The AI ​​meme is rewriting history


Nearly every online lurker knows the image: a man stares at a passing woman and makes a “How are you?” face that would make even Joey Tribbiani blush. Ever since it appeared in 2017, the “Distracted Boyfriend” meme, which took that stock photo and projected scenarios onto it, has been ingrained in the internet’s collective consciousness. Now, artificial intelligence is blurring the memory of that viral moment, along with the memories of dozens of other memes.

Often called “time traveler” videos, especially on TikTok, AI-generated clips are currently making the rounds on the internet that take well-known memes and add context that wasn’t there before. In some cases, they “interrupt” the action; sometimes they involve a ghostly apparition. In the “Distracted Boyfriend” animation, posted last month on X (formerly known as Twitter), the boyfriend is seen turning his back on the girl and following her around while his girlfriend stands nearby.

The clip was created using the Luma Dream Machine, an AI model that takes source images and text prompts and generates high-quality, realistic videos. Within days of its release, social media users began borrowing images and frames from recognizable memes to create visuals that tested the Dream Machine’s generation capabilities. The results proved that although the AI ​​model is not flawless, it has the potential to rewrite internet history by altering the web’s most enduring images.

As Dream Machine spread, the model’s output revealed some common visual limitations and flaws of generative AI, such as unnatural human portrayals and the appearance of objects changing. While some social media users found the visuals scary and worrying in terms of the speed of the AI ​​and its ability to create misinformation, others found amusement in the model’s inconsistent errors.

While it might be a little disturbing to think that one of these AI-altered memes could become so viral that it eclipses the image that inspired it, Know Your Meme editor Philip Hamilton believes that this trend is not a major threat to digital media preservation. Rather, it’s the ubiquity of the original that makes the reboots thrive.

“Usually, everybody knows the context,” Hamilton said, referring to the editing of viral photos. “The symbolism of the video is at the core of the trend … The core of the (time-traveler) meme is that something popular is being occulted.”

The nature of meme sharing on social media revolves around the user’s interaction with the meme. Hamilton says that since most memes are initially the result of editing, it makes sense to edit memes with AI.

Luma claims that Dream Machine can create a high-quality video of 120 frames in less than 120 seconds, though it is experiencing significant delays due to high demand. The fast creation of videos, as well as the availability of a “free” tier that allows users to create up to 30 clips per month, has made Dream Machine much more accessible than its OpenAI counterpart, Sora, which has yet to be released to the public despite being introduced in February.


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