How a filmmaker created a meme and then the meme fought back.
It was 2000 and FuckParade was in its third year. FuckParade began as the Berlin underground scene’s answer to LoveParade, a commercialised techno festival which FuckParade has now outlived. That year, German video artist Matthias Fritsch took his camera to capture the ravers cutting through Berlin’s Rosenthaler Straße.
Fritsch uploaded a section of footage to his website as part of an experimental series, calling it ‘KNEECAM NO.1’. The 4-minute clip begins with a group of people dancing to techno in the middle of the road. A man in a black vest stumbles into shot and clatters into a woman with blue hair. He is clearly inebriated. Another man, shirtless, muscled and wearing a Thor’s hammer pendant, grabs him by the arm before sending him back to where he came, pointing his finger at him to make sure he behaves. As the techno music swells, he starts to dance along the street followed by the rest of the parade.
The video’s perfect timing and composition makes it seem as if it had been directed. These were Fritsch’s thoughts as he uploaded it to his website with the caption ‘Real or set-up? The camera as voyeur in an extraordinary situation and level of intimacy’. Little did he know that seven years later KNEECAM №1 would become famous far beyond the world of leftfield video art.
There is a reason why viral content is called viral content; because it acts like a virus. By uploading his video to the internet, Fritsch had created an initial sneeze of content which would spread to every part of the globe.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins came up with the term ‘meme’ in 1976. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins argued that ideas are subject to the same evolutionary pressures as genes. Humans, who have learned to be great imitators of each other, pass ideas among ourselves — bits of music, catchphrases, architectural styles — combining them with other ideas, other memes, or simply copying them inaccurately, resulting in them gradually changing them over time in a similar pattern to biological evolution. The rise of the internet has given new life to Dawkins’ idea and put boosters on humanity’s ability to start memes.
In 2007 it was the FuckParade video’s turn to go viral, when Fritsch uploaded it to YouTube — the video sharing site still in its infancy at the time. One day Fritsch received an email from a man he didn’t know telling him that the video now had almost 2 million views. How had this happened?
Fritsch explored further. It turned out that someone had linked to the video from a Latin American porn site, Petardas.com, giving the video the name ‘Thor’. From there, it had travelled to a now defunct forum site called tileNET, full of porn and weird stuff, and then onto once-popular humour website Break, whose audience, according to its CEO, consisted of ‘males who like attractive women and demolition’. There, it had been given the name under which it would become famous. Without the creator intervening, his creation had evolved from ‘KNEECAM №1’ to ‘Techno Viking’.
They had also given it a different subtitle from Fritsch’s achingly art school original. Now it read: ‘Techno Viking does not dance to the music, the music dances to Techno Viking!’, a line inspired by another internet meme, Chuck Norris Facts. Chuck Norris, who built the hospital he was born in. Chuck Norris, who can make onions cry. Chuck Norris, who completed Pokémon Go from a landline.
Meanwhile, Matthias Fritsch was searching for the real man. He had never talked to him on the day of filming. He searched Berlin’s gyms and fitness studios but found nothing. A friend said he had seen him in a club, but then never again. While footage of him had stormed the internet, the real Techno Viking had vanished.
But in 2009 he finally got in touch, through a lawyer. Fritsch received a cease and desist letter in which the lawyer argued Fritsch had violated his client’s image rights. He demanded an immediate halt to publication of the video and that Fritsch pay the man all earnings associated with the video — around €10,000. When Fritsch attempted to convince the man to engage with his fame, thereby earning them both more money, the lawyer rebuffed him.
A lengthy legal battle ensued, with the man eventually winning and putting Fritsch into debt. YouTube received takedown requests for all of the Techno Viking videos; the original and all the remixes.
Another more recent meme, Grumpy Cat, earned its owner millions of dollars in merchandise sales, digital products and books. Businesses pay marketing professionals huge sums in the hope that something they do will go viral. Even I have forked out a bit of money to help this newsletter on its way. The Techno Viking could have had fame and money without expending any effort, but chose not to. Why?
Not everyone wants to be the centre of attention. The knowledge that you’re a public figure and that it’s outwith your control can be a big cause of anxiety and fear. What if you don’t want to be recognised on the street? What if your job demands that you’re not well known? What if you’re involved in activities which fame would prohibit?
But trying to stop a meme is like trying to ban the flu. Every time the video was taken down from YouTube, a new one would pop up. User-generated merchandise had spread throughout online shops, and that wasn’t going away either.
It is now 2019 and Techno Viking, whoever he is, has aged 19 years, probably enough to stop him from being recognised. He seems to have given up on getting the videos taken down.
His is a story from a time when the internet still had its innocence and was a fairly anarchic place. In 2007, it wasn’t helping to elect fascists. Internet Explorer was still by far the most popular browser. Facebook was only making $15 million a year (compared to $25 billion last year). Social media sites didn’t yet have a stranglehold on the wider internet.
The story was a sign of things to come. Techno Viking, filmed without his consent and exploited by people he didn’t know, was an early example of the loss of personal privacy which the internet has brought about. Techno Viking went viral at the end of the internet Stone Age, just as social media companies were realising their true calling; discreetly harvesting data for the benefit of corporations and political movements. Twelve years later we are all Techno Viking, in a way; our most intimate conversations picked up by phones and smart speakers, locations tracked, wants, fears and political views exploited to sell products and shape public opinion. Where’s our dividend?