In the beginning, the People created Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and Reddit and Instagram. The social media was without Rules and the People shared Content. And the Content was Good, though it was unsourced. And the People said: “Let us write ‘Who made this? [crying laughing emoji]’ on the uncredited content.” And they saw the engagement; it was Good.
For at least seven years, social media users have used “who made this?” (and its close cousins “who drew this?” and “who wrote this?”) as a quick and easy way to share something entertaining with the world without needing to make any effort to credit the creator.
The beauty of Who Made This? (WMT) is that it gives the uploader cover – an evolution of the more straightforward social media practice of Just Passing Work Off as Your Own, something now generally acknowledged as a faux paux. It suggests they do really want to find the creator of an Ice Cube/ice cubes meme and are putting it out there into the world in the hope it will be reunited with its rightful owner. It also flags to an audience – jaded scrollers all – that this is something worth pausing to view.
When tracking the origin of such trends, it’s impossible to pinpoint the first person who made the decision to have their cake and tweet it, too – mainly because the search function on platforms like TikTok and Instagram is so limited. But if we agree 100-plus retweets on Twitter is an appropriate yardstick to measure virality, then the first piece of content to pull off the old WMT trick is this tweet from April 2012.
Appropriately, it was from an account of someone pretending to be somebody else. In this case Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, a man who was briefly internet famous for looking very, very handsome during an organised run. The Twitter photo depicts Ridiculously Photogenic Guy as Jesus and got over 500 retweets. It probably wasn’t the first time somebody used the phrase “who made this?” – but it is the first time someone tweeted it while sharing an image to get decent numbers.
So April 2012 is year zero, but then it went quiet for a bit. The internet had not awakened to the awesome power of captioning other people’s work with a question that you don’t actually need an answer to. Then, in January 2013, Cara Delevigne got in on the act, with a meme of herself and the caption “This is too jokes! HAHA! Who made this?!” It’s a perfect snapshot of 2013 internet celebrity culture, up to and including the visible lo-res watermark of Instagram account Americas_Next_Top_Directioner on the meme.
Things started to slowly gather pace. If Martin Scorcese was making a _Wolf of Wall Street_-esque movie about meme theft, 2013 and 2014 would be covered by a montage sequence where the narrator – maybe a ‘comedy’ Instagrammer with two million followers – explains how easy it was to just screenshot stuff and post it as your own. “And the best part?” our protagonist would intone. “Nobody could do anything about it, because you technically asked ‘who made this?’”
As with any good scam, it began to get mainstream acceptance. On social media, this meant multiple WMT posts by Diplo and Snoop Dogg. Accounts like @miilkkk, with hundreds of thousands of followers and no discernible revenue stream, cleaned up with WMT posts. Sports Twitter accounts like @sportbible took the ball and ran with it; WMT allowed them to share every instance of sport banter with impunity because obviously they wanted to find the creator.
And it’s still used now, although it may not be as fresh a caption as it was in its heyday. But the insidious thing about WMT posts is that it has a knock-on effect for artists and creators trying to make enough to live on. As cartoonist Giannis Milonogiannis recently tweeted: “The main thing I've understood about social media is if I posted a drawing of mine but said ‘WHO DREW THIS’ it would get like twice as much interaction”.
Know Your Meme editor in chief Don Caldwell has a theory on why the format is so popular: “I think that’s there’s an exhaustion with self-promotion both from brands and from individuals online. There’s a plethora of online content to swim through and people are constantly promoting themselves and their brands and their companies. It can be exhausting for internet users. There’s a certain authenticy to discovering something that isn’t being promoted by the person that’s benefiting from it.”
When that content is a throwaway Spongebob meme, it’s unlikely the creator will feel particularly bothered by their work getting used elsewhere. An uncredited viral post may even be viewed as a win. But for people trying to forge a career through their own creativity, the misconceptions around online ownership are a real problem. Asking someone on social media “did you make this?” frequently elicit a different answer to “do you own this?”. That’s because many people assume ownership begins the minute an unsourced video or photo from the group chat is saved onto their phone.
It’s a frustration for small creators who are trying to maintain value on their product when an uncredited share is just a screenshot away. Illustrators are particularly affected by content theft.
John Cullen is an Irish illustrator who publishes a regular webcomic under the name NHOJ. “The vast majority of accounts you come across on social media that are dedicated to posting ‘content’ (translation: art, videos, memes, etc) do so without giving any credit to those whose work they repost,” he explains over email. “Many of them will try to cover themselves by having something along the lines of ‘art/content property of original creators’, but that is obviously of no help to said creators.”
Morten Rand-Hendrikse has written about the ethics of the internet for the past decade. He describes some of the disclaimers around copyright online as akin to saying “I stole your car, but I didn’t intend to steal your car”. He drew up an online code of ethics that includes a suggestion that people “give proper attribution when using, quoting or basing your content on the work of others. In other words present quotes as quotes, link to original articles, give photo and illustration credit to the original creator”.
It’s pretty straightforward stuff and Caldwell does see that message getting through on places like Reddit. “It has become a more regular embedded practice now – it’s become something that I have definitely seen it more often in recent years,” he says. “Though that might be just because it’s happening more too, in terms of people having their stuff reposted.”
Over on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, however, it’s business as usual. In the course of writing this, I noticed comedians, politicians and actors all using variations on the old WMT to good effect. Maybe future generations won’t understand that “who made this?” is not, in fact, a rhetorical question – or maybe they’ll judge us harshly for our content thieving ways. For the moment though WMT is still providing for those who want the numbers for the Jacob Rees-Mogg meme their mum sent them.