"If U Meme It, They Will Come" is a postmodern fable of likes and loss. Like a classic Greek tragedy, it will be told in three parts. Read Act I here.
Act II: Crine
As it so happened, Patrick had chosen the meme life. In fact, exactly three years prior, Les stood in his room and offered it to him. And here he was again. It seemed like yesterday.
"Time flies when you're doing stunts," Les remarked, as though responding to the teen's thought. His voice was odd and electric. It whistled, popped and hummed like an aux cord being plugged into a dirty audio jack. Mildly, he glanced around the small bedroom.
Patrick's mouth grew thin with defiance. "What do you want?" The wispy white brows over the older man's dark eyes moved upward in a mouthless grin. Patrick stepped across the room to his desk. "You're here for a piece? Fine." He unlocked a drawer and slid it open. 100 iPhones, each with the same three-way crack across the screen, stared up at him. Patrick gestured to the drawer.
"Bet you didn’t think I'd keep these, huh?"
"I'm not here for the hardware."
"No, you don't get it. These aren't just shitty phones. They're cold storage. Bitcoin, off the network. This is where I keep it. Here," said Patrick, grabbing one and offering it to his lifeless guest for inspection. "This has 10,000 Bitcoin. Every phone is. Do you understand? I turned this shit into an empire. Consulting projects, niche marketing gigs, international...I'll cut you in."
Les was wearing a dark double breasted suit with bone white buttons. He sighed, adjusting his lapels deliberately. "I'm not here for the money, either. We don't need it."
At the mention of "we," the rancorous 'grammer grit his teeth involuntarily. "What, then? Why are you here? What the hell do you want?!" Patrick felt the bile rising in his throat. He was angry. "WHAT DO YOU WANT, OLD MAN?!” For the first time in three years, he felt small and it infuriated him. He was @lauer_pauer, for fuck's sake! The untouchable #influencer. A timeline tycoon backed by an army of a billion followers.
Les tapped his phone again and calmly rebuffed the boy king's outburst, "You knew this was coming. You agreed to the terms."
"Fine. I get it. What about the token?" Suddenly, Patrick wasn't shouting anymore. Just as quickly as it arrived, his anger was gone. Now his voice had turned soft, pleading, "The token? You can have it back. That's the important part, right?" He gestured to the rectangular crimson decal on the inside wall of the drawer. "It's just a shitty meme anyway. Take it."
The white haired man in the double breasted suit was silent. His eyes glittered.
"TAKE IT BACK!" Patrick was screaming again, but this time, desperation, not indignation, was fanning the flames of his fury. Where were his parents? Couldn't they hear him?
Les sighed again, exasperated. He tapped his phone once more and spun around on the heel of his oxblood boot. His back was to the boy. "That's not what the contract said. It's time to go," he said. Now the phrase sounded like a chant, each word falling into place.
Staring at Les' shoulders disbelievingly, Patrick began to feel the room get smaller around him. He reached out for the desk, But it was so far away. He tried to pull out his phone, to open Instagram, to send out a call from @lauer_pauer for help, but the brand new iPhone, the one he'd bought earlier that day to spite his mother, felt like a lead weight in his pocket. He felt like he was falling, but Les' shoulders never moved in front of him.
It's time to go. Nothing is free.
It's time to go. Nothing is free.
It's time to go.
"Nothing is free, Patrick."
At the mention of his name, the kid opened his eyes. He was in a open floorplan room with high ceilings. Sunshine poured through massive windowpanes at either end of the long space. Massive tables stretched out in front of him like church pews. There were dozens of them, each perfectly parallel to the next. Patrick peered curiously at the closest one, then recoiled like he'd been shocked by an invisible current. There, squarely in front of the desk chair, was an iPhone. Its screen bore a three-way crack. Every table had rows of chairs. Every chair had the same cracked phone in front of it. Patrick swallowed hard.
"I told you we didn't need the hardware," Les said quietly. The one-time don of the double-tap felt the hair rising on the back of his neck. He turned around.
"Where are we?"
"How did we get here?"
Les shrugged and unbuttoned his suit. His hands were bony. They moved over the fabric with the awkward efficiency of a crab across sand.
Patrick tried again, "Why did you bring me here?"
"This is where we settle our accounts." The time-worn figure nodded his snow white head to the room, as if to say, what do you think? Patrick looked around.
The place looked like a start-up. Walls of exposed brick flanked long open spaces filled with the preferred accoutrement of the creative class. There was a bar, a ping pong table and a lounge area with bean bag chairs and couches. Flatscreen TVs hung from cement pillars.
Patrick had been in this office plenty of times before, or, at least, ones just like it. Account managers courted @lauer_pauer there. Reporters scribbled notes and ripped selfies with him. Marketing executives listened with rapt attention as he trolled them with ludicrous strategies for duplicating his success. Les' office was just like any of those places, but for one fundamental difference: They were alone in the silence. There were no employees, no clickety-clacks from matte silver Macs.
"So! You went for the money," Les interjected, breaking the kid's trance. "Smart. You'd be surprised how many of our clients waste their time amassing power. Much harder to hang onto afterward."
All of a sudden, his face tightened unnaturally, revealing a stack of teeth as white as the hair on his head. A moment later, they were gone. Was that…a smile?
Les carried on. "For you, 'afterward' is what happens when you leave this office. Do you understand?" Patrick remained silent. "The content, the celebrity, it's all part of the deal," the old man finished the sentence with a shrug.
"What if I don't pay?" Patrick croaked sullenly. "What if I fuck it all right now? What if I just delete @lauer_pauer? I could send it to the bottom, right now. Then what?"
Les cocked his wizened head to the side.
"That's right, you old fuck," snarled Patrick, swelling with sudden confidence at the other's expression. "You need me more than I need you now. You gave me the totem—one shitty meme. I turned it into a brand. You don't know content. You don't understand memes. I take the Internet's shit and turn it into posts that make a billion people laugh. You can't do that. You don't know how to do it. You're not even fucking on Instagram." He spat the final sentence like a curse. "No. No, this contract isn't over. You're going to extend it. You can't do this without me. Otherwise, I'm not giving you shit."
Patrick's words lingered in the vacant air between them. The old man peered curiously at the Internet's favorite son. Their creation. Their puppet prince of the pound sign. Something like pity flickered across his face.
"You already have, Patrick," he said quietly. "What did you think the memes were? Each time you added a caption, or cropped a photo, or paired the perfect .GIF to its reaction, you transformed the content into your own creation? Is that what you thought?”
"Who ever said that mattered? A meme isn't owned by the person who makes it." Les' voice grew harder now. "It's owned by the account who finds it and posts it to the biggest audience. Where do you think those memes came from? All that fire content we gave you?”
In the corner of his eye, Patrick noticed a flash from the nearest TV. Had it been on the whole time? He turned. The screens, mounted on the row of columns, were all lit up now, scrolling through Instagram images from accounts he'd never seen before. He looked closer.
"WHY THESE PIGEONS LOOK LIKE THEY ABOUT TO DROP THE MOST FIRE MIXTAPE OF 2015?" demanded a photo of birds looking into a fisheye lens. Another proclaimed "KIDS THESE DAYS DON’T KNOW THE STRUGGLE" boldly over a picture of an anti-skip Discman. "u were prob too young to know but raymundo was high as shit" said a third. A cartoon illustration of the chill dad from Nickelodeon's Rocket Power lingered for a moment on the screen. The kid swallowed hard.
"They were all memes from other accounts, Patrick. The accounts of the people who used to own these phones. They all had business with us. Just. Like. You."
"No," stammered Patrick. "I found a lot of those on my own. Tumblr, 9gag, imgur...my fans sent them to me!"
"Didn't you ever wonder who these "fans" were, inboxing you with free content out of the goodness of their digital hearts?" asked Les. "Didn't it ever strike you as odd that the best macros on Reddit always ended up in your hands weeks before they hit the front page? Weren't you surprised at how effortlessly you picked up followers once you had the totem? Do you really think you're that good?"
The sunlight that had drenched the office when they'd arrived was gone. Outside, it was dusk.
"We gave them to you," Les declared. "We built you. The Meme-Whisperer! He talks to the Internet and it talks back!” The old man adjusted his suit again. "We enjoyed those headlines too, Patrick. Content really is crucial to telling a brand's story. Why do you think we kept sending the reporters?"
The one-time Cool Teen™ felt queasy. With a sweaty palm, he fumbled around for his phone. Where is it? The folds of fabric seemed impossibly deep.
"@lauer_pauer was the perfect opportunity," Les continued. "The chance to consolidate reach with mobile users. The occasion to speak directly into the ear of youth culture."
"So, what's the point?" Patrick murmured, still digging for his phone.
"The point?" The old man seemed delighted by the question. "There's a battle going on, Patrick. A war for the soul of the Internet. Followers are the only true currency left in the digital wasteland and we aim to keep it that way. People who read the news, or create their own content, or even slide into DMs, they believe in the goodness of communication."
Les rolled his eyes. "We believe in the truth: They who control the memes, control the followers, control the Internet. We can't actually make Instagram accounts. It's against the rules. But the followers are the ones we wanted you to bring us, so we spoke to them through the memes we sent to you. We don't need you any more than we need the totem or these phones," Les said, sweeping his arm towards the tables. He watched Patrick rummage through his pockets. "We certainly don't need your phone."
"Look at it, Patrick. Try to delete your account. Go ahead." As if on cue, Patrick finally latched onto his iPhone and pulled it out. It sat in his palm, screen facing down. A new dread gripped him. "Flip it over," Les invited dangerously. Patrick did, and gasped. His phone, his new phone, was cracked in three. It'd been in his pocket the whole time. The kid who only threw smoke looked green as the floor began to spin beneath him.
"You can't stop the wheel from turning now that it turns against you. You signed up, kid." Les was roaring now, his eyes blazing like black fire, his teeth gnashing. Patrick cowered before him as his words thundered down. The lights flickered. "You sold us your account to get rich and famous. You have. But now, it's time to cash out. Your memes were our memes. Your followers are our followers. You've delivered the soul of the Internet to us and now we own it."
The whole room was spinning rapidly now and Patrick couldn't see the windows anymore. Les' glittering obsidian orbs filled his view. "It's time to go."
In the wee hours of the morning, wind whipped an old tabloid towards a bus stop on the outskirts of town. "Meet @lauer_pauer, King of Content!" it screamed. It was old news. These days, everyone just wanted to know where the King of Content was.
It'd been two weeks since the Lauers filed a missing person report and police had no leads on Patrick's disappearance. With a billion followers, @lauer_pauer sat dormant. The last photo was a picture of Papa John. "I love it when you call It Me Papa" it said. The cops had questioned every local pizza place in the area, thinking the meme might have been a clue the kid left behind. Nothing.
The broadsheet tumbled past the bus stop, coming to an abrupt halt when it smacked into a solid object. The miniscule impact on his leg was enough to rouse Patrick and he blinked himself awake. Across the street was a strip mall. He recognized it. Thank god. He reached for his phone to call someone. His parents, the police, anyone. It was still cracked.
Grimacing, he shoved it back into his pocket, stood up and set out in the direction of his house. The paper blew away and once again the bus stop stood empty in the pre-dawn darkness. Above him, the sky hung blank and starless.
Stay tuned as our story will conclude in Act III.