Greetings, Internet historians! I am RLY excited to share today’s lesson with you.
Yes, RLY! Today’s lesson involves an owl, some trolls, a computer virus, and Barbra Streisand — all wrapped up in the meme known as “O RLY.”
If you’re having trouble reading it, “O RLY” is an abbreviation of “Oh, really?”
A Brief History of O RLY
Seventeen years ago on this day, professional photographer John White published an image of a snowy owl looking, as he put it, “silly.”
Why is the owl making that ludicrous face? According to White, it was cooling down after a particularly vigorous flight. It was panting, kind of like a dog.
White didn’t know it at the time, but the aviary subject of his photograph was destined for Internet stardom. Only, not for four more years.
In the meantime, it was 2001 — the era of online message boards. Yes, dark days — dark days, indeed. And what did people do on online message boards? They were sarcastic. They said dumb things to each other and responded with incredulity, saying things like “Ohhhhh, realllllly?”
According to Know Your Meme, the phrase “O RLY” can be traced back to early 2003 on the forum of Something Awful, “where it was used as a deadpan response to anything you found doubtful, unimpressive or just plain dull.” I can’t think of any better adjectives to describe online message boards.
Still, it wasn’t until 2005 that the O RLY retort found its soulmate in the image of John White’s snowy owl, on the imageboard website 4chan. That’s when an anonymous user overlaid the image with bold, white text, resulting in this gem:
Perhaps in part due to its simplicity, the O RLY image caught on with 4chan users instantly. They used it to respond sarcastically to posts not only on 4chan, but on multiple other forums, thus catalyzing its spread far and wide.
Over a short amount of time, the meme became synonymous with low-level trolling, and eventually spawned over 9,000 different iterations.
Some of the most popular O RLY versions are:
O RLY Baby
O’Reilly O RLY
Two Controversies? O RLY?!
A couple of controversies involving O RLY led first to its ubiquitousness, then to its demise.
First Controversy: The Streisand Effect
When O RLY merchandise went on sale in 2005, photographer John White got a little miffed that he wasn’t receiving royalties. He decided to make his opinion known publicly. However, in the process of chastising popular bloggers for stealing his photograph, White found himself victim to the Barbra Streisand effect — by trying to censor the meme, he accidentally brought extra attention to it, thus making it more popular than ever.
Streisand effect aside, the craze didn’t last long. Why? My guess is, it had something to do with the virus.
Second Controversy: The Virus
In 2006, tons of computers got infected with a worm known as W32/Hoots-A. How did the virus work? Essentially, invasive malware sent pictures of the O RLY meme to the infected user’s printer, nonstop. Yeah, it’s fair to say people got pretty sick of it after that. Search queries for O RLY dropped to nearly zero within months.
Thus, the meme was over.
Still, it is used from time to time in today’s internet culture by people who want to come across as not only sarcastic, but extremely ironic. Kind of like a Nobel Laureate wearing a t-shirt that says “Jenius.”
What, you didn’t read all of that?
Alright, you friggin’ slouch. Here are the main points, in recipe form:
- Take one picture of exhausted owl
- Stir in sarcastic message board users
- Combine until meme
- Bake with the heat of the photographer’s ire
- Destroy it all with a virus
And, voilà! You’ve made an O RLY meme.
Okay, class. For homework tonight, think about how nothing represents internet culture better than loving something and then immediately hating it with the same fervor.