In 2010, András Arató, an electrical engineer from Hungary, decided to model for a stock images photo shoot after he was discovered on a social networking site. He expected his images would be used by businesses and websites, and little did he envision that his face would become viral, nor did he ever imagine that he would become meme of the decade. The first known usage of Arató’s stock images for a meme was on Facepunch in September 2011 by a user named Greenen72 who took the photos from the stock photo website Dreamstime. The user titled the images “Hide the Pain Harold” due to Arató’s facial expression and smile, which appear to suppress pain or discomfort. A month later, a Facebook page was created for “Hide the Pain Harold,” and another page, titled “Maurice” was created in 2014 and garnered ten thousand likes. These pages no longer exist today, but at the time they garnered a lot of attention leading to the mass reproduction of the meme.
In 2017, Arató attempted to reclaim some autonomy over his image by creating a Facebook page of his own, in which he could participate in making memes of himself and had some control over the distribution of his own likeness and brand. Arató eventually came to terms that he could not control how others were using his images, even though it bothered him that many of the memes with his face had “rude and disgusting jokes” (Buzzfeed Video).
Memes are unique because they are “building blocks” for language on the internet in which anyone can reproduce a photo with a different overlay of text or caption in order to generate new content for the purposes of entertainment. It is often difficult to credit the original creators of memes, since they are re-shared and distributed so many times. Users can engage in conversation with each other using the same meme, or similar memes of the same topic in a thread. Additionally, a single image can be reproduced as various memes that are widely understood by many users on the internet, or alternatively the same image may reproduce a message that is highly specific to a certain community which may be indistinguishable to outsiders. When I was in high school, the drama club would distribute memes to its members that were highly specific to the theater community. Below is an example of a meme that we would likely create and then distribute to each other through a private Facebook group or GroupMe. Memes gain attention because people relate to them or find them amusing, leading them to share the content with others. The likelihood of someone creating a meme just for themselves is very low, as the entire purpose of memes is to share and redistribute this “building block” of language.
In the age of COVID-19, memes can be an outlet for humor and entertainment when current events are looking particularly bleak. Public groups on Facebook like “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens,” which as of today has 818,000 members, were created as platforms for college students to express their frustrations with instruction going fully virtual and moving back in with their parents. The feature of “tagging” a friend in a relatable meme allows for a feeling of connection with others when they are physically distant. This feeling of emotional connection is particularly sought after during a global pandemic, which may explain the proliferation of memes and meme groups.
“Hide the Pain Harold” memes have been in circulation for almost a decade now, with the most recent memes being related to current events, specifically the COVID-19 pandemic. People have reproduced his image to depict the suppression of emotional pain associated with discovering one has tested positive or with the feeling that current events have spiraled out of control in 2020. While certain memes die off, Arató’s image seems to have an everlasting presence in the meme community, likely because the feeling of discomfort demonstrated in Arató’s smile is universal and highly relatable.