On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, and nobody cares if you can’t draw one.
This is, essentially, the focus of a recent paper by Nick Douglas, the former editor of Valleywag who now runs the YouTube comedy channel Slacktory. His work is published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Visual Culture (the whole issue is dedicated to memes). In his piece, Douglas tries to coin a phrase that describes the messy, iterative, and, frankly, not all that attractive visuals found on hubs like Imgur and Reddit and 4chan. He calls it “Internet Ugly.”
The premise is that online art and memes aren't supposed to be pretty. More than that, they're supposed to look messy. “There’s a definable aesthetic running through meme culture, a celebration of the sloppy and the amateurish,” he writes. “Its major techniques over time have included freehand mouse drawing, digital puppetry, scanned drawings, poor grammar and spelling, human-made glitches, and rough photo manipulation.”
Douglas points to a few examples of Internet Ugly. There are Rage Comics—a set of easy-to-mimic stick-figure drawings with text slapped on top. Like many memes, Rage Comics are basically mad-libs with badly drawn pictures. Anybody can grab the template and plop in something that fits the little sequence. There is a whole cast of faces present in rage comics, many of which are contorted versions of earlier drawings.
There’s also a whole subset of work labeled specifically “shitty” something. Take Shitty_Watercolor, for example, someone who painted intentionally bad pieces without letting the watercolors dry. His renditions of things like President Obama, the Costa Concordia crash, and scenic photos that users post to Reddit made him one of the most popular Redditors around.
In fact there’s a whole subset of "shitty" communities on Reddit. Things like Shitty Earth Porn and Shitty Life Pro Tips and Shitty Food Porn post photo parodies of their non-shitty counterparts. Here's a photo from Shitty Earth Porn of "The iconic New York City skyline."
The meme “Nailed It” is all about people trying to make something good, and failing spectacularly. Most of these images compare and contrast the desired outcome with the actual one. The worse the fail, the better the meme.
In his paper, Douglas argues that this ugliness is what sets Internet media apart from everything else. You can make ugly Microsoft Paint drawings, plop bad fonts onto worse pictures, and as long as you get the lulz it doesn’t matter how good it looks. “As opposed to media like TV or print, where the amateurish is marginalized and audience attention centers on mainstream blockbusters, the Internet is built to give outsized attention to the amateurish, the accidental, and the surprise hit.”
Why has the meme-based web gone for quantity over quality? A few reasons. The first is speed. Many of these pieces are iterative, they respond to one another, and they happen on threads that move quickly and in some cases are deleted within a few days, or even within a few minutes. “Polish your reply in Photoshop for an hour and the thread might be done before you are,” Douglas writes. The second is that there’s nobody stopping someone from posting their work. There aren't traditional gatekeepers, no formal process of vetting anything. The approval comes in the form of shares and comments and spin-offs. And the people doing that sharing and jugging and iterating, ultimately, are fellow meme lovers who care more about jokes than about shading and brushwork.
And, as with any community that has developed its own aesthetic, there is the danger of someone co-opting it, of people "selling out." Hot Topic has sold shirts with Rage Guy and other meme faces on them. Politicians have used the Doge meme in their campaigns. Reddit and 4chan users have lashed out at these attempts to use their work, arguing that they are not only impostors, but don't fundamentally understand the purpose and art that is Internet Ugly.
Not everybody who makes Internet Ugly content is actually a bad artist. In fact, the guy behind Shitty_Watercolor is now actually pretty good at watercolor, something he attributes to the amount of practice he got. But Douglas argues that Internet Ugly isn’t going anywhere. “So long as some creators have more ideas than capabilities, there will always be an Internet Ugly.”