Here's what happens when someone takes your joke, then turns it into a massively viral meme

It’s a tweet that pops up every now and again, even now, nearly two years after it was first sent:

“These two books contain the sum total of all human knowledge,” the tweet reads. It was written by a man named James Kirkpatrick on April 5, 2013. Kirkpatrick, according to his Twitter bio, is a philosophy student at the University of Oxford. He has a little over 1,500 followers.

If the goal on Twitter is to get retweets and go viral, then James Kirkpatrick achieved what many people set out to do when they live-tweet The Oscars or make up an altercation supposedly happening on a cross-country flight.

With over 20,000 retweets, The Harvard Tweet has made its rounds. Just yesterday, I saw it retweeted into my own feed.

Oh yeah, I thought. That joke. I’ve seen that joke.

This isn’t the first, or only, joke that’s been recycled across the internet.

In July, I wrote about a man named Chris Scott, who, a little under a year ago, tweeted a joke that I refer to as “The Becky Tweet.”

The peculiar thing about The Becky Tweet was that, while it was obviously a great joke, it was suddenly everywhere. People were tweeting it, word-for-word, without crediting Scott. A comedian named Jordan Carlos, who writes for MTV’s “Guy Code,” publicly accused Scott of plagiarizing it from him, then retracted his accusation after he watched every tape from a particular season of “Guy Code” and came up empty-handed with proof that Chris copped his material.

Massive internet celeb Tyler Oakley posted a screenshot of The Becky Tweet to his Tumblr with Scott’s Twitter handle blacked out. A Toronto Blue Jays player tweeted The Becky Tweet without credit. If you do a Twitter search for some of the key words in the joke you’ll see hundreds of tweets that either straight-up jacked Scott’s joke, or swapped “Becky” for “Chelsea” or “Farmville” for “Candy Crush.”

Just yesterday, BuzzFeed’s Matt Bellassai tweeted the following:

His joke is a sign that The Becky Tweet is now “a joke format,” something that has been passed around the internet so many times it’s now something everyone either a) recognises, b) feels is fair-use, or c) believes is so popular, like the lyrics to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” that if shared, no one would accuse them of lifting it.

The Becky Tweet, if hashtags can be trusted, was even the topic of this guy’s ethics class. 

So, back to “The Harvard Tweet.”

It’s a great, clever joke, much like The Becky Tweet. It ran laps around the internet — probably several times. If you Google “These 2 books contain…” or “These two books contain…” you get a lot — a lot — of results. Many of the URLs are for tier sites dedicated solely to viral content and memes. You, know it’s the sort of oddball stuff you see popping up on Facebook from people you barely remember from high school.

And, of course, there’s rarely any credit to Kirkpatrick. Which is fine, because Kirkpatrick, the guy who tweeted the joke into fame, isn’t its creator.

It didn’t take long to find out that the same joke and image had been posted to Reddit by the user Bit_Blitter on April 3, 2013, two days before Kirkpatrick tweeted it. You can click the image below to enlarge it. It’s important to note that even though the left-hand side of the screen says the post was submitted one year ago, the actual date of posting shows up on the right — April 3. 

The joke, through a bunch of Google searches and Google image searches and Reddit searches, doesn’t appear anywhere on the internet prior to April 3, 2013. So I reached out to Bit_Blitter.

Bit_Blitter, known to the world as Ryan Sabir, got back to me within hours.

In an email he wrote:

Yes I did create this! I also noticed that it started popping up in various places, including several reposts on Reddit. I also saw that this Twitter account had tweeted it. I didn’t mind too much, I’m glad it got such good circulation! I’m not a big tweeter myself, so didn’t think to tweet it as well as post it on Reddit.

I own the book “What they teach you at Harvard Business School” and came across the other book “What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School” online somewhere. This sounded like a set theory reference to my nerdy mind, so I came up with the title and put the 2 cover images together in Photoshop.

But the glory of having “the good joke” has always gone to Kirkpatrick, something that Sabir, who’s from Australia, says doesn’t really bother him, acknowledging, in some sense, the nameless-viral-content-cesspool that is Reddit.

“There’s always a risk when you post anything to social media,” Sabir tells me, “that it’s going to be appropriated and used without attribution.” He even pointed me in the direction of this meme, created by a guy who goes by Nedroid:

(When I polled Twitter to see if anyone knew the definitive creator of this meme, as I didn’t at the time, I was met with several people telling me “someone on imgur.”)

Kirkpatrick was unavailable for comment, but there’s no evidence that he ever claimed, other than sending the original tweet, that The Harvard Tweet did in fact belong to him.

Sabir has a very grounded perspective on the ordeal.”I’m a big believer in the power of the internet to help people get more out of life. I’m a web developer now, and have been since about 1994, pretty much when it started existing as a communication medium,” he said. “These days it’s so hard to find a part of it that hasn’t been touched by commercial interests. Creating fake ‘viral’ videos has become an industry, it’s difficult to watch a funny or touching video these days without expecting a product logo to pop up at the end.”

What Sabir and Chris Scott have in common is that neither are professional comedians. They each created something — one thing — that struck a chord with the waves of the world wide web. And neither have tried to replicate that moment since.

“It would be a different story if I created jokes like that for a living. But in that case I’d be foolish to post it online without a very clear attribution, it’s about knowing the nature of the medium you are working with,” Sabir says.

Scott agrees.

“People rip [The Becky Tweet] off constantly,” Scott says. “But it doesn’t bother me a whole lot.”

Sabir says he hasn’t thought much about that Reddit post over the last few years, but after a quick search yesterday, found The Harvard Joke in The Economist and  a presentation for groundwater research.

He was inspired to try the The Harvard Tweet himself, tweeting the now-two-year-old joke to his 55 followers.

I retweeted his tweet into my own feed just to see what would happen:

Ultimately, Sabir’s tweet got six retweets and nine favourites after a few hours — a far, far cry from Kirkpatrick’s tens of thousands collected over the last 24 months. Not to mention that almost immediately after posting, Sabir was called out:

But Sabir remains undeterred.


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