros–an image superimposed with text for humorous effect, more commonly known as memes. This remains my favourite:


The image comes from from a Bjork video directed by Spike Jonze. Know Your Meme attributes it to a Reddit user. I contacted that user because I wanted to ask his permission to use the image, and to know if he created it. He told me that he found it on Tumblr, so the original creator is lost in the emo-ether of that site. I wanted to credit the original creator, but I’m going to claim fair use (or maybe fair dealing) on this post.

These images are ubiquitous on Facebook, in text messages, on blogs and anywhere else an image can fit. We even use them to stand in for text, whether we want to celebrate or bemoan our circumstance. Of course the current generation of young people is the most visually literate in history–they’ve grown up with Photoshop, digital cameras and, more recently, cameras in their back pockets. This is the Internet we envisioned, right? One where everything is a remix.

Yet, somebody made that image. Somebody made every image macro and GIF on the web. Thanks to a fluke of technology, those creators are almost never credited. Many of these images have been copied hundreds of thousands of times without credit. They’re routinely used by for-profit enterprises–here’s just one example–without paying or acknowledging the creators. While these companies should know better, I attribute the vast majority of this copying to ignorance, not malice.

We don’t seem to mind

Does it matter that we don’t necessarily know or credit the original creators of these images? I’m sure that some creators don’t care. Here’s what the original photographer of the popular ‘Doge’ meme thinks:

“To be honest, some pictures are strange for me, but it’s still funny! I’m very impressed with their skills and taste. Around me, nobody knows about the doge meme. Maybe I don’t understand memes very well, because I’m living a such an analog life…It’s quite natural that anyone can see the photos and use them, but I didn’t think about it until I saw the meme. I learned that the risk of the internet is that anyone in the world can see my life on my blog.”

We certainly care when companies steal ideas and re-sell them. Then we’re all Internet pitchforks and torches. But we don’t really give this enormous, wholesale replication a second thought.

I know that we’ve copied images since the early days of the web, but I think the scope and centrality of their use makes this issue more pertinent today than ever before.

If credit followed the creator

Imagine a world in which every piece of content always carried its credit with it. The web remains as open to remixing as it is today, but every piece of content has an obvious trail of breadcrumbs back to its original source. Kindergarten teacher Atsuko Sato took the original Doge photo. She cares about the issue of puppy mills. Imagine if just 1% of the, say, 5 million people who see her Doge photo follow the trail back to her. Suddenly she’s exposed 50,000 more people to her pet (ahem) issue. Or maybe Scumbag Steve will get more exposure for his music. As of today, hardly anybody who has enjoyed an image macro knows who made it.

Tumblr and Facebook offer versions of this attribution through sharing, but that’s a layer on top of the content, not the content itself.

I don’t dream of a more restrictive Internet–it’s the remixing that’s so much of the fun. But I am passionate about giving credit (so is this guy), and I wonder why we’re so casual with attributing some of the most common images on the web.


  1. I like the idea of credit following the creator somehow. It would be fantastic if it could be embedded like exif data, so for instance you could use a creative commons photo in your blog post without having to jump through extra hoops (or know the rules!) to respect the license. Then the blog software could use that to craft a credit link automagically.

    That quote from Sato raises an interesting issue: so many people *do* live analog lives like that. So it’s one thing that her dog photo is repurposed in a meme. But I think it would be a very different experience for those who post a photo of their kid online and find out it’s become a meme.

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