Months or years can go by before a new idea, product, or fad takes off online. But when it’s a meme, it happens fast and swarms the Internet. The catch is to know how to capitalize on the momentum without losing face. Three prolific memes that have been around for years and are still going strong – The Most Interesting Man in the World, Bad Luck Brian, and Scumbag Steve – feature funny, simple quotes you may have thought of but never had to guts to say out loud.
We delved into these three characters’ past and present lives, tracked their popularity over time and ranked them as the top 10 most Internet-famous images of all time. Take a look at our findings and you’ll see what we “meme.”
Jonathan Goldsmith. A guy with a pretty regular name happens to be the real man behind The Most Interesting Man in the World Internet memes. It all started in 2006 with a Dos Equis beer ad campaign: The commercials feature witty one-liners announcing what makes The Most Interesting Man so interesting (“Mosquitos refuse to bite him purely out of respect”) and invariably end with the line, "I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.”
The Most Interesting Man in the World campaign spread like wildfire. By 2010, memes featuring the now-familiar gray-bearded man appeared online, and by 2012, their popularity exploded. The memes – which mostly filled in the blanks to “I don’t always X, but when I do, I Y” – took off, and people created thousands of iterations using online meme generators. So what’s Mr. Goldsmith’s story? He started out as a trash collector but soon feigned a talent for horseback riding to secure a part on the TV show “Gunsmoke.” He went on to appear in various movies and television shows, often cast as the villain, before his big break: the Dos Equis commercials.
These days, The Most Interesting Man in the World doesn’t live the high-flying lifestyle you might envision. He lives in Vermont with his wife and dogs, and he’s more likely to be chopping wood or fishing than sitting in a nightclub sipping beer – because he enjoys “nature, solitude, [and] quiet.”
The loud sweater vest. The awkward haircut. The goofy smile, complete with braces. Bad Luck Brian, at least on the Internet, is the universal symbol for that guy who just can’t win. It all started when high-schooler Kyle Craven, the class clown known for hamming it up at talent shows, set out to produce a funny yearbook photo during junior year. He bought the sweater vest at a thrift store, rubbed his face to redden it, and made a silly face. The photo didn’t make the yearbook thanks to a vigilant principal – but it did make him famous.
In 2012, a friend posted the now-famous high school photo on Reddit with the caption, “Takes driving test … gets first DUI.” The picture became an Internet sensation, and people generated memes in the thousands with quotes like “Sells pants to thrift store for a buck ... forgets there was $20 in the pocket” and “Receives note from crush … restraining order.”
The memes poking fun at him were endless, but it didn’t bother the now-26-year-old – after all, the cheesy photo was no accident. On the contrary, Craven, now 26, rode the wave of Internet fame. His face has made it on T-shirts and stuffed animals, and the photo has been featured in various ad campaigns. His fame has since faded, and he is rarely recognized since he looks so different. But Craven estimates he’s earned between $15,000 and $20,000 for various deals – not enough to quit his day job as a project manager for his father’s construction business, but as he told the Washington Post, “not bad for doing basically nothing.”
Scumbag Steve is the worst, most annoying friend you never had. Except he’s not really a scumbag. The guy in the photo is just a regular teenager named Blake Boston. In 2006, when he was 16, his mother was taking a photography class and asked him to pose. She snapped a now-familiar photo of him standing in a doorway dressed in a faux fur–collared coat and a backward flat-brimmed baseball cap.
In 2011, that photo, which was posted on Boston’s MySpace page, became a popular Internet meme – and “Scumbag Steve” was born. The memes featured all kinds of awful behavior attributed to Scumbag Steve: “Invite Steve to party … iPod stolen.” “Is an organ donor … Smokes.” Even the hat took on a life of its own, as Internet users began Photoshopping it onto celebrities’ heads to express their dislike.
Though Boston admitted he was initially hurt and angry, he soon embraced his newfound status as a viral Internet sensation. In 2012, The Boston Globe made a documentary about what it was really like being an Internet “scumbag.” He launched a rap career (using his Scumbag Steve persona), happily dons his famous hat to pose for photos with fans, and maintains an active Twitter page – where, touting himself as a “rapper” and “entertainer,” he tweets frequently about memes and politics (he’s a Hillary fan).
Though The Most Interesting Man in the World, Bad Luck Brian, and Scumbag Steve were all addictive memes, none made the No 1 slot. Read on to find out which meme claimed that honor.
The most popular meme of all time is “Y U No.” Derived from texting shorthand, the phrase is simply a grammatically incorrect way of saying, “Why don’t you?” or “Why didn’t you?” The meme, which also features an angry-looking stick-figure character apparently inspired by a Japanese anime series, is generally used to express frustration about someone’s inability or unwillingness to do something: “You Say You Like it, Y U No Put Ring on it?” and “NASA, Y U No Find Real Alien?”
Taking second place is “Futurama Fry” – a meme featuring Fry from the animated show “Futurama.” The cartoon character squints as he ponders his internal monologue, “Not sure if X … or just Y.” A famous example: “Not sure if trolling … Or just stupid.”
In third place is the above-mentioned favorite “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” and in fourth place is one of the most recognizable babies on the Internet: Success Kid. The young boy sits on the bench, fist clenched, and exudes confidence; among the meme’s catchphrases are “Forgot to eat breakfast … Someone brought donuts” and “Google Maps said the walk would take 23 minutes … did it in 17.”
Finally, we tracked Google search prevalence to see which memes people searched for most often between 2008 and 2016. The Most Interesting Man in the World, No. 3 on our most popular memes list, also ranks highest in search prevalence compared with Bad Luck Brian and Scumbag Steve. Most Interesting Man’s popularity spiked in 2012, which was a big year for actor Jonathan Goldsmith: He hosted an Obama fundraiser, the memes he inspired were spreading like wildfire, and people saw him on TV commercials and YouTube videos and read about him in numerous popular publications.