Do you have room on your hard drive for 1272 images of a cartoon frog? Pepe, the amphibious mascot popular on anonymous messaging board 4chan for his narrowed eyes, oily grin, and the catchphrase "Feels good man," is experiencing what Reddit users are calling the "Pepe Market Crash."
Once an in-joke, the meme has been co-opted by celebrities much to the dismay of long-term fans, who have collected "rare" Pepe images over the years only to watch them lose their exclusive cachet. A flood of Pepe images has surfaced online in recent days in response, with the aim of devaluing the meme until it falls out of use completely.
"WHY DO NORMIES HAVE TO RUIN EVERYTHING?" commented one user.
It's an interesting riff on the familiar theme of online cultural appropriation, which sees obscure references move into the mainstream thanks to awkward "forced memes" made by advertisers, or celebrities drawing on 4chan culture in an attempt to seem "real." It's that tragic moment when a private joke breaks out. The moment when, buried under layers upon layers of irony, a meme truly ceases to be dank.
"PEPE IS DEAD," one post on Reddit declared, and the question is, who killed him? The clues are littered, very publicly, across social media. Four months ago Nicki Minaj posted a twerking Pepe to Instagram, while in November Katy Perry tweeted a Pepe image to illustrate her jet lag to an audience of over 16,860 Favorites. Watching their beloved gurning frog get co-opted by the most mainstream of celebrities, Pepe loyalists took to 4chan and Reddit to make plans to derail the meme's burgeoning popularity, and kill Pepe before he could be wrestled from their grasp.
But this isn't the first attempt on Pepe's life: for years he's been perched on the tipping point of extinction, each new boost in popularity apparently a sign of imminent death. An infographic posted to Reddit last week catalogues the life of Pepe, from his origins as part of the Boy's Club comic series by artist Matt Furie, to his 2012 reboot as the "sad frog" Tumblr meme, to the final speculative prediction that by 2016 Pepe will reach "Doge status," leading to his self-implosion.
In an interview with Know Your Meme, a wiki which documents internet culture, Pepe's creator Matt Furie described how his unintentionally viral creation took off on MySpace in a series of blog posts (though Furie pulled his work from the site when it was published in print in 2006), then became an in-joke on art network Gaia Online. Eventually, in 2008, a user uploaded a page scanned from Boy's Club to 4chan's /b/ board, where users embraced Pepe's catchphrase "Feels good man" as a recurring joke applied to countless other photos, and the frog found a permanent home.
Pepe is gross, but he's versatile. He manifests on different platforms as "Smug frog," "Feels frog," "Sad Frog," and as "You will never" frog. He can embody existential sadness. He can be animated in Minecraft. He appeals to the trials of teenage girls. He's the M'Lady-courting fedora wearer. And if this skin-tight men's nipple-revealing top didn't kill Pepe, then maybe he'll survive a tweet from Katy Perry too.
Celebrities have murdered memes before—think that time Zac Efron got a YOLO tattoo—and it must be with a certain bitter pride that hardcore Pepe users now watch their old favourite creep over into the mainstream.
But can the rules of supply and demand apply to something which can be copy/pasted? Can a meme have a stock market, and can that market crash? It's funny how closely the language of commodities trading actually fits that of 4chan boards, which draw a line between memes, childhood Pokemon card trading, and the real-world economy.
This week a series of outlandishly-priced auctions have taken place on Ebay for Pepe images: a "Rare Pepe Bundle Pack" sold, unbelievably, for $99,900 after 97 bids; currently a selection pack of Pepes and Wojak memes is on sale for a starting bid of $1,000, and another bundle of 1271 stands at $70,300 at time of writing after 29 bids. Are they hoaxes? Almost definitely. But it's a joke taken to admirable lengths.
Real or not, Reddit and 4chan have not taken kindly to the commodification of their visual culture, and in a bid to instantly devalue the Pepe "market" one 4chan user on 4chan's /r9k/ (a board intended for only original content) publicly posted a mediafire download link to a zip full of Pepe images. A market crash was declared with "no survivors," which some 4channers are calling "the Pepenning" in homage to last year's "Fappening" photo leaks (though the frog drawings seem hardly comparable to coveted nudes of Jennifer Lawrence).
"Feels good man."
Users are humorously stamping Pepes with a watermark, "RARE PEPE, DO NOT SAVE," echoing the uncontrollable sharing economy which they helped to forge. The market crash acts out a now-familiar process, that of something going unintentionally viral then attempting to self-implode to preserve its own authenticity.
What will happen next? Will 4chan disown the meme it has worked so hard to devalue, or will the frog live to re-spawn another day? In contrast with quizzical dogs and grumpy cats in other memes, Pepe's grotesque appeal would seem limited, but who can predict where he'll end up? His "market crash" stands as an interesting example of 4chan users parodying themselves, their knowingly absurd obsession with exclusivity, and preserving a culture which many regard as the cistern of the internet.
Intriguingly, Pepe has a frog's face but a humanoid body, hinting that one day, with the right partner, he could transform into a prince.
Until then, perhaps he'll return to the web's grubbier regions, forever spewing, gurning, saddened and smug all at once, made ever more resilient for the increasingly disgusting scenes his fans place him in. Celebrity endorsements cannot take from his grimy, troll-friendly allure. As long as he is NSFW, he might just be safe from advertisers.
I contacted Furie, Pepe's creator, via his website for his comics and art. Asked his opinion on Pepe's turbulent journey from the fringes of 4chan to celebrity Twitter feeds, his response was concise.
"Feels good man."