by Jessica Pereira
Zoë Roth is a name that some might be familiar with, but “Disaster Girl” is more likely to invoke a reaction. Yet they are one and the same. The meme “Disaster Girl” is a picture of a little girl smiling devilishly into the camera in front a burning house, as if having caused the fire herself. Unsurprisingly, the photo quickly became viral. It is most often used by photoshopping the girl in front of other disastrous events. The aim is always to imply that the girl is responsible for the disaster, hence the name “Disaster Girl”.
Some questions come to mind: Who took the picture? Did this little girl truly cause the fire? Why is she so calm? Why are the firefighters so calm? And finally, why would anyone take a picture of a little girl in front of such a disaster? The picture was taken in 2005 in Mebane, North Carolina by Zoë’s father, Dave Roth, an amateur photographer. Zoë Roth was five at the time. The event was, in fact, not a disaster but quite intentional and controlled. The fire served as an exercise or a drill for the fire department, which is why little Zoë and her father felt safe taking the picture in the first place. As for her mischievous smile, she stated that this is simply how she used to smile for every picture taken of her as a child. She has described it as an “evil smile”. However, she did not expect what the future held for her smirk in that photo.
For the next couple of years nothing was done with the picture until the year 2007, when Dave Roth shared it on “Zooomr”, which was a free website for uploading digital photos, created in 2005. Nowadays, however, when clicking on the link for Zooomr, weirdly an online liquor store appears. Concerning the picture, it was jokingly titled “Firestarter” by Roth. Later that year, Roth decided to participate in a competition called “Emotion Capture” and evidently, Zoë’s picture fit the theme perfectly. Thus, he sent it to JPG Magazine, who organized the competition. It was an online photography magazine that was acquired in 2020 by Viewbug, a photo sharing website. The picture won the competition and it was published online in the February/March 2008 issue. Eight months later, the photo had been viewed roughly 95 thousand times, which was impressive at the time. It quickly travelled from the magazine to Buzzfeed, an Internet media, news, and entertainment company, to Digg, which uploads stories for its specific Internet audience, and to countless other websites or social media platforms. Thus, Zoë’s picture became famous, so famous that its usage was difficult to control, and the meme took on a life of its own. This is an ongoing issue for multiple people that became viral through memes, such as “Bad Luck Brian”, a yearbook picture of a boy with braces, or the “Success Kid”, a baby on a beach holding up his fist with great determination. Nevertheless, the virality of her meme did not stop her from living a relatively normal life, despite the extensive and continuous presence of her image online. She is now a student at the University of North Carolina and as an adult decided to regain control over her image by selling the original picture as an NFT for about 500 thousand dollars.
How do different groups/people apprehend, use, and spread these viral phenomena?
While the picture became famous after its appearance on “Buzzfeed” in 2008, it became truly viral as the “Disaster Girl” meme. KnowYourMeme explains that its Google web search interest only peaked in 2011. As previously mentioned, it was reappropriated, and its background was repeatedly photoshopped. There are countless versions of this meme that surfaced online over the years, depending on the current events, which is how the “Disaster Girl” is a continuingly viral phenomenon. Zoë was edited to be in front of the burning Notre-Dame in 2019, for instance. However, she was not only photoshopped in front of burning buildings but also other accidents or disastrous events, such as the well-known version of her with the sinking Titanic as the background or in front of an atomic bomb. She was also photoshopped in front of famous events that themselves went viral at the time, such as Britney Spears’ badly received VMA performance in 2007. Other versions would simply leave the original picture unchanged but would add bright white text to describe a fake scenario that would fit the burning of a building. One of the most famous examples is: “There was a spider. It’s gone now” implying that Zoë set fire to her house to get rid of a spider. Regardless, the purpose is always the same, which is to suggest that she planned and caused the event and, most importantly, that she was content with its horrifying outcome. While she has stated that she never feared people believing her to have caused such events, she thinks that some consider her to be evil, which she does not take too seriously. However, the rapid spread of this meme became a problem. Zoë stated that while she found most versions of the meme amusing, some were alarming, to say the least, such as the alt-right photoshops. The alt-right is notorious for repurposing memes for political gains, which is an unfortunate turn of events that the Pepe the Frog meme also faced. While using memes as social commentary is common, Zoë felt uncomfortable with these edits that were no longer under her control. Consequently, after discussing the issue with Kyle Craven or “Bad Luck Brian” and Laney Griner, the “Success Kid’s” mother, she decided to sell the original copy of the photo as an NFT to an anonymous user identified as “@3FMusic” for 180 Ethereum, a form of cryptocurrency, at an auction in 2021. An NFT or a nonfungible token is, simply explained, a digital token with its own unique fingerprint or code. Thus, her original picture will now be sold similarly to pieces of art. (It is important to note, however, that creating an NFT out of a meme does not confer ownership as copyright laws would. The NFT solely links a name to the meme. This name can be found on an unalterable register called the blockchain. Owning or creating an NFT does not ensure any legal claim but solely that one’s title is on the blockchain. Therefore, the Roth family did not gain any control as to the usage of the meme online).
Furthermore, her family was able to retain some copyright and will benefit from 10% of any future proceeds. The money will be used to pay off her student loans, while the rest will be donated to charity.
Why are these viral phenomena interesting?
Zoë Roth has explained: “People who are in memes and go viral is one thing, but just the way the internet has held on to my picture and kept it viral, kept it relevant, is so crazy to me”. It is the rapid spread, the lack of control, and the continuous reappropriation without permission that makes this viral phenomenon fascinating to consider. It is an issue that many scholars have pondered. Therefore, selling the original copy of a meme as an NFT has recently become one of the only ways to regain some “control”. Many memes have been sold for an impressive amount of money, such as Charlie bit my finger, Overly Attached Girlfriend, Scumbag Steve, Nyan Cat, and Leave Britney Alone.
Concerning “Disaster Girl”, however, it is not only the different versions, its flexibility, or the never-ending popularity of the meme that are interesting but also its evolution. There is a nostalgic feeling associated with its spread that is noticeable today. When Zoë sold her picture as an NFT, she came quickly back into the limelight with “Remember Disaster Girl?”. Whether she likes it or not, Zoë is the face of a classic meme, part of internet history, and will always be better known as the “Disaster Girl”.
To go further…
- BuzzFeedVideo, I Accidently Became A Meme: Disaster Girl, in: YouTube, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_y88KAPKW0, uploaded 11.11.2020, last consulted: 01.04.2022.
- Carlson, Rachel, MEMES, Bonus: Zoë “Disaster Girl” Roth, in: wbur, URL: https://www.wbur.org/endlessthread/2021/10/19/memes-disaster-girl, uploaded: 19.10.2021, last consulted: 01.04.2022.
- Shifman, Limor, Memes in Digital Culture, MIT Press, Chapter 6, 2013.
- Hoffmann, Christine, Stupid Humanism: Folly as Competence in Early Modern and Twenty-First-Century Culture, Springer, Chapter 2, 2017.