Ben Lashes is a meme manager — and as far as we know, he is the first and only of his kind.
Consider him an agent for the stars of the Internet. Lashes represents memes and their creators such as Keyboard Cat, Nyan Cat and Scumbag Steve, to name a few. He’s also an A&R for Rebecca Black. It’s a full-time gig, and he’s been at it for over two years.
Although this title might have been confusing a few years ago (and possibly even now, to some), the daily churn of viral culture is creeping into the mainstream. Those who create successful memes are everyday people who might not know how to represent themselves.
Lashes worked for years as an A&R in the music industry, but his meme management career started with Charlie Schmidt, a family friend and the mastermind behind Keyboard Cat. According to Lashes, Schmidt created the video in 1986, so he was surprised and overwhelmed by the amount of feedback he received when it finally hit the web.
Shortly after, Schmidt contacted Lashes for advice and the rest has been a fast-paced, crazy ride.
“We were just living in this world, trying to manage something that had never been managed before, at least that we knew of,” says Lashes. “Half the time we felt totally crazy and half the time we felt a little ahead of the curve. We’ve tried to keep each other in good mental health over the past few years.”
What’s in a Meme?
When asked to define a meme, Lashes admits that even he can’t explain it outside a 20-minute conversation.
But most people know what a meme is, they just don’t realize there’s a word for it. For example, Lashes brings up a recent conversation with a friend about Scumbag Steve. According to Lashes, the friend wasn’t familiar with the name, but as soon as he saw the photo, he recognized the character as a photo that popped up frequently on his Facebook feed.
The job title “meme manager” can’t always be an easy one to describe to family and friends. Lashes recently had to explain the concept of a website to his grandmother.
“Think of it this way — remember when you first got a telephone, and all of a sudden you had a unique number and your friends could call that number and you could connect with them? You didn’t have to be in the same room. That was probably super huge, it broke down this wall in order to interact with people,” says Lashes, relaying the conversation with his grandmother.
“That’s what the Internet is. Websites are phone lines, and if you have a domain name, then all your friends can go straight there to connect with you.”
Owning a Meme
“The first thing I would do if I had a meme come out tomorrow is try and pick up all the domains, Facebook pages and YouTube pages — any social media website, any dot-com, or dot-net you can think of,” says Lashes.
This includes securing the name and immediately trademarking or copyrighting the digital property that you own in the process.
Lashes’ main priority is making sure that you can at least prove that it’s your cat that’s becoming famous, even if you never want to make a penny from it.
“It’s not about making a ton of money off of it, necessarily, it’s about doing what the creator of the content wants to do with it,” says Lashes, who understands that some things are out of his control.
Meme culture has become so fast-paced and unpredictable, and fans are quicker than ever to put their own spin on images and videos. Things get auto-tuned, Photoshopped and mashed up. Lashes says his job would never be to prevent fans from sharing their versions of memes — in fact, he admits his desk drawers are stuffed with collectables and fan art.
Lashes is more concerned with those who are trying to cash in on his client’s digital property.
“When it’s a company who’s trying to sell a whole bunch of t-shirts, or put [memes] into a commercial, well, you wouldn’t do that to Mickey Mouse. Anything that you can’t do to Mickey Mouse, you shouldn’t be able to do to any of the memes of the world. It’s not right that everyone is just trying to make a buck off of it,” says Lashes. “It’s not the Wild Wild West anymore on the Internet, and people are treating it like it is.”
Content is created with such speed and volume on the web today that it’s nearly impossible to plan for a viral video — a fact that advertisers and media companies have begun to pick up on.
“It’s amazing, whoever is booking people for the TODAY Show, they’re like the number one place to break memes I think,” Lashes jokes. “If you can get it on Kathie Lee and Hoda’s show, that’s like the gold meme approval rating right there.”
But memes are in fact becoming more mainstream, and web communities are finding the real people behind the pics, sometimes within 24 hours of their viral success.
Distribution is part of the reason — getting content out there is no longer an issue because you can reach the masses in a few clicks through networks like Tumblr or Reddit. It’s no longer about how you get your content out there, but who picks up on it that makes memes go mainstream.
“Once you start gathering all the people from one niche, they become a huge powerful group. There are either a hundred million people who love sharing cat videos, or a hundred million of them that love causing trouble in society. It makes them much more powerful because of how fast everything’s become. Things can happen faster than any structured system can put it together.”
The Future of Memes
Quick distribution methods and the growing desire for instant gratification are what fuel memes — it’s also helped turn traditional music and entertainment industries upside down.
Lashes uses Justin Bieber as a prime example of what happens when you’re discovered by the masses first, calling him “the Elvis of the Internet age.”
“He wasn’t manufactured, he manufactured himself — like a mom and pop operation,” says Lashes. “That’s the same way that the next Mickey Mouse or the next Bart Simpson will happen, or maybe it’s already happening.”
According to Lashes, putting the masses in charge of what or who the next iconic character or celebrity will be could also be detrimental to major companies.
“By the time that Disney votes on how lovable this character is that they’re developing, and whether or not it’s going to get approved by parents or have this weird undertone, there are going to be a hundred thousand different uploads of people trying to fill that same space with whatever they’ve come up with,” says Lashes.
At the end of the day, Lashes says it would be silly to take any predictions about the future of memes too seriously.
“Once you start trying to predict everything that the Internet is going to do, that’s when you’re going to look like an idiot,” says Lashes. “The Internet has a funny way of shifting gears at any given moment and it can shift in ten different gears at the same time.”
If you’re looking for patronizing (but humorous) tweets, you can follow the meme featuring Gene Wilder from the 1971 version of Willy Wonka.