In 2008 I was working at Engadget, a popular gadget blog. We did a lot of blogging at Engadget — real, traditional, down-in-the-content mines blogging — taking a piece of news or something you found that was interesting to you and your audience, do a quick write up on it, add a few thoughts of your own or some historical background, and then hit publish as quickly as possible.
I used to do something like 10 or more posts a day (as did most of the other editors). Things were pretty fast and loose at Engadget (this really was the Wild West days of blogging), and we tended to pepper our stories with in-jokes, weird graphics, and the occasional appearance of Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th film series (go ahead, check out old Engadget posts from any Friday the 13th through the years 2007 to... maybe they still do it?).
At any rate, July 3, 2008 was one of those days. It was the middle of a holiday week and news was undoubtedly light. I picked up a post about how police were starting to use text messages as tip lines — a perfect Engadget story about the creep of technology in everyday parts of our lives — and wrote up a quick take. As I often did, I pored over Google and our internal archives for an acceptable image that wouldn’t get us in any copyright trouble. I found a bland picture with no attribution in our image bank of hands — a woman’s hands, it seems — texting on a dated Nokia phone (a 6810 to be exact, a bizarre 2003 release with a large fold-out keyboard) which had previously been used on the Spanish-language version of Engadget that would suffice. Editors from all the Engadget sites would upload photos to a central library that could be used thereafter. Oftentimes these images were from a press kit or stock images, and had no source attribution; this was one of those. I decided to spice it up with some text of what I imagined might be happening on the police tip line. My brilliant, sensitive idea was to make it so the person was texting the police while being murdered: “OMG IM BEING KILLED.” A few minutes later the post went up. My recollection is that it didn’t get very much traffic.
I had completely forgotten about this image until earlier this week, when I saw it randomly pop up in my Pinterest feed, shared by a person I didn’t know who mostly posted fashion and jewelry images on the service. Well that’s weird, I thought. So I started looking around the internet a little bit.
From what I could tell, the image was mostly dormant until 2012, when a couple of random bloggers posted about police 911 services using texts in addition to calls. Somewhere between 2012 and 2016, it started to find its way into the more general population of the internet. There were hundreds of instances of it when I did a Google image search. It was shared on Instagram, Reddit, and it was all over Twitter — being used as a response, as the punchline of a joke, as a part of a Black Mirror “mood board.” In 2015, a band called The John Doe Experience turned it into a song and used the image as the record cover. But Tumblr — with its image-centric, aesthetics-obsessed userbase and cyclical method of sharing — is where it really seems to have taken root. A post of the image that has been widely circulated from 2017 has more than 30,000 notes on it, but finding its original source is nearly impossible. This version of the image has been filtered, scaled, and somewhat cleaned up (the edges around the screen were softened, an improvement on my hasty Photoshop). It was still my edit, but... slightly better. My throwaway photo had become a bonafide meme.
But there was something weird I noticed at the top of the Google image search that at first didn’t make any sense to me. When Google searches an image it looks for accompanying text content and basically uses the most relevant piece of that content to describe the image. When I searched my phone graphic, the Google search box next to it read “thank u next phone.”
Somehow this phone image was related to the Ariana Grande song “thank u, next,” but how? I thought perhaps the phone was featured in the video for the song, which is filled with references to movies from the ‘90s and early 2000s. But there’s no Nokia phone, or any kind of cell phone, in the video. Maybe the meme was being used as a response to an Ariana Grande tweet, or as a reaction to the song? No. Then I discovered another graphic — same phone, same image, but with a different-colored screen and text that read: “thank u, next 💋.” So someone did a different version of the meme based on the Ariana Grande song; there were already a handful of variations out there based on my original tweak, so it made sense. This person saw my image and swapped out the text for something else.
But this person wasn’t just someone. It was Ariana Grande. Specifically, it was Ariana Grande teasing the release of her new album on Instagram. The post has more than two million likes and over 10,000 comments. Her version of the image was everywhere. Suddenly it all made sense. But how the hell did my weird Photoshop end up as a piece of marketing on the Instagram feed of one of the biggest pop stars in the world?
Interestingly, a version of the image appeared on what seems like a fairly random Twitter page called @shopcosmicgoo on November 2, 2018, five days before Ariana’s Instagram post went up, and one day before she released the single “thank u, next.” This is the same “cleaner” version that appeared on Tumblr in 2017. The post has no likes, no retweets, and no replies. This image, or some version of it, is the graphic Ariana (or her team?) used to create the Instagram post for “thank u, next.” But how did Ariana find it in the first place?
That’s a question that remains a mystery to me, and short of hearing from Ariana herself — I’ve reached out to her management as well as her record label, but thus far it’s been radio silence — I can only offer some theories. Ariana’s original tweet promoting the song went up on November 3 (the day of the song’s release). The responses to the tweet are littered with memes and tweaked images repeating the track’s hook. It’s likely that one of the thousands of responses was the phone image (there’s so much content that’s been removed from Twitter that it’s impossible to know for sure). It’s also possible that a larger meme account (the kind notorious for, perhaps, liberally sharing images it didn’t create) picked it up in the days just before she posted her version and her team caught wind of it. Or like everyone else on the internet who posted this updated — but pre-Ariana — version of the meme (several of whom I contacted while working on this post, none of whom created it), it was found on Tumblr with no attribution and they simply shared it elsewhere.
In many ways it’s the perfect meme in which a celebrity can take ownership — not quite familiar enough to most people to seem obvious, but steeped in meme culture with a sense of use and momentum behind it. And maybe more than anything, it’s just a funny image of an old phone with a basic-enough display onto which anyone can throw a rushed Photoshopped message, whether you’re a gadget nerd making a dumb joke, or a multimillionaire pop queen promoting your next blockbuster single. I guess when you really look at it, Ariana and us bloggers have a lot more in common than you think — we all love Nokia phones.
I feel lit inside just thinking about.