The Real People Behind Memes Describe How They Felt When Their Image Went Viral

It's easy to forget that the memes we see everyday actually feature real people. They have families, friends, and careers to protect. Most of the time, meme subjects don't even plan to take a hilarious picture; it just happens. They're not looking for fame or celebrity status, they just want to live comfortably. Social media is ever-evolving, though. Once a meme goes viral, nothing can stop it. The people who those memes vilify, mock, and sometimes applaud become legends. They're added to the to museum of pop culture history.

Some people tolerate their new statuses; other people loathe fame and visibility. But at least the people behind the memes have an opportunity to share their stories with the world. They were unwillingly thrust into the spotlight, but they've left indelible impressions. In fact, these meme subjects have made the interweb a much more hilarious place. 


  • College Freshman Didn't Mind His Fame

    College Freshman Didn't Mind His Fame
    Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY

    Griffin Kiritsy was an average college freshman when he was asked to do a Reader's Digest interview and photo shoot about his college experiences. Reddit users found one of the resulting photos and deemed Kiritsy the quintessential college freshman - hopelessly lost and terminally naive. Kiritsy wasn't horrified by the experience, though. He noted:

    "It’s a weird experience. At first it wasn't a big deal, but now people are coming up to me and are like, 'Hey, you're that guy.' It's really awkward [but] I plan on being the College Freshman until I die."

  • Hipster Barista Wasn't Thrilled About Those Coffee Jokes

    The Hipster Barista, Dustin Mattson, really was a barista. He was an incredibly talented barista, too, placing incredibly well at multiple nationwide barista competitions. Given his serious approach to the job, it wasn't terribly surprising that Mattson didn't find much humor in the meme that made him famous. He said:

    "I do find it discouraging and disappointing that there was so much exposure brought to an attempt at making a joke of a culinary industry and the professional barista. To me, it's very telling on how we laud farm-to-table food, craft beer, cocktail mixology, but it's ok to have no respect for the specialty coffee world and the people who are committed to it."

  • Sheltering Suburban Mom Wasn't Cool With The Bigotry In Her Memes

    Sheltering Suburban Mom Wasn't Cool With The Bigotry In Her Memes
    Photo: Metaweb / CC-BY

    Romance novel author Carly Phillips became a meme and she did not appreciate it one bit. One of her photographs was appropriated and made into the Sheltering Suburban Mom meme. She was portrayed as a stern, overprotective, and sometimes racist soccer mom. Understandably, Phillips challenged the racist remarks, noting:

    "I never want anyone who sees it to think that I, the real mom/person… believes any of that stuff, especially the derogatory, inflammatory, prejudiced things in there."

  • The Skateboarding Professor Was Confused

    When college professor Dr. Thomas Winter was photographed riding his skateboard to class, the image went viral. Winter became a certified meme star. The professor, who retired in 2013, didn't really understand the meme phenomenon or the slang language used online, though. Winter thought that the term "meme" came "from the book The Selfish Gene by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins."

  • Success Kid's Success Helped Raise Money For His Father's Kidney Transplant

    Success Kid's Success Helped Raise Money For His Father's Kidney Transplant
    Photo: Metaweb / CC-BY

    One of the most popular and widely-posted memes featured Success Kid, the toddler who shook a determined fist at the camera. His real name is Sammy Griner, and his mother Laney took the famous photo during a family beach trip in 2007. The boy wasn't even one year old. 

    Laney wasn't exactly pleased when her image went viral. She said:

    "I was not at all happy when I first saw it. Sammy was still a baby then and it felt like a violation... Around the summer of 2009 I was beginning to understand the concept of memes a bit more when I first saw my photo used as a Success Kid meme. That changed my perspective entirely."

    However, when Sammy's dad needed a kidney transplant, the Success Kid meme helped the family raise more than $100,000 for the operation.

  • Senior Freshman Enjoyed Her Stardom

    Senior Freshman Enjoyed Her Stardom
    Photo: flickr / CC0

    Nola Ochs died in 2016 at the age of 105, but she became the world's oldest college graduate, first. Oh, and she became a globally-recognized face when a snapshot of her participating in lecture went viral. Ochs was portrayed as an elderly but all-knowing student with an extensive knowledge of history because, well, she lived through a lot of it.

    Ochs seemed content with the unusual fame she'd acquired and was even writing a memoir. She joked, "Maybe I’ll use that picture of me on the cover!"