#77 The Grand Tapestry Of Pepe

September 21, 2016

Forty servers full of lost photos, a secret plan, and an unexpected rescue. Also, a Yes Yes No about a frog.

Further Reading

Laura Silverman’s original tweet

Hillary on Pepe

Matt Furie (Pepe’s creator) on Pepe

Smugmug’s statement on Picturelife

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Show transcript

PJ VOGT : From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Welcome once again to Yes Yes No, the segment on the show where PJ and I explain some inscrutable internet phenomena to our boss Alex Blumberg. And, um, he’s remarkably patient about the whole thing.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs) Uh, so, okay, so here is one … So it’s a tweet from Laura Silverman. So the tweet simply reads, “At Deplorable Patriot writes, ‘Bruh look at this rare Pepe [pronounced here “peep,” sic] I found specially for you. Top kek’ … ”

ALL: (laugh)

ALEX GOLDMAN: There is comedy — there is comedy embedded in everything that’s happened so far. Uh —

ALEX BLUMBERG: And then there’s a picture of … Donald Trump and … Dr. Oz?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Is That Dr. Oz?

PJ: That is Dr. Oz.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Mhmm.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay, Donald Trump and Dr. Oz on the set of some TV set, but it’s not — there’s nothing — it’s like a random candid shot. It’s very — it’s like the most random, sort of candid shot you could see. It’s the opposite of sort of like a meme picture. It’s just like a — it’s like — it’s utterly banal.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Before we get to whether we’re Yeses or Nos on this, I just want to make one —

PJ: There was — there were pronunciation —

ALEX GOLDMAN: — one tiny correction.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)

PJ: Things that suggest we’re — we have at least one No in this room. (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: What did I pronounce? Wait, hold on, I’m going to try to guess what I pronounced wrong … Well, it must’ve been “Pepe” [pronounced “peep,” sic].

ALL: (laugh)

ALEX GOLDMAN: Correct.

PJ: Yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay?

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: “Look at this rare Pepe?”

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes!

PJ: Yeah!

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ah! “I found specially for you.” Okay. So the tweet is — I’ll read it one more time with proper pronunciation — uh, Laura Silverman tweeted, “At Deplorable Patriot writes, ‘Bruh look at this rare Pepe I found specially for you. Top kek’ …”

ALEX GOLDMAN: So PJ, do you understand this tweet?

PJ: Mostly.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Okay.

PJ: Alex Goldman, do you understand this tweet?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes. Alex Blumberg, do you understand this tweet?

ALEX BLUMBERG: No.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Alright. This one, this is a — this is a mountain t- to climb.

PJ: I — let me do the top part, ‘cause my understanding breaks down pretty early.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Sure.

PJ: Um, so do you know that Donald Trump, um, went on Dr. Oz’s television show and had Dr. Oz explain his medical health to him … that that was a thing?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh, I’m vaguely aware of that, yeah.

PJ: It’s like they – they’ve been, the candidates have been arguing about, like, their medical records, and so Donald Trump’s like, “I’m transparent, I will have a TV doctor, uh, read my physical in front of his studio audience to demonstrate, like, my transparency.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Man is that guy a showman.

PJ: Yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow.

PJ: He’s very good at television.

ALEX BLUMBERG: He is so good at it.

PJ: And so that’s just like, that is literally the context for the photo.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Correct.

PJ: The other thing that happened, that this – this is sort of like blending together, is Hillary Clinton recently had that comment where she said that a lot of Trump’s followers were “a basket of deplorables,” which is a super weird thing to say.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Why w- it’s so weird, I don’t understand why they say that crap.

ALEX GOLDMAN: It – it really, it, like … (not only is it gonna off- not only is it — )

ALEX BLUMBERG: It’s wrong in so many ways.

ALEX GOLDMAN: — is it gonna offend a ton of people, not only is it wrong, but (it – it like — )

PJ: It’s just a nerdy insult.

ALEX BLUMBERG: It just such a —

ALEX GOLDMAN: It rolls off —

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.

ALEX GOLDMAN: — the tongue so poorly.

ALEX BLUMBERG: It doesn’t work on many levels.

PJ: You can like feel glasses being pushed up the bridge of a nose.

PJ: Yeah. Um, okay, so point being …. point being what? Uh, so she made this “basket of deplorables” comment which was really inadvisable. Donald Trump, Jr., one of the Trump sons, tweeted out or reposted this meme that was — it was, like, set up to look like an action movie photo.

ALEX GOLDMAN: It was the cover, it was the movie The Expendables.

PJ: But it was “The Deplorables.” And so it was like, Donald Trump looking like an ac- with, like, his head on Sylvester Stallone’s body. And, like, um, I think, um …

ALEX GOLDMAN: It was Roger Stone and Ben Carson and Chris Christie, both of the Trump sons.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow.

PJ: But then also, there was a cartoon head of a frog on one of the bodies.

ALEX GOLDMAN: I can show you. And so just to the right of, uh, Donald Trump is a green-faced frog with big lips and blonde hair.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay?

ALEX GOLDMAN: That’s Pepe.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay. (laughs) I’m laughing but I’m scared. (laughs) I’m laughing out of fear. Say more.

PJ: (sigh-laugh) Pepe is a good example of a meme where I feel like I have been exposed to it a lot without understanding it, and Alex, I feel like you have, like, understood it.

ALEX GOLDMAN: To the best of my ability, I’ve understood it.

PJ: So start it at — start it as close to the beginning as you can go.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So in like 2005, there was this guy named Matt Furie. He’s a comic book artist. He started posting comics to MySpace. And these comics were called Boy’s Club, and it was about, like, a frog and a dog and, like, two hairy monsters that live in a house together and smoke a bunch of pot.

One — the frog’s name is Pepe. And in one particular comic strip, Pepe goes to the bathroom and (clears throat) he’s going to pee. (giggles)

PJ: You’re saying this like you’re trying not to use curse words in front of children or something.

ALEX GOLDMAN: It’s just like, there’s no way (to make this a — )

ALEX BLUMBERG: Just let him finish the story.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Um, he goes to pee, but instea- he takes his pants all the way down.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And the last panel is, um, one of his roommates saying, “Hey Pepe, I heard you like to take your pants all the way off when you pee,” and he says, “Feels good man.” That’s the entire comic.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright. Some people do that.

ALEX GOLDMAN AND PJ: (laugh)

ALEX BLUMBERG: I’m serious. There was a guy that I used to — (laughs) There was a guy at one of the old radio stations that I used to work at, like, you’d walk into the – to the – to the bathroom and there he’d be at the urinal, his pants all the way down. ‘Round his ankles.

PJ: You can’t do that.

ALEX BLUMBERG: No? Like his underwear was still on, but his pants were all the way down.

ALEX GOLDMAN: That’s even weirder.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.

PJ: And was he like a strange person in general? Was he like an eccentric?

ALEX BLUMBERG: No! No, no … he was very — yeah, no, no, he was super normal actually. I think it just was like one of those things where, like that’s how he learned when he was a kid —

PJ: And so would just —

ALEX BLUMBERG: — and just never adjusted. It’s one of those things that snuck into adulthood, he didn’t realize that it was weird, I think.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, anyway, uh, so … the internet took this single last panel where he’s saying “Feels good man,” and cut out his head in the word bubble and sort of made it into a – a meme. Just like, “Feels good man” was like a character that you could put at the end of something, like something good happens to you, you put this little frog that says “Feels good man” in it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it.

PJ: And also, I feel like I just want to say, the frog looks gross. Like there’s something about the way that he’s drawn, it’s really crude, and it, like, it feels a little bit bad to look at, like the way like Ren & Stimpy are supposed to feel a little bit bad to look at.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And so as – as “Feels good man” continued to exist on the internet, it started to mutate, and it ended up on this messageboard called Robot9K.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay.

PJ: What’s that?

ALEX GOLDMAN: It’s a part of 4Chan.

PJ: Oh, okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And 4Chan is just a messageboard where you can post anonymously. It’s where a lot of internet memes come from, and it’s kind of like a nightmarish cesspool that is full of offensive stuff.

ALEX BLUMBERG: It’s like the – the Hamsterdam of the internet.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: Did y —

ALEX GOLDMAN: That’s a deep cut, man.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)

ALEX GOLDMAN: That’s, like, referencing a location in The Wire.

ALEX BLUMBERG: That will help nobody.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (giggles)

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes. It’s like the part of King’s Landing where, like, all the thieves and prostitutes hang out.

ALEX GOLDMAN: I don’t even know what you’re talking about.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Game of Thrones?

ALEX GOLDMAN: No, I don’t watch that.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay. (whispers) Damn. Uh —

ALEX GOLDMAN: Do you — have you not —

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)

ALEX GOLDMAN: — watched anything except HBO dramas for the past 20 years?

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) Pretty much. That’s me.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, okay. So one of the rules of Robot9K — which is part of 4Chan — is that you can never post the same text or the same image ever again. It – it makes it so it’s impossible to do it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay?

ALEX GOLDMAN: So —

PJ: That — okay, so this is a thing that I’ve never understood, is that there was a period in time where Pepes … people talked about the idea of “rare Pepes” all the time, and so they were like, “Oh, I have an image of Pepe the frog that no one else has,” which is counter to the whole idea of how images online work. Like, you can’t have one of anything.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay.

PJ: But people talked about them as if they were like a currency, which I never got.

ALEX BLUMBERG: When was this? What – what year are we talking?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Couple years ago.

PJ: Like three years ago —

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah.

PJ: — I think.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And it all ca- stemmed from this message board where you could never post the same thing twice. So if you wanted to post a Pepe, you had to make a new one.

PJ: But the new ones were, like, people making their own, right? It wasn’t like he was sitting in his appartment —

ALEX GOLDMAN: No.

PJ: — minting rare Pepes.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Matt – Matt Furie was not making his own, other people —

ALEX BLUMBERG: Other people were —

ALEX GOLDMAN: — were just making their own. Hold on, let me – let me find some rare Pepes for you. It’s like, a Pepe with a nuclear explosion going off, uh, in his eyes. A crying Pepe. A Pepe that’s like a crudely drawn Sonic the Hedgehog. A Pepe that is — uh, has like an oxygen mask and is – and is, um, breathing in memes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So rare Pepes became their own joke.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And then, um … Donald Trump be- (laughing) became the Republican presidential nominee.

PJ: That’s not what happened. What happened was —

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs quietly)

PJ: — Pepes went through the meme cycle … from a thing that was really obscure, to a thing that was more known by some people, to a thing that — like, Katy Perry, like, tweeted a Pepe out.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, Nicki Minaj tweeted a twerking Pepe —

PJ: So it wasn’t —

ALEX GOLDMAN: — or Instagrammed a twerking Pepe.

PJ: — it wasn’t obscure anymore.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ohhh.

PJ: And 4Chan, where this had originated from, is a place that … likes being obscure and likes being kind of vile.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhmm.

PJ: And so people on 4Chan had this thought that, like, the way they would stop — the way they would, like, pull Pepe back to them would be to start associating Pepe with really gross stuff. So like, at first that was just like, you know, poop and pee, but then somehow that like migrated into like very racist Pepe drawings. Like, Pepe standing outside a gas chamber. Like really dark, horrible, horrible stuff.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Lots of Pepe wearing Nazi uniforms or having a Hitler mustache.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So, basically 4Chan-ers are like pranksters and, like, they are being racist and awful, but they’re doing it as a joke. They actually call — they have a term for it, they call it “shitposting.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Shitposting is, like, “I’m going to post something to aggravate people.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And the b- easiest way to do that is to make a beeline for … racism.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. So they just like making people angry.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So they will outrage people on the left, they’ll outrage people on the right, they will outrage, uh, victims of racism, they will outrage racists equally?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I feel like I’m not down with shitposting. And it feels like the grown-up, extreme Beavis and Butt-Head nihilism, sort of. Like, that’s just sort of like, (imitating Butt-Head) “Huh-huh-huh-huh.”

ALEX GOLDMAN: That’s exactly what it is.

ALEX BLUMBERG: We’re just trying to – like, it doesn’t matter what we say or – as long as it, like, as long as … somebody who takes themself seriously is annoyed?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Right. That’s exactly what it is.

ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s all we’re trying to do.

ALEX GOLDMAN: But then, what happened was … white nationalists who saw these Pepe memes they were making, um, started sort of taking them seriously, to a degree. And using Pepe not as a joke. Like if I – if I go on Twitter right now and search for some – someone who is white – like a white nationalist …

[keyboard sounds]

Uh, okay. This user’s got a picture of Pepe smoking a joint, holding a Kalashnikov as his Twitter avatar, and his Twitter bio says, “Race realist, southern white nationalist, nativist, defender of Dixie, First Amendment and traditional values, speaker of truth.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Like, that’s not someone shit posting. That’s a person who, like, is laying out their ideology. So white nationalists and the alt-right — which is, essentially, this very, very right-wing, anti-immigrant, mostly-online ideology — got really excited about Trump rud- running for president.

PJ: So then, when Trump came out and has been their candidate, there’s a lot of, like, Pepe-Trump fan art.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So like, here are a ton of Trump Pepes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay. (laughs) Oh my god, so it’s like a — so they all have the Trump haircut, the – all the – it’s like blonde Trump haircut, and most of the Trump Pepes are wearing a suit with a red tie … and then they’re just – it’s just like, “Trump-Pepe 2016,” Trump … smiling in front of a fence that says “US BORDER” with a man in a poncho and a sombrero on the other side.

PJ: Mmm. It’s been this weird thing where Trump throughout the campaign will, like, retweet or rebroadcast fan f- fan images that get sent to him.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay.

PJ: Including stuff like this. And so he’s like — he’s amplifying something that some people see as racist, some people see as ironically racist, which is pretty similar. And there’s like – like everything with Trump, like you don’t actually know what he means. But last week, Hillary Clinton’s campaign did a thing on their website which I can only describe as Yes Yes No, that was like —

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, it was just a legit explainer. I’ve got it right here. Um, “Donald Trump, Pepe the frog, and white supremacists: an explainer.”

PJ: And then it’s like a series of … questions from an Alex Blumberg type of voice, and a person answering them, and they’re making the case in this explanation that, like, Donald Trump surfacing images of this cartoon frog is one more piece of evidence that Donald Trump is a racist and that people should vote for Hillary Clinton.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow! Look, and it’s even in the style.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: This reads, “Why is there a frog standing directly behind Trump?” And then, answer, “That’s Pepe. He’s a symbol associated with white supremacy.”

Question: “Wait. Really? White supremacy?”

“That’s right.”

Question: “Please explain.” (laughs)

PJ: It’s a Yes Yes No!

ALEX GOLDMAN: It is a Yes Yes No.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Do you guys feel k- powerful? Like that you are, like, controlling the levers of power right now?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Absolutely not.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: We did not invent the question and answer format —

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)

ALEX GOLDMAN: — in s- in spite of what you might think. So Pepe is now a surrogate for, like, racism on the internet and … the very fact that Hillary i-, like, posted this thing which was like, “Pepe is this white nationalist,” like, it’s encouraged more people to do it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhmm.

ALEX GOLDMAN: In fact, there’re a bunch of people today posting Pepe with the hashtag #thekekoffensive.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And I think that it’s, like, drawn the alt-right into, like, the public conversation, which is probably not where you want them.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. Wait, so what does “kek” mean?

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs) Okay, so in Korean, there is a character that, um, when strung together, um, is, essentially, like the Korean version of LOL. It’s just, you use this character over and over and over again.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And the pronunciation of this – of this character is “kekekeke.” And so, in video games, wh- in, like, video game chat — and there are a lot of Korean, like, Starcraft and World of Warcraft players —

ALEX BLUMBERG: Mhm.

ALEX GOLDMAN: — when they think something’s funny, they will do the Korean equivalent of LOL, which is, “kekekeke.” And then there is a Turkish cake called a topkek.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh-huh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And so, when they think something’s extremely funny, they write “topkek.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it.

ALEX GOLDMAN: But it is — “topkek” is “LOL” specifically for, like, the crappy, 4Chan-aggressive cranks of the internet.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. So that bring us back to this tweet —

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yes.

ALEX GOLDMAN: — basically. A- so all of the components of the – the grand tapestry of Pepe that we just told are you are incorporated in this tweet. And I’m wondering if you can explain them to me.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: Are you just showing him the original tweet?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Now I get it!

ALL: (laugh)

ALEX BLUMBERG: I’m going to need all of my powers … of summarization. The tweet, one more time. Laura Silverman tweeted, quote, “At Deplorable Patriot writes, ‘Bruh look at this rare Pepe I found specially for you. Top kek’…” And then there’s a picture of Dr. Oz s- sifting through papers and Donald Trump looking at him attentively on the set of a … televised one-on-one … Alright!

PJ: (laughter)

ALEX GOLDMAN: The silence is magical.

PJ: I can hear the computer starting up.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright, Pepe is a picture of a frog … who was invented in 2005 in a comic book. He — through a series of sort of events that I will not summarize — became an internet meme. The meme was beloved by … touchy members of an internet community, and then — as with so many things that are beloved and special and private — it went mainstream and started being adopted by people who had no authentic connection to it, such as Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry.

And … once, basically, Katy Perry started tweeting out Pepes, the cranky corner of the internet who had adopted the Pepe as their own … went … a little rogue.

PJ AND ALEX GOLDMAN: (quietly laugh)

ALEX BLUMBERG: And they started attaching Pepe to the most vile imagery they could find, including concentration camps and Hitler paraphernalia. Then, the angry, cranky corner of the internet … sort of has, like, weird connections with the just angry-angry corner of the internet —

PJ: Yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: — and it’s hard to tell the difference between the ironic-anger and the anger-anger. Anyway, there’s some subset of ironic-angry that’s actually just angry and racist and mad at the world. And those people took on ironic-awful Pepe and made him their own actual-awful Pepe — but in their mind he wasn’t actually awful, he was just a crusader for what they believe to be right, which is —

PJ: Border security.

ALEX BLUMBERG: — border security and, um —

ALEX GOLDMAN: White nationalism.

ALEX BLUMBERG: — white nationalism. Okay?

PJ: (laughs) Do you want a glass of water?

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laugh) So those people and their Pepe … uh, were looking for a hero, and that hero came along in the form of Donald Trump. And when they found their hero in Donald Trump, they attached their, uh … their mascot, Pepe, to him. And that brings us to the tweet, which imagines that … Dr. Oz is reading a letter from a fan of Donald Trump’s and saying, “Bruh,” meaning Donald Trump, “Look at this rare Pepe I found especially for you, Top Kek.”

PJ: I’ve never felt this tense during one of these. It felt like the end of a long spelling bee tournament —

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: — and you’re not sure if the star kid is going to be able to spell like, “ineluctable,” or whatever.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: And I feel like you did it, and it feels really good.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Phew. So, it seems like we’re at Yes Yes Yes.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I think we’re at Yes Yes Yes.

PJ: You know what’s weird about this — it’s sort of … it reminds me of when I was in grade school, like third grade, and everybody was, like, intensely homophobic, people would be like, “Hey, if you get an earring, like, make sure you put it in that ear —

ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh right.

PJ: — because that’s, like, the straight ear.” And, like, when I was in grade school all information was that – like that. Like, it was, assume the world was full of all of these, like, hyper-specific secret codes that everybody else knew and that would have huge consequences, and, like, it’s — the world is not like that, like things are subtle and complex and whatever — but, like, stories like this, about the way a lot of the internet is right now, it’s like, actually kind of is like that. Like actually, this frog means “racist” right now. And just like, I kind of feel (laughing) for Donald Trump who is probably like, “Oh, cool frog!”

But then, like, I don’t feel for him because the reason he sees the cool frog is because a lot of his supporters are racist. It’s just — it’s a really weird relationship with symbols.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, it’s best not — just not to use any symbols, except the alphabet.

PJ: (laughs) WHAT?

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs)

ALEX GOLDMAN: After the break, we find out the fate of 220 million photographs that went missing a couple months ago.

BREAK

ALEX: Hi PJ.

PJ: Hey Alex.

ALEX: So as you know, we have a segment on the show called Super Tech Support…. you do know that that?

PJ: I do know we have a segment on our show called Super Tech Support, where people who have technological problems come to us and we solve them.

ALEX: Or try.

PJ: Or try.

ALEX: Uh, yeah, and in episode 71 I tried to help a woman named Rachel who was using this service called Picturelife and …

PJ: She lost all her pictures.

ALEX: Yes.

PJ: And then the company kinda dissapeared.

ALEX: And she was especially concerned because she has a one-year-old and a three-and-a-half-year-old and basically all the photos she’s ever taken of these kids existed pretty much solely on Picturelife.

ALEX: Let’s say all of your pictures are gone, what have you lost?

RACHEL: The idea that they are gone is so horrifying. I have created this incredible record of the lives of these two little girls up to this moment. And so to lose it would just be truly heartbreaking.

ALEX: So I Iooked into it and the company had been bought by this guy named Jonathan Benassaya. And about a year after he bought the company, it started failing, and he had to lay off all of his employees, and because he had no money he had to downsize really, really quick. And due to a series of sort of questionable decisions and some bad luck, he screwed up the database of pictures he had and then suddenly no one who used Picturelife could access any of their pictures.

PJ: Right, right. And then he decided that he had a secret plan to save everybody’s pictures, but that he wouldn’t tell anybody that he was doing his secret plan. The secret plan didn’t work and so basically nobody could access their pictures. But he told you that the pictures weren’t gone and if you just gave him a little bit more time, this time really for serious, he would be able to like fix the whole situation and get people’s pictures back to them.

ALEX: Right, and when I talked to him back in July he sounded pretty confident that everything was gonna be fine.

JONATHAN BENASSAYA: Consolidation is done, now we are fixing the database. I feel good about the future of this thing so stay tuned.

ALEX: Jonathan told me to check back with him in about a month. And today I have an update, which is that just under a month after the episode aired, Jonathan announced publicly that Picturelife was shutting down, effective immediately.

PJ: Effective immediately?

ALEX: It is done.

PJ: So the plan he had, which is that he and he alone was going to rescue everything, turned out to not be true.

ALEX: Yes. So I talked to Jonathan and he told me that what actually happened is that another photo hosting company, this company called SmugMug, swooped in and saved all of Picturelife’s photos. Basically, they’ve made them all available on their platform, former Picturelife users can sign up for a free SmugMug trial, and once they sign up they get 60 days to download their photos or become a SmugMug member.

PJ: Okay … so basically SmugMug is sort of doing a good deed and sort of sees an opportunity to advertise their service to a bunch of people. I just like wish that someone could be cool and decent in a way that was not so well-orchestrated to like also get them a percentage of conversion users or whatever.

ALEX: Well … just hold on a second because I talked to the guys who run SmugMug,

DON MACASKILL: Hello

ALEX: Hi Don, this is Alex.

DON: Hey.

ALEX: So could you start by just telling me your name and how you would like to be identified?

DON: Yeah. I’m Don MacAskill, the founder, CEO and Chief Geek at SmugMug.

ALEX: Don told me that SmugMug is a fourteen-year-old picture company. They’re profitable, it’s not like they are trying to —

PJ: Make a name for themselves.

ALEX: They’re not a startup. They are not like a growth company. They’re owned by a family. And Don told me that in the time that SmugMug’s been around they’ve seen dozens of companies get into the photo hosting business. Open a website. Get a bunch of people’s photos. Not be successful and fail. Maybe give people a month to get their photos back. And then just shut down.

PJ: Wow.

ALEX: And a lot of times SmugMug will go to these failing companies and say, “Hey, can we save your users photos?”

DON: And the answer has always been no. This is the first time, though, where we got a yes.

PJ: That’s crazy.

ALEX: Yeah, it is crazy. And the other thing that he said was, “Look, I think we’ll probably get a few sign ups out of this — ”

DON: But every which way I spreadsheet the thing I can’t make the math make sense for us. I know it sounds kind of ridiculous, um, in this day and age where everybody’s kind of jaded about companies and their approach —

ALEX: But basically Don said that SmugMug will probably lose money on this.

PJ: Hm. I wouldn’t have thought that like the nicest person turns out to be a guy from a company called SmugMug.

ALEX: (laughing) It does sound like a name, like, harh. Like that’s the sound I imagine a SmugMug making.

PJ: Like SmirkJerk or something.

ALEX: (laughing) Yeah, “Oh heyyy.” That’s what a SmugMug says.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: But there is one catch to this whole happy story, which is that when Picturelife went down, a bunch of Picturelife users made a Facebook group called Picturelife Users so they could talk about how they can’t find their photos.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: And there are a couple people in that Facebook group who are saying, like, “I got my pictures back, some of them are missing.”

PJ: Huh.

ALEX: And Don told me that of the 220 million photos that they recovered from Picturelife, it’s possible that they weren’t able to save some.

PJ: So did you check in with Rachel, did you see if she’s still missing photos?

ALEX: Yeah, I actually brought her into the studio, and I asked her not to look at her SmugMug account until she got here so we could see if she’d gotten all her pictures back. And before we got started I asked her if there were any pictures that she was particularly excited to see.

RACHEL: Yes. So, the reason I initially even realized that Picturelife was not working was that I wanted to see — I wanted to find a photo from essentially the same month or week that my younger daughter is of my older daughter and compare. And that’s when I found out it was broken. So photos of my older daughter, when she was 15 months old, I just — I can’t find any in my email or looking around. So I’m hoping if anything is there something like that will be there. That would be like February 2014 or something.

ALEX: Alright, you want to do this?

RACHEL: (groans)

ALEX: Are you ready?

RACHEL: Yeah.

ALEX: Okay. Go ahead and log in. How are you feeling?

RACHEL: I am so nervous. I mean if nothing’s there I expect everyone to cry. Just to warn you. Get ready. (gasps)

ALEX: Uh … it says “Picturelife Memories.”

RACHEL: Can I click on it?

ALEX: Yeah, go for it.

RACHEL: Wait, are these folders for every month?

ALEX: No, those are just individual pictures I’m pretty sure.

RACHEL: (groans) Well then that would be super sad.

[silence while they look]

ALEX: Oh yeah, you’re right.

RACHEL: Ohhh yeah! (gasps) Look at them.

ALEX: What are we looking at?

RACHEL: So this is it — this is Febraury 2014. So this my older daughter when she was the age that my younger daughter is now. She looks so cute … oh I’m so glad they are back. Just seeing like the clothes that she wore then. Just, all of it … It’s so great. (crying) Ahh. (sniffles) Look at those shoes, that’s so great. (laughs)

ALEX: Is she dancing? Is she crying?

RACHEL: I think she’s like crying and stomping around… We made her wear these, like, little tiny LeBron James sneakers (laughing)

ALEX: (laughs)

RACHEL: It’s so great. Like, see, there’s — oh my gosh, look at my mom. My mom’s had ovarian cancer for five years. She has gone through periods of feeling really good and then periods of feeling really terrible. And she started wearing this long blonde wig — it looks so, so silly. Like, that’s not a picture I knew existed. That’s, like, my mom wearing long, fake blonde hair and holding like a brand, brand brand, new baby. I’m just really glad — I’m so happy. It’s a miracle.

ALEX: This is the best interview I’ve ever done.

RACHEL: (laughs) I feel like I got my life back, honestly.

ALEX: So what do you think you are going to do with all these photos now?

RACHEL: Oh that’s the worst question.

ALEX: (Laughs)

RACHEL: Oh my gosh, she’s so cute.

CREDIT MUSIC

ALEX: Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. We’re produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos and Damiano Marchetti. Our executive producer is Tim Howard. We were edited by Peter Clowney. Production assistance from Thane Fay. We were mixed by Rick Kwan.

Matt Lieber is a dingy hotel in a small town that somehow has your favorite pinball game. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, and our ad music is by Build Buildings.

Also shout out to George Devidze who emailed to say he listened to fifteen hours straight of Reply All while he was on a road trip. That’s gotta be some kind of record, so thanks.

You can listen to the show on iTunes or on any other podcast app. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you next week.

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