Whose Sad Keanu Is It Anyway?

Digital memes transcend time and space, as each meme carries a multitude of meanings, timestamps, and geo-locations. Every time a meme is consumed, each one lies “pregnant with all past and future specifications” (Barthes, 1957, p. 58). Authorship is lost in part due to the fact that for every successful meme, thousands more fail in other iterations. By constantly jockeying for position as the most successful variation, these memes partake in a survival of the fittest, ensuring its own survival chiefly through connecting to people on more than simply a cultural level, resulting in an easily digestible image or macro to be consumed by as many people as possible.

It is this discussion of authorship that enters a Baudrillard-ian sense of hyperreality, the author reasserts ownership of digital images that are experienced in ways and places far different from the original ontology. That is to say, that despite assertion of provinciality, the very nature of the digital meme fundamentally breaks apart the limited interpretations considered by the author.

Witness the example of Sad Keanu. In 2010, the image below (Asadorian, 2010) was posted by redditor rockon4life underscored with “I really enjoy acting…Because when I act, I’m no longer me.” The thread entitled “Keanu. More sadness in comments” was moved to the website’s frontpage, quickly exploded to over 281,000 page views (Keanu is sad / Sad Keanu, 2010).


The “paparazzi shot of a seemingly dejected-looking Keanu Reeves” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2012, p. 51-2) is most interesting for the purposes of this post not for its memetic qualities of spread, growth and recognition, but for its contested authorship. Shortly after the image gained traction on Reddit, a number of pop culture sites including Urlesque, BuzzFeed, and TheDailyWhat covered Sad Keanu as the next big meme. (Keanu is sad / Sad Keanu, 2010). For much of the resulting month, photoshopped images of Sad Keanu in other contexts flowed across social media including its own Tumbler, SadKeanu.com. It was this repository of Sad Keanu images that received a Digital Media Copyright Agreement (DMCA) “takedown notice.” Splash News, a celebrity and entertainment news outlet online, claimed ownership of the images, and demanded any site showing the images immediately remove them from those servers.

According to Dan, a blogger on SadKeanu, over 270 posts were to be taken down despite their contention “that it can fall under ‘fair use’,” but that “both myself and my partner don’t have any time or resources to fight it” (Keanu is sad / Sad Keanu, 2010). This stems from the misapplications and misconceptions of fair use and DMCA as much as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” and essentially, “don’t care,” nature of today’s memetic and remix culture. Roth and Flegel (2013) note this incongruence, “When fans with little or no legal expertise invoke and interpret copyright, they reveal that copyright does not attend to the complex realities of creative production, nor the very active consumption, engagement with, and re-articulation of cultural artefacts and texts in society to effectively police at the grassroots level” (p. 216-17). Copyright has not kept pace with the advance of of technology nor the speed at which images and memes are transmitted, and has ultimately lost the “hearts and minds” of users in its war on transgressors of fair use. Lankshear and Knobel argue the manipulation of digital imagery is part of the new literacies. “Provided with a proper toolkit of digital affordances that even a person who lacked artistic talent could “create a collage of images and text to contribute to a popular online meme, such as the Sad Keanu meme” (p. 51).

Keanu-1In addition, in using these affordances, multiple hyperrealities are created, as meaning is added and subverted to be experienced by viewers in vastly different ways. A viewer experienced with The Simpsons will interpret the inclusion of Sad Keanu in a markedly distinct way as compared to someone unfamiliar with the Simpsons or Keanu Reeves for that matter. At the moment of experience, the application of the various cultural values at work are transformed into a new hyperreality.

It should be understood that Splash News suffered no direct damage here; they weren’t impugned or denigrated by the Sad Keanu macros and remixes, although in some cases, some rights holders use copyright as suppression beyond commercial purposes. As Goldman (2012) points out, takedown orders unnecessarily “provide(s) a protocol for folks trying to suppress truthful negative information–acquire the copyrights to the content containing the unwanted information, and then use the newly created threat of copyright infringement to force that information off the Internet” and that this protocol is much easier to enforce given “visual/aural content than purely textual content because (a) people need to see/hear some things with their own eyes/ears, and (b) it’s much easier for others to extract and repeat textual information without running afoul of copyrights” (Goldman, 2012).

Individual users simply making a macro for a snide reply to a friend, or even in the subversion of the image for political commentary should not expect cease and desist letters marking them as delinquents. The genie is out of the bottle, and the efforts of Splash News to stuff it back into a container so limiting and unavailable to those with affordances described above only serve to harden resolve against copyright. What could be seen as a benefit to these burgeoning artists simply remains as a boon upon their shoulders, weighing down their creativity and limiting any chance of creating and subverting meaning through digital remix.


Asadorian, R. (2010). Sad Keanu. Image. People. Retrieved from http://www.people.com/people/package/gallery/0,,20442843_20446944_20883614,00.html

Barthes, R. (1977), On the death of the author: Image, Music, Text: Essays, Second Edition, HarperCollins UK

Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. New York: Oxford University Press

Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Goldman, E. (2012, May 14). The dangerous meme that won’t go away: Using copyright assignments to suppress unwanted content—Scott v. WorldStarHipHop. Eric Goldman Tech. & L. Blog.  Retrieved from http://blog.ericgoldman.org/archives/2012/05/the_meme_that_w.htm

Keanu is sad / Sad Keanu. (2010). Know Your Meme. Retrieved from http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/keanu-is-sad-sad-keanu#fn1

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2012). ‘New’literacies: technologies and values. Teknokultura. Revista de Cultura Digital y Movimientos Sociales, 9(1), 45-71.

Roth, J., & Flegel, M. (2013). ‘I’m not a lawyer but…’: Fan disclaimers and claims against copyright law. The Journal of Fandom Studies, 1(2), 201-218.