Baby Photo Goes Viral, Dad Discovers 10 Years Later

Filed under: In The News, Funny Stuff

allen rout and son stephen

Allen S. Rout's son, Stephen, is the "happy baby" in Japan. Credit: Steve Johnson, The New York Times

Imagine posting photos of your baby on your personal website and then discovering, 10 years later, that he's an Internet celebrity -- in Japan.

That's what happened to Allen S. Rout, a systems programmer from Gainesville, Fla., after he posted some photos of his then 5-month-old son, Stephen, on his website in 2000, The New York Times reports.

Although they look pretty similar to the photos we all take of our kids, one image in particular stands out: Stephen wearing red overalls and a huge smile, with a caption that reads "We're really blessed. Stephen is an amazingly happy baby," the Times reports.

Rout says he really hadn't given the photos much thought after posting them, he tells The Times -- until he did a Google search of himself just a few months ago, and found the photo of Stephen, now 10. Only, it wasn't quite the same picture.

Stephen's face was surrounded by cartoon word bubbles filled with Japanese writing, reading: "Don't call me baby! Call me Mr. Baby!" The photo was transformed even more in other images -- Stephen has a head full of snakes in one and a pompadour haircut in another.

In other photos, his face has been tattooed onto soccer star David Beckham's body, carved into Mount Rushmore and pasted onto singer Kurt Cobain's head. He has even been transformed into a video game character and a three-dimensional sculpture.

Stephen's image, it seems, has really struck a chord with Internet users in Japan and has now "permeated a corner of Japanese visual culture," according to The Times, even showing up on wacky Japanese television game shows. There are so many variations that, for some time, a Google image search for "happy baby" offered up Stephen's original photo as the first search result. Today, his photo still ranks among the top 10 and is an Internet meme.

A meme is an image, video, story or joke that "goes viral," passing from person to person via e-mail, blogs and sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Some memes last just a few hours or days, while others -- like Stephen's happy baby photo -- can endure for years, and garner an audience that may number in the hundreds of millions.

So, just how did one man's baby photo become a meme on the other side of the world?

The folks at the KnowYourMeme website tell The Times it all started some time in 2004, on 2chan.net, a site in Japan that allows users to post images anonymously. Although it is not known who first found Stephen's photo, a 2chan user superimposed Stephen's face over an illustration from a manga comic book, and turned it into a simple Web form that allowed users to put words into a cartoon-like thought bubble. And so, "the meme-ification of Stephen began," The Times reports.

Although many parents may be alarmed about their child becoming an Internet meme, Rout tells The Times he wasn't freaked out or afraid for Stephen's safety. He also says he realizes the photo is being treated as an open stock image, and really has nothing to do with the real-life Stephen.

"The meaning that a piece of work has, comes as much from what the observer brings to it as it comes from what the artist put into it," Rout tells the newspaper. "I'm perhaps over-dignifying baby pictures when I talk about them as art, but I think the abstraction applies."

As for the star of the meme, Stephen tells The Times that he is "surprised and really amazed and really weirded out."

Related: Grandpa Gaga Going Viral (And Makes Us Proud!)

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.