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Exploring the life of a meme with American Chopper

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Paul Teutul Jr (left) and Paul TeutulImage copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

The meme stars Paul Teutul Jr (left) and Paul Teutul in a heated argument

You may have seen a meme featuring two men furiously arguing and wondered what on earth it was all about.

The five-panel series of images known as the American Chopper meme uses stills taken from the reality television show of the same name to show a father and son having a melodramatic argument.

The programme began in 2003 and ended in 2010, yet online interest in it surged in March and April 2018.

So, how did a simple series of images and text, originally posted to Reddit in 2011, become one of the most popular memes on Twitter in 2018?

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Beginnings

The image seems to have first appeared in the popular Reddit community r/Funny, via image-sharing website Imgur, in November 2011, where the captions joked one man was moving a chair for his father, subverting the anger on display.

What is a meme?

  • The word meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene
  • Dawkins called memes “ideas that spread from brain to brain”
  • The Oxford English Dictionary defines memes as images, videos or text that are copied and spread by internet users, often with variations

It was subsequently reposted many times over the next few years before slight variations began to appear. So, according to the above definition, when different takes on the format began, it then became a meme.

Resurgence on Reddit

In March 2018, the image reappeared in various Reddit communities with new captions.

It coincided with a new series of American Chopper airing on the Discovery Channel in the US.

With people once again interested in the television show, the Reddit posts began to reappear on Twitter, inspiring further variations. Its popularity saw the meme covered by various news outlets online, such as Vox, Mashable and Vice.

However, this may have led to the meme’s demise within the r/MemeEconomy community on Reddit, where memes are tongue-in-cheek bought and sold as if they are shares on a stock exchange.

There, a meme’s value is seemingly tied into its potential for millions of people to understand and use its format. Paradoxically, the value is also wed to any meme not yet gaining mainstream acceptance.

On 29 March 2018, a post on r/MemeEconomy – titled ‘Sell Sell Sell’ – featured a tweet from digital media company Vice which celebrated the meme.

The post was upvoted 28,000 times along with comments such saying the joke “had a good run,” and “when it becomes Vice’s favourite meme it becomes everyone else’s least favourite”.

Growth on Twitter

In the first week of April 2018, the meme was used in a similar way as on Reddit, focusing the humour around the two men arguing about a random topic.

But it was on Twitter the meme took on a second life, as people exploited the panel structure to explain complex arguments in a concise form.

Erica Goldberg, an assistant professor at the University of Dayton Law, created a version of the meme which explains arguments surrounding the US First Amendment.

Matthew Yglesias, a journalist for Vox Media, used the meme “to illustrate the pedagogical power of socratic dialogue,” and Monterey Bay Aquarium in California posted their variant to express arguments around ocean awareness.

Oddities and decline

Bizarre uses of the meme emerged as the subject of the joke changed with every tweet.

One version saw the meme drawn in the style of the music video to Aha’s 1980s hit Take On Me, while Twitter user jimoutofbennies turned it into a joke about the shape of the meme itself.

These variations began to reappear on Reddit, with a repost of jimoutofbennies’ six-panel version becoming the most upvoted post to date on the r/memes subreddit.

Following this spike, the meme’s use has declined dramatically, and its final hurrah seems to have come courtesy of one person on Twitter, who used five tweets from Donald Trump to contrast the US president’s previously-held beliefs about Syria with his current actions in the region.





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