A is for Alt Right: How 4Chan Paved the Way for the NFT Market
Though rarely discussed in contemporary crypto conversations, 4Chan contributed to the NFT economy by pioneering an early blockchain-based marketplace for the trade of "Rare Pepes."
People forget that a wide-eyed amphibian drowning in spaghetti is responsible for all this, so I'm here to remind them: six years before a $69,000,000 jpg file was conceivable, much less hotly pawed for in the same auction houses where Picassos and Da Vincis change well-fed hands, there was the frog that launched a thousand bits.
The frog once belonged only to its creator, but it takes a village to raise a meme; by his third birthday, the frog had fallen into the hands of a clique who cherished and championed his melancholy. By 2015, when the frog turned ten, everyone who was anyone on the internet deployed his sad brown lips and heavy-lidded eyes to describe their "face when." The frog performed on demand; the frog, one might even say, was in demand.
Pepe the Frog, the cartoon croaker first drawn by Matt Furie in 2005, is known best for his political trajectory from online icon to American Defamation League Hate Symbol. Less well known, however, is the story of how the "Rare Pepe Market," a trading network for pictures of the frog developed on 4Chan in the mid 2010s, helped advance contemporary notions of "digital scarcity," the principle which current crypto-art markets rely on. As non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have shifted from techie collectible to cultural ubiquity, they have become divorced from the alt-right subculture which engendered their very logic.
On March 24, 2015, an anonymous 4Chan user on the board /r9k/ posted an image of a wide-eyed Pepe the Frog nose deep in spaghetti, watermarked with the words "RARE PEPE. DO NOT SAVE."
"Not watermarking your rare pepes," a user responded with incredulity.
The watermarked image had opened the floodgates of ridicule — copyrighting a meme was clearly a joke ready to be escalated by other 4Chan users.
"I have 15 mint condition rare pepe pics on my flashdrive that's inside my safe. I could buy and sell your whole family if it was on the open market," wrote one.
"you don't understand the RPPE (Rare Pepe Pictures Economy)," wrote another.
Prior to the widespread prevalence of NFTs, which allow unique digital images to be bought and sold, the concept of commodifying a meme was mostly still a joke. Commodification, after all, starkly contradicted a meme's inherent status as a public image. The premise of a "privately owned meme" was oxymoronic at best, and plain moronic at worst; it was this ironic absurdity that 4Chan's provocateurs seized upon, and decided to literalize.
On 4Chan, "rare memes" — increasingly niche renderings of popular memes — were nothing new, and on some parts of 4Chan, "rarity" was even mandated by software. What the watermarked Pepe signified, however, was the budding idea that "rare memes" could have a real-world relationship to money, copyright, scarcity, or various forms of property rights found in the offline world.
The word "meme" was famously coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who used the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to describe a behavior or idea that spreads interpersonally within a given culture through the process of imitation. On the internet, a "meme" is an image, dance, line of dialogue or gesture that circulates and mutates rapidly across the web — if you're reading Real Life Mag, chances are you already know lots about them. Internet memes, however, differ from Dawkins' original evolutionary concept in one highly important regard. As Richard Dawkins explains in a 2013 speech,
An internet meme is a hijacking of the original idea. Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity. In the hijacked version, mutations are designed, not random, with the full knowledge of the person doing the mutating.
Nowhere on the internet was "deliberate alteration" more encouraged than on an experimental 4Chan board called /r9k/, where the deliberate alteration of content was embedded in software itself. In 2008, an engineer and web comic artist named Randall Munroe, seeking to promote more original and interesting content on online forums, programmed a computer script called Robot9000 that automatically deleted repeat phrases on web channels and forums. "I had an idea — what if you were only allowed to say sentences that had never been said before, ever?" explained Munroe of the idea on his blog. On a platform that ran with Robot9000, no two users could both post “LOL” — the program prohibited redundancy, forcing any new contributions to a forum to adhere to a degree of originality. Robot9000 thus sped up the natural mutation and circulation of internet culture by demanding memes (of both the image and text variety) to shapeshift at a more rapid clip than anywhere else on the internet. Monroe's script was introduced to 4Chan in 2008 via the board /r9k/; the rest was internet history.
Given all the scandals that /r9k/ generated through its years of original, unmoderated abandon — Gamergate, the widely publicized and vicious doxxing campaign against video game creator Zoe Quinn, began on the thread, and the thread also the misogynistic "manifesto" of Isla Vista mass shooter Elliot Rodger — the birth of the "rare Pepe" might seem like the least of /r9k/'s sordid shortcomings. But the "rare Pepe," a concept born in the sealed off chambers of /r9k/, led not only to Pepe's radicalization and adoption by the alt-right, but also introduced the "rare meme" as a commodity that would birth a novel technological and economic system to accommodate its trade.
By most accounts (though the scant archives of 4chan means that accounts are unstable at best), Pepe the Frog images began mutating on /r9k/ in October 2014. Though Pepe had been a phenomenon on 4Chan since 2008, Pepe's recent adoption by "normies" — 4Chan lingo for anyone outside the subculture, such as Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, celebrities who posted Pepe on their social media in 2014 — led 4Chan users to "reclaim" the meme for their subculture. To combat the meme's "over-circulation," 4Chan users began to differentiate their Pepe the Frog from the public's Pepe the Frog by creating "rare Pepes" — that is, original illustrated renderings or photoshops of Furie's character — on /r9k/. By July 2014, when "rare Pepe" trading was underway, the Robot9000 script had technically been disabled on /r9k/ (meaning repeat content was now acceptable on the board). But the "rare Pepe" craze embraced the ethos of Robot9000 by encouraging 4Chan users to develop and specify the Pepe meme rather than to simply perpetuate it in its most generic, public iteration (as “normies” were wont to do).
Originality and specificity was, for 4Chan users, a means of ownership; by making Pepe images "rarer and rarer," /r9k/ users “reclaimed” Pepe the Frog from circulation in the public sphere by populating the internet with unique — and often highly offensive — varieties of Pepe generated from within the 4Chan subcommunity throughout early 2015. The best "rare Pepes" were images of the frog that no user had generated before, and the legacy of Robot9000 (a script which encouraged originality and censored only repetition), emboldened many users to produce images that no other user had dared to generate before. One huge-nosed Pepe now grinned with a yarmulke on his head. Another Pepe penetrated a naked woman. Yet another bore the face of Elliot Rodger.
All three of these examples come directly from a cache of 1272 rare Pepe pictures uploaded to imgur in April 2015 by a vindictive 4Chan user who uploaded the images in a joking move to "devalue" the burgeoning "market." The April 2015 "market crash" was reported on by outlets such as Buzzfeed and Vice, who made the connection between the legitimate digital art market and the 4Chan meme market, but wrote off the behavior of the 4Chan meme creators as right wing, ironic trolling. What these reporters didn't pick up on at the time was the fact that the "rare Pepe market"— a market which came into existence because of Pepe's offensiveness rather than in spite of it — was not separate from the existing digital art markets but would, in fact, be a forerunner for the explosive growth of future digital art markets on the blockchain.
In a February 2017 analysis for "Meme Insider," (like Business Insider if it were run by Redditors) a writer known by "/u/jeffthedunker" examined the potential of Pepe's "stock value":
The adoption of the Pepe by the vocal Alt-Right movement led to a massive rebound… A man by the name of billybob2014 on the Bitcointalk forums saw this rebound, and understood that for the Rare Pepe Economy to remain a long term constant, a shift in the economy was needed … His solution to this seemingly inescapable problem was the creation of his own directory for trading, displaying, and holding rare pepes – rarepepewallet.com. Using Bitcoin’s Blockchain technology, along with CounterParty marketplace, and a new digital currency called Pepecash, this exchange was able to right the wrongs of the early economy that had previously collapsed on top of itself.
By creating a platform to buy and trade Pepe images like collectibles, billybob2014 did not seek first and foremost to rehabilitate Pepe's image. But actualizing the "rare Pepe economy" shifted the reward for "rare images" from 4Chan social cred to tangible financial incentives. As a consequence, "ownership" of memes could now be defined by legitimate financial transactions rather than by trolling efforts which sought to "own" memes by associating memes with offensive and alienating imagery (Rare Pepe Wallet’s users, reported Vice, made sure to distance themselves from the alt-right reputation Pepe was now earning). The new blockchain-supported framework for digital ownership had potential to expand farther than just meme trading: "In this new, improved directory for Pepes, the tech behind it guarantees that no Pepe can be duplicated," wrote /jeffthedunker. "This is a very unique and viable concept."
Despite its prominence as an early NFT pioneer, Rare Pepe Wallet rarely gets credited for its advances in blockchain technology, perhaps because Rare Pepe uses the Counterparty platform rather than Ethereum. Rare Pepe Wallet, however, was the second website ever to trade digital art through the blockchain, and the very first platform to accept user-submitted art for trading. The NFT boom of today is predicated on the idea that anyone can make and sell NFTs, a facet of the market which simply wasn’t possible prior to Rare Pepe Wallet. The ironic meme trading that occurred on 4Chan in the mid-2010s is not a facet of internet history that should be regarded as separate from the birth of crypto art markets. Rather, the escalation of the 4Chan meme market into a tangible economic system dependent on the blockchain displays that contemporary articulations of digital scarcity owe their existence to alt-right subcultures which sought, in a way both different and similar, to reclaim widely circulated imagery from digital publics.
Pointing fingers at the crypto art community for having alt-right predecessors is not the project of this essay — crypto and the alt-right are documented bedfellows already. But I think it’s fascinating that logic of NFTs mirrors and supersedes the logic of the 4Chan users who crusaded to "own" Pepe. Both the 4Chan meme enthusiasts who invented "Rare Pepes" and NFT traders are motivated by a desire to possess for themselves a digital image which could — or once did — belong to a broader public.
The financialization of once public imagery which occurs with the NFT boom is not without positive effects — NFTs clearly benefit digital artists by deterring piracy, and NFTs even could provide a form of reparation to people whose images go viral against their will ("Bad Luck Brian," the gangly redhead who went viral as a meme in the early 2000s, fetched $36,732 after selling his infamous school photo as an NFT. I think of Lauren Michele Jackson’s powerful essay on Sweet Brown, the viral fire survivor, and wonder if Sweet Brown could reap the same reward).
Regardless of whether you think it’s a positive thing, commodification of memes in the NFT economy fundamentally shifts the power dynamics of image ownership — what could once be claimed politically or socially can now be claimed financially. In an excellent essay for Real Life, Aria Dean — engaging with the work of Hito Steryl and Lauren Jackson — posited memes as a representation of collective blackness; praising memes for their resiliency, Dean writes that "Memes replace the “ideology of ownership” with another form of value." NFTs reverse the operation by financializing the meme, and in doing so, seize popular imagery from digital publics, whether these publics are formed in the dangerous petri dishes of 4Chan threads or in what Dean calls the “call-and-response creativity of Black Twitter.” That Pepes are now more expensive than offensive is perhaps a step forward, but the social cost of financializing memes — including whether NFTs will slow down the circulation of memes — has yet to be fully seen.