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Can a Meme Be Original?

A photo from Heiko Julien's album #funeral (via Facebook)
A funeral selfie from Heiko Julien’s album #funeral (via Facebook)

On October 28, Jason Feifer’s Selfies at Funerals tumblelog went live and proceeded to rip a confused morality hole in the internet. Do funeral selfies signal the downfall of humanity, or are they just products of being human? If, like me, you don’t much care, a second, perhaps more interesting ethical question arose in the days that followed: did Feifer rip off the idea for the tumblelog from someone else?

The possibility was first brought to my attention through a comment (here) on Hyperallergic. The commenter referred to writer Heiko Julien’s photo album on Facebook. Titled, simply, #funeral, it consists of selfies posted on Instagram with that hashtag. The album, which according to Facebook was “updated about 9 months ago,” long before the tumblelog’s appearance, has essentially the same guiding principal as Selfies at Funerals.

“This is an idea I’ve been playing with for a while,” Julien told Hyperallergic. “I made the album back in June, I believe and reposted it a bit ago. The one that got all the coverage went up later that afternoon. He [Feifer] and I have mutual facebook friends.”

I reached out to Jason Feifer, who’s an editor at Fast Company, to ask whether he had known about Julien’s album. He said he hadn’t, and explained the origin story of his tumblelog:

In August my wife and I were in Amsterdam, and watched people take photos of themselves at the Anne Frank House. That led me to do some research on selfies at serious places, and I created selfiesatseriousplaces.tumblr.com. While searching for selfies for that Tumblr, I discovered funeral selfies, and included one in the serious places Tumblr. It went up a few months ago, and got a fun amount of attention. Some friends and I were talking about it at a bar last Monday, and, with Halloween coming up, we decided that the funeral selfies deserved their own spin-off site. So I went home and assembled it.

A funeral selfie from Jason Feifer's tumblelog Selfies at Funerals (via Tumblr)
A funeral selfie from Jason Feifer’s tumblelog Selfies at Funerals (via Tumblr)

Feifer’s comments led me back to the photo collections, where, upon closer inspection, I noticed a few small differences: Feifer uses caption text to determine the subject, not just hashtags, and he draws on other social media sites besides Instagram. As far as I can tell, there are no photos that show up in both places.

So, from the sounds of it, two people arrived at the same trend at roughly the same time — which isn’t so crazy: if it happens in science, there’s no reason to think it can’t happen in memes. In fact, a third person also seems to have recently memeified funeral selfies: Matt James, who created the not-very-active funeralselfies.tumblr.com two months ago.

Some onlookers have been persistent in calling Feifer a copycat, which begs the question: where does an internet trend start (besides, in this case, with the people taking the photos)? Memes derive their power from their group appeal, their essential authorlessness. Ideas move around the web at the speed of light, and the generally accepted premise seems to be that we all share and remix and adapt anyway. Which isn’t to say that there’s no such thing as plagiarism — just that when it comes to memes and tumblelogs and internet trends, originality is not the deciding factor. Julien himself recognizes this.

“The infrastructure is what makes a story take off,” he said, “access to people with access. Ideas are intangible things, difficult to claim ownership of without contracts. I suppose if I’d deserved credit for my idea I would have done it the right way and made a Tumblr.”

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