Horsemaning A Forced Meme? A day in the life of Meme Research

Kids these days.

Horsemanning is making the rounds, and it’s a creepy one. When authentically posed, one person hides their head and another person shows their head somewhere else. Over the last week, many people have been inspired by the idea, performing their own versions. It’s undoubtably caused joy and fun for many who have contributed. But.

When I first read about it on Buzzfeed, I was instantly drawn to the notion that the included photo, reportedly from the 1920’s, represented evidence of an antique meme. Here’s what Buzzfeed posted on August 8th:

“Horsmaning,” or fake beheading, was a popular way of taking pictures in the 1920s. It’s currently experiencing a revival and is basically the new planking. Here are some modern day adaptations of this popular new/old photo trend.”

The author was Matt Stopera, a senior editor at Buzzfeed and he doesn’t cite any sources. That should mean this is his scoop, right? Though usually considered wrong, it’s extremely common to propagate other people’s content w/o giving credit, so it’s necessary to remain vigilant and not jump to conclusions. Yet an easy search reveals there are absolutely no relevant mentions of Horsemaning or any recent photo “trends” of the like, prior to Buzzfeed’s post. I contacted Stopera to ask him where he got the photo, and how he knew it was a trend then and now but never got a response.


Look at the “original” photo more closely. What objects in the photo date it? Its a tricky one. I blew it up and tried to notice patterns. I’m not sure about the photo, I wouldn’t be surprised if it really was from the 1920’s but it looks more like the late 60’s or early 70’s to me. But how do we know? And where is other evidence this was a “craze” in the 1920s and that it was a craze again at the time Buzzfeed posted it?

I decided to email one of the amazing folks over at Buzzfeed, previously a KYM and Rocketboom writer and researcher, Mr. Chris Menning, but nary a peep? Hm! 

What could I do? I went right to the top: I emailed Jonah Peretti, one of THE masterminds behind Buzzfeed (and the person who first introduced me to the concept of memes back in 2002) and I asked him straight up, what’s up? Was this meme a lie?  But all that was returned was mysterious double entendres!?

Setting aside the authenticity of the photo, what about the claim that this was now a popular craze that everyone is doing? Where did Buzzfeed get all of these photos of people doing it?

I had a closer look at the other photos in the post. Something about the background scenery looked familiar – the late 1990’s spaceship landline phone, the primary red couch, the brick walls, the Soho lookin’ city streets – I was starting to wonder…perhaps these photos all came from within and around the Buzzfeed office. A quick search confirmed what I thought I had indeed remembered: Buzzfeed has the same exact model, primary red couch in their office!

I wadded through more citings – the meme was gaining. It seemed like EVRYONE was fixated on the ‘old meme’ story, reporting it as true without question. I must say, I usually don’t get scared when researching meme mechanics, but this was frightening! The web was starting to look like a horror movie, Zombies!

I finally arrived, to my surprise, at a post on this matter from Adren Chen of Gawker. Now, there is no need to read this post. In typical Gawker form, the writer picks up on the right angle but heads down the wrong direction. But with regards to Horsemaning, he did say this: "Three days ago Buzzfeed, the tireless meme-aggregator, decided to take a stab at creating a meme of its own.“ And also in typical Gawker form, this writer was pissed. Really pissed. I had to wonder, how does Gawker know for sure that Buzzfeed manufactured the story any way? Gawker seems angry they didn’t think of it first. But Chen did not give any proof as to how he knows Buzzfeed manufactured the meme, he just states it as a matter of fact. Maybe he’s willing to go out on a limb like me and conclude this is a forced meme, but he writes definitively, like journalists do when they state facts.

Buzzfeed’s response to Gawkers accusation? They didn’t deny it. But as you can see, it wasn’t pretty: In this return fire, it appears the staff was kicking and throwing poor Mr. Chen’s head around the Buzzfeed office. With smiles no less!


Meanwhile, I noticed there are several other layers of seriously sinister activity going on here which tends to be par for the course.

Note that Horsemanning.com, was created on the same day as Buzzfeed’s post and (1) appears to be unaffiliated with anyone or any company (i.e. anonymous), (2) was registered via a proxy business (i.e. anonymous) and (3) includes *a lot* of display advertising (i.e. money, money). But a quick look at the source code reveals the sloppiness that comes from ur typical rush-to-market job: A publisher ID for the site’s advertising account at Google was listed in the code and was thus easily cross referenced as the same publisher who generates ad sales from the website, Randomlyheard.com. Sure enough, whoever is behind this site is what I call a miniutemememan (or miniutememewoman depending on a number of factors) because within in minutes, they will mobilize, motivated by the hope of becoming THE hub of an up-and-coming meme. In this case, it appears Randomlyheard raced for horsemaning.com to stake a claim with some early SEO and cash-in but as you might of noticed, horsemaning.com was already taken so that may explain why the Randomlyheard is promoting the alternate horsemanning spelling (with two N’s) and also linking to the Horsemanning (with two N’s) Facebook page. Randomlyheard writes: ”There is much confusion with the name “Horsemaning” and “Horsemanning”, however the recent push is for “Horsemanning”. I am on the side of Horsemanning, with two N’s and NOT with Horsemaning.“ Where are all the confused people, I wondered? 

It appears yet another party, Popatato.com, won the facebook get with the horsemaning spelling. Also right on top of it, Popatato was so quick, the site’s own post on the topic has an earlier time stamp than Buzzfeeds (and without citing a source.) I contacted Popatato and they claimed that their post came after Buzzfeeds: Timezone discrepancy. Popatato’s quick turnaround regurgitatation is worth noting because Popatato appears to illustrate the same kind of motivation we see in Randomlyheard’s actions, in that they are both minutememepeople and, along with the Buzzfeed in this case, I believe, untrue. And it appears they all tried so hard to hide from their activity.

As you can imagine, these things happen every day. It’s formula industry. ‘Not sure why they feel they must hide and make things up. There are clever ways to spark the same fun and rewards while being sincere & transparent. Personally, I’m not inspired by forced memes. It’s too easy to come up with a good headline if you can lie about it. Its also a risk to you and especially the community of people you interact with as it breaks down trust. The next time I read a story from any of these sites, I’ll have no choice but wonder if they are making things up or engaged in nefarious activity, motivated ultimately by CPMs and CPCs.

With this meme, watch how it continues to spread even now. The Zombies will likely never understand they have been duped as they proudly confirm the antique quality and authenticity of the craze, further saturating the trails of truth, making meme research hard.

A few select Zombies, careful what you read:

From The Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2024940/Horsemaning-1920s-photography-craze-replace-planking.html

From HuffingtonPost: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/09/horsemaning-latest-photo-posing-trend_n_922605.html?ncid=dynaldushpmg00000040#s325866&title=HuffPost_Comedys_Christine

From The Today Show: http://allday.today.com/_news/2011/08/12/7354976-klg-and-hoda-join-horsemanning-internet-craze

The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/horse-manning-this-meme-will-never-end/2011/08/10/gIQAA7R36I_blog.html?utm_campaign=socialflow&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=buzzfeed

CBS News: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501465_162-20093095-501465.html

* All photos taken from Buzzfeed.com