It makes some sense that the country's primary hub of technology and social media, the San Francisco Bay Area, would be a font of meme fodder and a haven for the creators of viral memes. And indeed, it has been.
The word "meme" was once just an academic term, invented by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in the 1970s, that referred to "units of cultural information" that take on a life of their own. Fast-forward to the internet age, and especially the era of social media, and the word now primarily refers to the stuff of gifs and reaction pics, born out of the cultural zeitgeist du jour.
Since mostly this stuff just gets relegated to the internet trash bin after some period of time, perhaps meme history deserves some proper archiving. Below we bring you the twelve most notable memes of the last decade-plus that originated here in the Bay Area in some shape or form.
What gif is in the Gif hall of fame for you? For me it’s White guy blinking face pic.twitter.com/UaNCani3A2— IceKareemy (@IceKareemy) November 22, 2020
BLINKING WHITE GUY GIF
Not long after the Blinking White Guy GIF exploded as a popular meme, we learned that the blinking Caucasian male was in fact San Francisco resident Drew Scanlon. He’s a local! The blinking had actually been recorded in a developer-group gameplay video four years earlier, and laid dormant until the meme's sudden widespread use in 2017. This Buzzfeed video interview with Scanlon tells the whole story, and does document the matter over which Scanlon was shock-reaction blinking. (They’re playing a farm game, and a fellow game dev cracks the double-entendre, "I’ve been doing some farming with my hoe here.")
Despite an estimated 1.7 billion uses of the GIF, this has not ruined Scanlon’s life. He told KPIX in 2019 that "I've only been recognized as the guy in the GIF one time," moreover, he doesn’t even look like that anymore. And in the rare happy-ending department, Scanlon has used his meme-fame to raise $154,000 for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society via fundraisers. -Joe Kukura
SFist was "on hiatus" when the infamous April 2018 BBQ Becky incident occurred at Oakland's Lake Merritt, in which chemical engineer Dr. Jennifer Schulte chose to call the police on a group of Black people using a charcoal grill in an "undesignated area." The infamous YouTube video of the encounter begat a million cut-and-paste jobs of Schulte, a.k.a. Becky, a.k.a. "the first viral Karen," holding her cellphone to her ear, calling to report everything from Black people in Wakanda to Martin Luther King speaking at the Mall on Washington.
After Twitter associated Schulte with Stanford University, the university quickly corrected the situation saying she was not on their faculty or staff. Schulte, who was reduced to tears on video by the end of the incident after telling police she was being harassed, has never publicly commented on the video or meme. -Jay Barmann
KINK.COM ARMORY PICTURES
This shot of 1800 Mission Street was popularized as part of the intro to Kink.com internet porn videos (erm, at least, that’s what I’m told… ). The former National Guard Armory was purchased by Kink.com in 2007, where they shot some crazy porn, caused many a controversy, and maybe there was some cocaine and gun use here and there. Though Kink.com sold the place and moved out in 2018, the image of the building lives on as a wink-nod joke to other people who are into kinky bondage porn.
Incredibly sombre mood outside the Tower of London this evening. I know the Queen spent many pleasurable moments here, and the sense of loss is palpable. Very sad indeed. pic.twitter.com/K34KsMVY9T— Omelette Coleman (@BadStairlift) September 8, 2022
Am I going to hell for embedding the tweet above? Just trying to illustrate another variation of this meme, which is the feign ignorance that the armory is some other castle, as a form of sardonic joke. -Joe Kukura
EPIC BEARD MAN / AMBER LAMPS
WARNING: This video is graphic, but this 2010 AC Transit bus fight video drew national fascination back during Gawker-era Deadspin. The “I AM a motherfucker” t-shirt initially catches one’s eye in this perhaps drug-, alcohol-, mental illness- or racism-tinged confrontation, but the surprise beating from a senior citizen we would call Epic Beard Man spawned memes galore, and eventually even a Danny Trejo film called Badass.
On a lighter note, the disinterested onlooker wearing headphones would become a meme herself, known as “Amber Lamps,” a misinterpretation of the injured punch victim’s pronunciation of “ambulance.” While most of these memes were light-hearted, there was a creepy mad dash to find the woman's real identity on a then-nascent social network called Facebook. -Joe Kukura
PEPE THE FROG
Perhaps the most aggravating meme story of this bunch is the sad saga of Pepe the Frog, born in the offices of Community Thrift on Valencia Street, and originally drawn by then-SF artist Matt Lurie. An innocuous MySpace and Tumblr hit, the frog’s image was much later co-opted by the alt-right movement, eventually with Trump himself sharing MAGA-appropriated Pepe memes, and now even the Anti-Defamation League includes Pepe in their hate symbol database.
There are some silver linings. Lurie won a $15,000 settlement in 2019 from Alex Jones for unauthorized use of the image. White nationalist Richard Spencer was wearing a Pepe pin when he was punched in the face, which itself became a meme. But most importantly Lurie has reclaimed Pepe and is drawing him again. -Joe Kukura
HOT COP OF THE CASTRO
Former SFPD officer Christopher Kohrs became a media sensation in mid-2014 simply because he was hunky and looked fucking hot in a uniform. As you may recall, Kohrs was photographed manning a post at Castro Street while the street was undergoing some major construction that spring and summer — sidewalk-widening, street-lamp installation, etc. Kohrs was "on loan" at the time from Park Station, doing overtime to help deal with the traffic situation during the construction, and photos of his hotness went from Facebook to the gay blog Towleroad to SFist and beyond.
SFist interviewed Kohrs, who was 36 at the time, that July, and posted some of his shirtless pics. He did the Ice Bucket Challenge that August in front of an audience at The Cafe, because that's what people were doing. And a year later, in November 2015, he was arrested for a hit-and-run collision in North Beach, and subsequently put on leave from the SFPD for a "medical condition." Kohrs stood trial in the case some years later, left policing, and then gave a weird interview to ABC 7 in 2020 in which he expressed some grievances with the department and the Police Commission, and said he was now working in construction. -Jay Barmann
PEPPER SPRAY COP
While technically outside the Bay Area at UC Davis, we're going to claim the infamous "Pepper Spray Cop" as our own. The meme was born way back in the Occupy protest days of 2011, when UC Davis campus police officer John Pike was photographed casually pepper-spraying a group of cowering student protesters. The image went on to be meme-i-fied for years thereafter, with Pike superimposed onto George Seurat's famed pointillist masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel image of God, and much, much more. Oddly, Pike blamed the meme for psychological distress he came to suffer, and he sued for workers' comp two years later. And in a crazily misguided PR effort in 2017, UC Davis reportedly spent $175,000 to get images and references of Pike and the pepper spray scrubbed from the internet, which obviously did not work. -Jay Barmann
‘SAN FRANCISCO KAREN’ VIDEO
Two years after the BBQ Becky incident, the term “Karen” was already in heavy rotation in June 2020, less than three weeks into the George Floyd unrest, when a Pacific Heights woman confronted a neighbor merely for sidewalk-chalking “Black Lives Matter” in front of his home. Add to the mix that she was white and the homeowner she confronted is Filipino, and her Stepford-Wife grin while probing “Is this your property? It’s private property sir,” and you’ve got a Karen video that racked up 12 million views in its first three days.
When did chalk art become “defacing” property? Cause then I got some kindergarteners outside committing all kinds of crime right now that Karen can heroically bust!— James Juanillo (@jaimetoons) June 13, 2020
The aftermath saw the all-too-perfect revelations that she was the founder and CEO of an “organic vegan skincare line,” and her also phone-recording husband was a managing director at investment baker Raymond James (for a few more days, at least). But this seemed the peak of Karening zeitgeist, with the meme often embellished with a Kate Gosselin asymmetrical haircut and some “speak to your manager” verbiage. -Joe Kukura
It feels like it was eons ago, and that we were living in much more innocent times, when the tale of a San Francisco Make-a-Wish kid getting to be Batman for a day, with all of the city — and President Obama — playing along. Five-year-old leukemia patient Miles Scott got to live many kids' dream that November day in 2013, driving around in a Batmobile, battling The Penguin, and more. The stunt made national news, and garnered millions (we think) of dollars in new donations for Make-a-Wish in the subsequent weeks, and inspired a 2015 documentary from Warner Bros. and New Line called Batkid Begins.
And you'll be happy to know that after Miles' 2013 treatment, he remained in remission, and five years later, when he was ten years old in 2018, he was declared cancer-free. He's now 14 years old and there is still this Twitter account where you can follow him. -Jay Barmann
San Francisco legend Frank Chu is at least locally famous as a meme, and his strange protest-sign antics begat its own meme generator back in 2016. He's had sponsors over the years, and a bar named for his "12 Galaxies" campaign. One SFist commenter called him a "modern-day Emperor Norton" and that feels right — a benign and beloved street kook whom everyone has come to celebrate. He did a Reddit AMA in 2015 in which he explained, "My campaign is about Bill Clinton and other top secret identities, involved with the populations of the 12 Galaxies, not paying me as a movie star and a TV star. It is about other intergalatial rocket societies and flying saucers and space vacations." And yes, he has some sort of mental illness and he shouldn't be made fun of.
Personally, I haven't seen Frank out and about in years, and I hope he's doing okay. Sighting reports welcome. -Jay Barmann
WOMAN OUT OF PLACE AT FOLSOM
No Bay Area meme roundup would be complete without this hilarious image of San Francisco lawyer (and Instagram employee) Amruta Godbole standing and looking awkward surrounded by shirtless men in leather harnesses, outside a bar during Folsom Street Fair in 2017. She posted the image to her own Instagram account, but it took off, she said, about a year later when a friend with a large following reposted it as a "Throwback Thursday." In 2021, Godbole told BuzzFeed she still enjoys the image, and she says that in the moment it was taken, people around her were already saying, "You're going to be famous."
"One of my main groups of friends in San Francisco is a group of gay men, so I have often found myself in situations where I’m the one woman amid all of these gay men," Godbole explained. "I'm also 5’1, and they’re all very tall and muscular, so I was just so clearly standing out."
WHAT I ORDERED ON WISH vs. WHAT I GOT
The popular e-commerce platform Wish is San Francisco-based, or rather, its parent company ContextLogic is San Francisco-based. So in a sense, it is a San Francisco meme when someone posts the gorgeous item they thought they were ordering, compared to the comically lesser and underwhelming thing they actually received from the platform that makes it money on largely unverified, independent sellers.
The meme mutated to represent not just online retail orders, but also pop culture comparisons. And if you’ve ever been burned by “What I ordered on Wish vs. What I Got,” you can take some schadenfreude from what’s happened to the company’s investors. Wish’s parent company IPO’d at $24 a share in December 2020; today, what those investors have got is shares that are worth just 68 cents apiece. -Joe Kukura