Staples of early United States Internet meme culture were sold via digital auctions for cryptocurrency (except one, which was sold for cash) throughout 2021. Through these transactions, Internet memes, or “the linguistic, image, audio, and video texts created, circulated, and transformed by countless cultural participants across vast networks and collectives” (Milner 1), were “minted” as non-fungible tokens—a marker within cryptocurrency economy that denotes the level of originality or irreplaceability of an (often digital) artifact (Wired). Early 2021 saw Internet memes (memes, hereafter) and non-fungible tokens (NFTs, hereafter) articulated to one another when a series of trades ignited a “buying frenzy”.
In February 2021, the original animation file of the Nyan Cat meme (a rendering of a flying cat with a Pop-Tart body) was sold for 300 Ethereum, or US$600,000 (Griffith; Kay); in April 2021, the original photo file of the Disaster Girl meme (an image of a smiling child in front of a burning home) sold for 180 ETH, or nearly US$500,000 (BBC News); in May 2021, the original video file of the viral YouTube video “Charlie Bit My Finger” (wherein an infant bites the finger of their older sibling with glee) was sold for US$760,999, but no cryptocurrency was exchanged for this auction (Evans); in June 2021, the original image of the Shiba Inu who became Doge (image of a dog looking contemplative, often with text around the dog’s face) was sold for a record-breaking (for memes) 1,696.9 ETH, or US$4 million (Rosenblatt). Other notable memes were sold around this time, such as Bad Luck Brian (an unflattering school picture of a teenager who became synonymous with embarrassing social situations), Overly Attached Girlfriend (wide-eyed teenager who was portrayed as obsessive over their significant other), and Success Kid (an infant clenching their fist with a sense of achievement), but for lower prices (Wired; Dash; Gallagher).
All the memes sold during this frenzy feature either animals or white individuals, and none of the creators or subjects of the original files are Black. That said, mainstream Internet culture, specifically within the United States, is predicated upon the Othering and exploitation of Black cultural production (Brock 97, 124; Benjamin). The fungible constitution of US Black culture is replete within digital cultures, from contemporary discussions of digital blackface in white use of memes featuring Black folks to express emotion (J.L. Green; Jackson, “Digital Blackface”, White Negroes) and/or using imagery featuring Black folks without permission (J.L. Green; Nakamura; Matamoros-Fernández). The advent of meme-based NFTs, however, offers new areas of inquiry into the triangulation of race, fungibility, and US digital cultures. I approach this cultural phenomenon with two general queries: What cultural and racial legacies of non/fungibility are present in the dynamics of memes becoming NFTs? What are the implications in digital media and US culture?
Fungibility and Black Cultural Production
As this issue explores, fungibility is a quality of interchangeable, performing persons or objects, but a turn to US Afro-pessimism illustrates how fungibility is a central quality to racialisation. (Continental African scholars coined Afro-pessimism, and its original formulation was markedly different from the US counterpart, which emerged with little to no engagement with the existing African canon. Afropessimism 1.0, as Greg Thomas names it, focusses on the postcolonial economic conditions across the continent. Importantly, there is an undergirding optimism, “the urge to positive social change”, to the inquiries into the poverty, colonial extractivism, and more; Amrah qtd. in Thomas 283; Rieff; de B’béri and Louw.)
Fungibility, in US-borne Afro-pessimist literature, is used to describe (1) a major tenet of slavery wherein Black bodies are treated as interchangeable objects rather than human actors, and (2) how the afterlife of slavery continues to structure everyday experiences for Black folks (Bilge; Hartman; Wilderson, III et al.). US Afro-pessimism argues that slavery instantiated an ontological structure that articulates humanity as irreconcilable with Blackness and further articulates whiteness as for what (or whom) the Black body performs and labours (Bilge; Douglass et al.; Wilderson, III and Soong).
Within the US, the fungibility of the Black body means it is always already vulnerable to and violable by “the whims of the [non-Black] world” (Wilderson, III 56; see also: Hartman; Lindsey). Indeed, Wilderson, building off Hartman, asserts, “the violence-induced fungibility of Blackness allows for its appropriation by White psyches as ‘property of enjoyment’” (89). The fungibility of Blackness aides in white “transpos[ition of Black] cultural gestures, the stuff of symbolic intervention onto another worldly good, a commodity of style” (Wilderson, III 56). This expropriation of Black digital “imaginative labour” by US white mainstream culture is part and parcel to Internet practices (Iloh; Lockett; Jackson). bell hooks argues white US mainstream culture treats Black cultural production as the “spice, [the] seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (21). By the same token, US white mainstream culture “desire[s] … sustained ‘labor’ … of a dark Other” that seeks to contiunously exploit fungible Black production (31). The constitutive fungibility of Blackness enriches, even if just affectively, the non-fungibility of whiteness; this parasitic relationship has extended to digital culture, with white actors extracting Black meme culture.
Internet memes, until the advent of NFTs, did not necessarily provide monetary gain for the creators or original owners. For example, the creator of the iconic phrase “on fleek”, Kayla Newman (aka Peaches Monroee) is regularly discussed when considering the exploitation of Black digital culture (Parham; Maguire; Hazlehurst). The term came from a Vine of Newman hyping herself up in the front-facing camera of her smartphone—“We in this bitch! Finna get crunk. Eyebrows on fleek. Da fuq”—and quickly went viral. Maguire’s insightful analysis of Newman’s viral fame underscores the exploitation and appropriation of Black girl cultural production within the US. Maguire turns toward the legal intricacies of copyright and property as Newman sought ownership of her iconic phrase; however, Vats’s work on the legal rhetorics of intellectual property note its racial exclusivity in the US. (Moreton-Robinson traces similar white supremacist ownership within Australian contexts.) Meaning, only white actors benefit from such legal rhetorics. These forbearances point to the larger cultural legacies of fungibility that alienate Black bodies from their cultural production.
US Black digital culture is alienated from the individuals who perform the imaginative labour that benefits and enriches whiteness (Wilderson, III; hooks). The legacies of mass enslavement fundamentally structured the capital and libidinal economies of US culture (Wilderson, III et al.; Spillers; Brock), therefore it stands to reason, like other forms of hegemonic ideologies, that such structuring logics of anti-Blackness are foundational to digital US culture (Benjamin; Brock; Towns; Matamoros-Fernández). Iloh, Williams, and Michele Jackson separately argue that the foundation of mainstream US Internet culture is indebted to the labour of Black users. However, as Brock argues, US Internet culture is a medium by which whiteness marks itself as the default even though Black labour, individuals, and culture are regularly exploited to perpetuate white engagement. Jackson specifically notes that the white performance of US Black culture “financially, artistically, socially, and intellectually” rewards white and other non-Black actors for demonstrating their understanding of Black cultural productions (Jackson, White Negroes 5; see also: hooks; Nakamura). Black individuals are not (fairly) compensated for this labour, even as white individuals gain clout.
Newman’s term “on fleek” became a staple of US Vine and broader Internet culture, spawning a hashtag (#EyebrowsOnFleek) and being featured in multiple brand commercials (Maguire). Newman notes that she did not consider trademarking the term because she did not realise how quickly it would spread, allowing corporations and other actors to capitalise on her term free of charge (Hazlehurst; Maguire). Usage of the term became a signpost of the in-crowd within US millennial popular culture (Maguire). However, when Newman later launched a hair extensions company utilising her phrase (On Fleek Hair Extensions), she was resoundingly criticised. During a GoFundMe campaign to jumpstart the business, white digital actors accused Newman of milking her fame (Parham; Hazlehurst; Maguire). Mainstream digital actors forbade Newman’s ownership of her own labour after exploiting her creation throughout its popularity, marking her imaginative labour as fungible. These cultural dynamics exemplify of how anti-Blackness proliferates US digital culture, marking Black cultural labour as fungible and as the (shared) property of white actors.
Whiteness regularly dichotomises itself against Blackness, needing the denigration and de-humanisation of Blackness to constitute whiteness’s perceived racial superiority (Wilderson, III et al.; Hartman; Thomas). Since Blackness has been constituted as fungible, alienating the labouring bodies from their production, whiteness (implicitly) constitutes itself as non-fungible. Thus, under this paradigm, white actors, their bodies, and their (property’s) cultural production are constituted as non-fungible, as the foil to fungible Blackness. Of course, anti-Blackness uses fungibility as a means of enriching whiteness, first evidenced by the logics of the Atlantic Slave Trade and extending throughout contemporary US culture. Newman’s iconic “on fleek” was easily detached from her (removing product from labourer) for the benefit of celebrities and companies. I argue that NFTs further these logics; as the next section explores, non-fungible tokens capacitate white monetisation of Black cultural labour.
Non-Fungibility and Non-Black Cultural Agency
The sale of meme-based NFTs offers a modern illustration of the fungibility of Black cultural production. Importantly, every seller of meme-based NFTs has been non-Black, with most being white or white-passing. NFTs, thus, seemingly give non-Black actors the agency to “reclaim” meme imagery via monetisation. Contemporary US meme culture is directly created by, influenced by, and appropriated from US Black (digital) culture (Jackson, White Negroes; Iloh; Brock; J.L. Green; Nakamura). Black cultural actors used memes largely as a space to share the joys and pains of Black US life (Brock); however, the connectivity of the Internet offered avenues for extraction and appropriation by non-Black actors (Iloh; Nakamura; J.L. Green; Matamoros-Fernández). Meme-based NFTs extend these anti-Black logics by monetising the cultural impact of certain memes. Specifically, memes are considered valuable only when minted as an NFT, which seeks to transform the fungible by a non-fungible agent. This section turns to the tensions between non-Black cultural agency over Black cultural influence within US Internet culture, using the Disaster Girl meme as an illustration.
Memes, because of their participatory nature, require a certain level of fungibility to perpetuate circulation (Milner; Moreno-Almeida; Shifman). While certain digital actors proffer the original textual (e.g. #UKnowUrBlackWhen, a popular hashtag for Black users sharing experiences specific to US Black culture), graphic (e.g. Fail/Win, a popular meme genre for posting images of everyday chores tagged as Fail or Win), and/or contextual (e.g. Pepper Spray Cop, a meme genre where a police officer is pepper spraying protestors is photoshopped into different scenes) facets of a meme, these same characteristics must be manipulable for the meme to flourish (Parham; Jenkins; Huntington). Further, original creators must have an alienable relation to their cultural production, a “letting go” of the meme, so it may become part of broader cultural milieu, ever-evolving (Shifman; Jenkins). Minting memes into NFTs, however, reverses and obfuscates this cultural and imaginative labour by minting the original image.
The sale of the Disaster Girl meme photograph as an NFT exhibits this erasure. The meme orginates from a photo Dave Roth took of his daughter, Zoë Roth, at a 2005 control-burn of a home in their neighbourhood (Fazio; Staff). D. Roth eventually submitted the image of his white, brown-haired daughter slyly smiling as the house burns in the background to a handful of photo contests, winning them (ibid.). The image was published online in 2008 and quickly circulated among social media platforms. Memes emerged as Internet users remixed the original image, either with text or by photoshopping Z. Roth into new disasters, thus dubbing her Disaster Girl (Green, Refinery). Since, Z. Roth’s four-year-old self has been “endlessly repurposed as a vital part of meme canon” (Fazio). Gesturing to the fungibility of meme culture, Z. Roth said she “love[s] seeing them because [she]’d never make any of them [her]self” (qtd in Fazio), meaning she (and her father) had willingly alienated themselves from the meme imagery. The agency to willingly turn over cultural production is solely attributable to non-Black bodies within the logics of fungible Blackness. Z. Roth’s non-participation did not prevent her from monetising the original meme, however. On 17 April 2021, Z. Roth sold the original photo file of the Disaster Girl meme (Fazio).
Roth notes the creation and selling of an NFT is “the only thing memes can do to take control” (qtd. in Fazio). To exhibit agency of minting an NFT, Z. Roth collapses memes’ identities into the original image rather than the participation, remix, and becoming that meme culture involves. Memes, by nature, require the repeated and continual labour of digital public actors to continue circulating (Shifman; Milner; Jenkins). The stronger the meme’s circulatory impact, the more cultural heft it carries. However, the Roth family could only ever sell the original image. The minting of an NFT, for Z. Roth, “was a way for her to take control over a situation that she has felt powerless over since elementary school” (Fazio). Here, Z. Roth is further exerting non-Black agency to wilfully reclaim the previously fungible object. Ironically, the very thing Z. Roth is wanting to exert control over is what gives value to the meme in the first place.
The virality and longevity of the Disaster Girl meme is its value, but given the fungibility of meme culture, this labour is easily obfuscated. As noted, memes must exhibit a certain level of fungibility to regenerate throughout digital cultures in various iterations; memes also require the fungible Black cultural production, especially within the US. Brock argues the capacity to laugh through pain or chaos is a characteristic of US Black humour and foundational to contemporary US meme humour. The Disaster Girl meme exemplifies the influences of US Black cultural humour both in the comedic frame—smiling in the face of disaster—and the composition of image—looking directly into the camera as if to break the fourth wall (Outley et al.; Brock). These facets influence the affectivity of the Disaster Girl image, or its capacity to move audiences to add their own remix to the meme. Remix is not only an inherently Black practice (Navas et al.), but it is also the lifeblood of meme culture and Internet culture more broadly. Iloh, Jackson, and Williams separately argue the proliferation of Black digital culture in the US means much of what enters mainstream US culture was shaped by Black users. Therefore, Black imaginative labour is an absent presence at the heart of Disaster Girl (or any) meme’s popularity—the popularity that made it valuable as an NFT.
Minting the original image as a meme-based NFT consumes the labour of digital public actors to realise a value for the image owner. According to Cervenak, “NFTs can be seen as a tool for creators to be made whole for the work they put in” creating the original image (qtd. in Notopoulos). However, in memes the “work [being] put in”, the imaginative labour generating the memes, is that of various digital public actors. Neither the digital public actors, specifically Black public actors, nor the US Black cultural production and labour are recognised within the NFT economy. The reversion of memes back to the original image attempts to erase the Black cultural labour that generated the meme’s value. The work of digital public actors must be seen as both interchangeable and working in the service of the original “owner” of meme imagery to facilitate the trade of meme-based NFTs.
Unlike Newman, Z. Roth was lauded for the monetisation of her meme-fame. Indeed, Newman’s imaginative labour needed to be obfuscated for the appropriation of “on fleek” by non-Black US culture. Z. Roth did very little labour in the invention and circulation of the Disaster Girl meme; however, her agency within anti-Black US culture created the conditions of possibility for her minting of the NFT. The dynamics of NFTs, Black US cultural labour, and anti-Blackness allow for the simultaneous obfuscation and appropriation of fungible meme-culture. Just as enslavement alienated Black bodies from the profits of their labour, NFTs similarly erase Black cultural production from the monetary benefit; NFTs (further) digitise these paradigms of anti-Blackness in US digital culture.
This essay has just barely chipped the surface on the articulations of race, fungibility, and NFTs. The arguments contained within demonstrate the legacies of fungible Blackness, which US Afro-pessimism links to the structuring logics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and their manifestation in contemporary digital culture, specifically via meme-based NFTs. First, the essay traced the needed alienation and appropriation of Black cultural labour within US culture. Translating these practices to meme culture, the essay argues the minting of meme-based NFTs is a non-fungible agency only available to non-Black actors. There remains much to be explored, especially regarding equitable cultural practices. How might meme-based NFTs be reimagined to compensate and credit the influence of Black cultural labour? Or, perhaps, are NFTs a house waiting to be burnt down?
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