WBUR’s Endless Thread podcast is launching a new series focusing on the origin, manipulation and cultural impact of memes — pop culture’s amusing way of communicating both far-out and common ideas. Debuting Friday, October 1, Endless Thread’s meme series will cover everything from “Kilroy Was Here” and “Rick Rolling” to the impact of memes using images taken out of context.
Endless Thread, created in 2018, explores untold histories and unsolved mysteries from the Internet. Hosted by WBUR Executive Producer Ben Brock Johnson (Marketplace Tech, Codebreaker) and Senior Producer Amory Sivertson (Dear Sugars, Modern Love), the podcast returns for Season Five with a new “always on” format – producing an “endless thread” of continuous episodes, beginning with a deeply reported new series on the connection and blurred lines between online communities and real life.
The inspiration for our meme series was the realization that behind every piece of pop culture, there is a story. In the case of images with different captions used to express a variety of scenarios, we explore how memes have changed people’s lives and influence everything from politics to the clever ways we interact online.WBUR Executive Producer Ben Brock Johnson
Listen to the series trailer here. A sneak preview event, “If You Can Dream It, You Can Meme It” takes place on Thursday, Sept. 30 at 7 p.m., live in WBUR’s CitySpace at 890 Commonwealth Ave. in Boston.
Each episode offers a deep dive into the personal stories behind popular memes. Experts from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, Know Your Meme, and more are featured throughout the series to discuss their perspective on the origin and pervasiveness of meme culture. An internet librarian and scholar of online security, disinformation, and hate speech will also add commentary about why certain memes become popular and the consequences of virality.
Kicking off the 10-part series today is “Kilroy Was Here”, about the 1940s phrase and accompanying doodle that some consider to be the original meme. The phrase’s initial meaning may come from the belly of warships, but what it came to represent bears many characteristics of an internet meme. Episode One tells the story of where it came from, how it spread, and what it says about the essence of memes. Episode Two, also dropping on October 1, delves into “Scumbag Steve,” meeting the guy and his mother who wrestled with instant internet fame — and managed to laugh and learn from it.
A sampling of future episodes includes:
Gotta Make You Understand, October 8
In the case of one of the most famous bait-and-switch memes of all time, the Rick Roll featuring singer Rick Astley (Never Gonna Give You Up), we may be looking at something experts call convergent evolution. As a bonus, a longer version of the interview with Rick Astley will air October 12.
Woman Yelling At A Cat, October 15
For “Real Housewife” Taylor Armstrong, the meme of her crying and screaming that made her even more famous on the internet has bitter roots: physical domestic abuse exposed on television and spousal suicide.
Disaster Girl, October 19
As a little girl, Zoe Roth was photographed in front of a controlled burn flashing a devious grin. That photo was posted in an online forum by her dad and took off as a meme. It quickly came to represent chaotic and destructive energy in many forms.
The Punisher, October 29
The Punisher has always been a complicated Marvel antihero: a man whose creator imagined him as a reaction to the failures of government at home and in the Vietnam War. But the Punisher's trademark, a dripping skull insignia, has been co-opted by different groups with often opposing agendas. We tell the story of The Punisher’s symbol as a meme, explain its true origins and its use today, and whether its creator — or Marvel — can take it back.
Bad Luck Brian, November 2
When a hopelessly nerdy school picture of Kyle Craven — a smile full of braces, a plaid sweater vest and a purple background — went viral in 2012, even the people contributing to the photo’s spread probably felt a little badly for him. We hear the rest of the story behind the kid who ‘played’ the Internet.
I’m Not Done Yet, November 19
Billy Mays, the black-bearded, blue-shirted TV pitchman who died in 2009, lives on in meme form. But why? We ask his son Billy Mays III to explain how someone who was squarely in the age of television continues to appear online in strange and provocative ways.
About Endless Thread
Hosted by Ben Brock Johnson and Amory Sivertson and produced by WBUR, Endless Thread explores untold histories and unsolved mysteries from the Internet. In its debut year, TIME mentioned Endless Thread among its '50 Best Podcasts to Listen To Right Now.’ And, according to The Guardian, Endless Thread “is cult listening for anyone who is interested in being interested.”