Text + Image = Lulz

The combination of text and image is hardly a new thing. However, the image macro is an interesting Internet phenomenon. The term “image macro” originates from the Something Awful forums and refers to the captioning of a text for humorous effect, according to Wikipedia. This does not relate the whole meaning of an image macro. The term “macro” refers to the automatic script which can turn keywords into images on certain forums. This usage of the term “image macro” comes from before the popularization of Internet forums, during the beginning and height of Usenet. Usenet is a predecessor of forums and blogs and operates like an email system, only all the messages are public. Beginning in 1980, this type of Internet discussion center gave rise to practices such as trolling, spam, and flame wars, which is basically trash talking taken to extremes on the Internet. In terms of image macros, Usenet and the virtual drama it inspired play a crucial role. During a heated discussion, users often utilized the automatic scripts to create image macros (in the old sense of the term) rather than writing out long phrases in an effort to shred someone’s self worth in an easier and more clever way. Nowadays, “image macro” refers to the general conception of a funny picture captioned with hilarious text, though like the Usenet-style image macros, the term “funny” is highly subjective, with most image macros ending up in the “overused” or “vile” categories.

So what kind of humor do image macros subscribe to? I present three case studies: demotivational posters, the O RLY? owl, and Joseph Ducreux’s archaic rap.

Motivational posters, intended to inspire great things through an artistic photo paired with a few choice words, more often inspire nausea or contempt. Demotivational posters follow the same rules as motivational posters: the white, all caps text under a beautiful photograph mirrors those posters often seen in school guidance counselors’ offices and corporate offices. At first glance, you might not even notice the difference. With a closer look, however, you notice that the words are not quite what you would expect. Each caption intends not to motive, but to DEmotivate. Instead of endless soul crushing, most posters end up inspiring laughter. Part of the reason lies in the intent: demotivational posters are not meant to actually demotivate, but to parody real motivational posters and their nice but in the end useless sayings. Some of the original demotivaters from Despair, Inc. feature both words you would and would not see on regular motivational posters, such as “synergy” or “pessimism.” This humor is in the expectation of inspiring words to go with the attention grabbing photo and the juxtaposition between said photo and the incredibly uninspiring words that accompany it.

Take one such poster, entitled “Potential.” Because of the similarity in design of the poster, we expect another banal saying about living up to our true ability. Instead, we are taken by surprise to read the exact opposite. Demotivational posters thrive on giving people the unexpected and gaining laughs from the unexpected pleasure of surprise, fitting them nicely under the Incongruity Theory. The photos themselves are not inherently incongruous, but the captions add incongruity in an enjoyable way. Rather than being subjected to something not worth reading, we are pleasantly surprised and so can enjoy the incongruity.


The O RLY? owl started off as an old school image macro: in online discussions, users employed the abbreviation “o rly?” as a sarcastic response to a forum newbie’s doubtful or uninteresting post. A form of trolling, the phrase originated on the Something Awful forums in 2003. 4chan takes responsibility for the addition of the owl, with the picture and overlaid text posted on threads with the goal of instigating another poster. The appropriate response to such a post is solidarity with the O RLY? poster in recognition of the other poster’s inexperience. Such is the culture of some Internet forums. The picture and text became more than veterans laughing at a greenhorn: different owls joined the conversation, with the addition of the YA RLY owl and the NO WAI!!! owl. While to most users, the owls still represent laughing at a newbie’s naivete, animals with funny facial expressions captioned with incorrect English always entertain some facet of people even with no context (see: lolcats).


Surprisingly, the different ways of laughing at the ORLY owl fall under the same theory of humor, although we laugh for different reasons. On the one hand, experienced users laugh at the inferior n00bs, putting the humor of the O RLY owl under the Superiority Theory. Other users find the owls funny because, quite simply, the owls expressions are goofy. I could categorize this as Superiority Theory again, as it is similar to my explanation for the early lolcats, but let’s dig a little deeper. There is some incongruity, as owls do not usually make strange facial expressions. In fact, few animals are known for making funny faces. The act of purposefully and temporarily deforming our faces to elicit laughter seems to be a uniquely human trait. But then again, laughter itself is almost uniquely a human trait. Moving back to my original point, owls are generally photographed as stern-looking animals. Also, the owl generally represents wisdom and intelligence, so their inability to form real words certainly constitutes an incongruity. But do people really take this all into account? The possiblity that people laugh because they feel the bird is stupid and inferior to them and that they laugh because strange facial expressions are few and fair between when it comes to owls are both valid. When it comes to the general population, then, the O RLY owl can fall under the Superiority Theory or the Incongruity Theory when looking for an explanation for the lulz.


Finally, we get to Joseph Ducreux. Some back story: the French painter Joseph Ducreux painted his self portrait which has become a component of an Internet meme in 1793. Ducreux specialized in non-traditional portraits, creating paintings that expressed a person’s personality through facial expression. The Internet meme includes the self portrait with a text overlay in the same style of many other image macros. However, instead of broken English about cheeseburgers, the text is rap lyrics, other song lyrics, or general sayings with an “archaic reinterpretation.” For example, the original text of “Disregard females, Acquire currency” is a reinterpretation of Notorious B.I.G.’s Get Money lyrics. The appearance of this image macro in 2009 created many variations after becoming popular on 4chan and various other Internet communites.


Reinterpretations include:

Remove thyself from mine path, wench. Step aside, step aside.

Gentlemen, I inquire: who hath released the hounds?

Do not despise the racketeer. Instead, despise his sport.

Arising in the morning tide, such that my experience is similar to that of P. Diddy.

Part of the humor in this image macro is the challenge to decipher the text back to the original song or message. This challenge could be explained by the Relief theory: a user’s energy is built up as they read the text and can’t understand its meaning. When the sudden realization of what the text means hits, the energy is released, with the same consequences as the punch line of a joke. However, the portrait itself contributes much to the overall humor. The strange expression of the 18th century man as well as the gesture is out of place on a portrait from that time period and more likely to appear in a modern day photograph of a young man messing around with his friends. The Joseph Ducreux image macros could apply to the Incongruity theory, as there certainly are incongruities that we enjoy: an unexpected French portrait and rewritten rap lyrics. Appreciation of the reinterpretations adds to our enjoyment. From a different perspective, Superiority Theory could apply, if the person laughing feels superior because of the big words used to replace the rap lyrics. However, I don’t think the creators of the image macros do so because they relate with Ducreux as being smarter and using bigger works, but rather create the macros as a play on words and an interesting combination of picture and text.

The humor of image macros can usually be ascribed to the Incongruity theory because of the inherent nature of combinations, which create more possibilities of incongruity between the two things present.

Next time: EPIC FAIL.


  1. It looks like your research is going really well Anna! It’s really interesting to read on the different theories of humor. I typically don’t really look into why certain things are funny, they just are sometimes, so i thought this post was very informative.

    Looking forward to the epic fail post!

  2. mtaiken says:

    I love internet humor! This is proving to be an interesting project, Anna! I especially enjoyed the backstory to the Decreux portrait – I’ve seen them around but never knew where the original came from. Your analysis of where the humor comes from was spot on and very insightful! Come to think of it, we had several of these on one of our hall bulletin boards on Monroe 3W… I lolled! A question: I am a big fan of failblog – have you seen their section on Bros?

  3. granzini says:

    Good post; definitely looking forward to Epic Fail. Maybe consider embedding links to the songs in question on the Ducreux macros? (It’s not like it’s that hard to get the reference, but it saves some googling if we want to jog our memories.)

    Also- when you do Epic Fail, maybe make a quick aside on Force Push and GENDOWNED?

  4. William Adams says:

    I You’re blog posts are so well done and professional (huh, a blog post on internet humor is professional? how’d that happen?). Seriously though, these are so well written.