How a baby photo turned a Net 'meme'

How a baby photo turned a Net 'meme'

They were the kind of photos that every parent takes, but one in particular stood out: Stephen wearing a pair of red overalls, smiling in a crib. “We’re really blessed,” Rout wrote as the caption. “Stephen is an amazingly happy baby.”

The photo had faded from memory until last July, when Rout, curious about his online reputation, did a Google search of himself. Deep within the results pages, he found the picture of Stephen. Only, it wasn’t exactly the same picture.

He was surrounded by cartoonish word bubbles filled with Japanese writing: “Don’t call me baby!” they read. “Call me Mr Baby!” And there were other images in which the photo was transformed further: Stephen has a pompadour in one, a head full of snakes in another. His face was pasted onto Kurt Cobain’s head, carved into Mount Rushmore and tattooed onto David Beckham’s torso. He was an eight-bit video game character. He became a three-dimensional sculpture.

Used on TV, porn

Somehow, Stephen’s smiling face had permeated a corner of Japanese visual culture. It showed up on wacky television game shows, and occasionally it blotted out images of genitalia in pornography, to comply with Japanese law.

In other words, the photo of Rout’s son had become an Internet meme: an idea, image, catchphrase or video that goes viral, mutating via amateur remixes into unexpected forms. Often, memes revolve around an inside joke — say, a screen capture from an obscure video game — but just as often they make jokes of the source material.

Memes may be image-based, involving a kind of visual pun. Think of LOLcats, the ubiquitous photos of adorable kittens with captions like, “I can has cheezburger?” Memes may bear little resemblance to the original material. Who first found Stephen’s picture is not known, nor how it was found.

Stephen, who is now 10, seems to have taken his meme notoriety in stride, spending his summer instead on karate lessons and the Honour Harrington series of science-fiction novels. “Surprised and really amazed and really weirded out” is how Stephen described the experience.

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