We are told that Web 3 — the amalgam of smart contracts, cryptocurrencies and their associated memes — offer a new vision of the internet.
Instead of the surveillance economy, where user data is collected, packaged and sold to the highest algorithmic bidder, we will have an ownership economy, where users can decide what to do with their data, digital property and other online traces — and even profit from them.
The Web 2 world collided conspicuously with its Web 3 counterpart last week, in the form of an auction for an NFT. Unlike the recent craze for tokenized basketball cards or original artworks, there was a different spin to this particular token. It was an early meme, made at the dawn of the Web 2 and circulated endlessly through the internet ever since.
The meme in question is Creepy Chan, which Know Your Meme tells me was invented by Allison Harvard as a teenager with a fixation on blood. She took photos of herself in various ghostly poses and published them on the burgeoning social networks of the time: MySpace and LiveJournal.
The photos of Harvard were seized upon by members of 4Chan, a low-fidelity message board that would become a crucible of internet culture. The 4Chan users, in particular those who frequented its /x/ sub-forum dedicated to the paranormal, christened the images, and Harvard by extension, “Creepy Chan.” A meme was born.
Last week, 16 years after Creepy Chan first appeared on the internet, Harvard decided to do something with the images. She put them on Foundation, a marketplace that helps artists tokenise their works. Two images were put on auction, and ultimately fetched over $150,000.
What was actually happening here? Could a meme that had already circulated billions or possibly trillions of times across the internet really be imbued with any real scarcity? Could Web 2 artifacts be grandfathered into the Web 3 world of ownership and financialization? I asked Harvard.
“It’s crazy because I was turned into an unwitting queen of 4Chan when I was 16 years old. Memes are part of internet culture and it’s hard to have any control over how they are used,” she told me between photo shoots from home.
As Harvard sees it, in a Web 2 paradigm, she relinquished control of her images the moment they were put on the internet—although she didn’t know it at the time. Web 2 culture championed remixing and re-appropriation, with original images turned into new objects, based on the wisdom —or the whims — of the crowd, and blasted across the web.
“I learned the hard lesson as a kid, when you put something on the internet, it doesn’t really belong to you any more. You have to accept it can be saved and used and put anywhere,” she said. “The damage is already done.”
In the 16 years since Creepy Chan was claimed by the internet, Harvard came across her own image in all sorts of unlikely places.
“I’ve seen it used in some ads in—I don’t even know, some of them were so annoying— like, they were making me the face of some child abuse thing!” she said. “I did not consent to this, it’s crazy!”
This is not to say the attention lavished on Harvard by the internet was all bad. She became internet famous, and then famous famous, briefly, as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model in 2009. She was spotted by a talent scout who saw a Creepy Chan image. Her fans on 4Chan stayed with her; They even hacked into the modeling show’s site to change poll results in her favor. Or at least she assumes it was them.
“I feel like I’m very lucky because overall, the way my life has changed for the better because of these images is kind of crazy and hilarious,” she says. “You kind of have to go with whatever happens, in a way.”
After America’s Next Top Model, Harvard walked runways and judged and appeared in various contests. Recently, she's been modeling while working as an artist and creative director. She has also followed cryptocurrencies for some time. Harvard started buying coins in 2017, around the time of a boom in initial coin offerings that drove Bitcoin and Ethereum to previous all-time highs.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in crypto with altcoins,” she confides. “For awhile I was killing it and then… I definitely wasn’t killing it anymore.”
When NFTs surged in popularity this year, Harvard was ready. She credits her fiancé, who she says is “really into crypto,” with helping her prepare to issue her own NFTs. The plan was to mint two of her Creepy Chan images and list them on Foundation on March 30.
“It felt right to start with her [Creepy Chan] because it’s such an internet thing to begin with,” she says.
On the day of Harvard’s NFT auction, she was scrolling Twitter when she came across another auction happening at the same time: another tokenized version of an earlier web meme that was also indelibly linked to a woman. This was the Laina Morris and her Overly Attached Girlfriend meme, made in 2012 as part of a lampooning of a Justin Bieber music video.
“She liked one of my tweets, so I checked out her profile,” Harvard said. “And I thought, this is crazy, as I was watching her auction. It was absolutely insane.”
By the time the auctions ended, Harvard’s NFTs had sold for over $150,000 and Morris’ had gone for more than $400,000. Both were acquired by the same buyer, a music studio in Dubai called 3F Music that is an avid collector of NFTs.
The successful auction made for "one of the best weeks of [her] life," but she points out that something much more powerful was going on: the ability to assert some control over the memes that have run wild for more than a decade and havee become inextricably linked to her 16-year-old self.
“When I minted my Creepy Chan NFTs I got to take my power back in a way,” she says.
She explains: “It’s kind of a cool and powerful thing to stake my claim on my images. These are mine, I can authenticate them, I can outright say that these are mine.”
Harvard’s experience speaks to the potential of Web 3 technologies. While the Creepy Chan images had been released for 16 years and endlessly remixed and reappropriated, turning them into cryptographic tokens offered their creator a way to harness their power. The new tokens are simply linked to the old images, but they carry a crucial additional feature: the ability to trace the chain of ownership back to their creator, Harvard herself. And that’s something genuinely new for memes, makers, and the web that birthed them.