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O RLY? Thank Photoshop For Internet's Goofy Memes

UPDATED: In the 1970s, a quintet of spray paint artists called The Fabulous Five turned New York trains and subway cars into their canvases. New Yorkers were impressed with art that stretched as far as 10 cars while the Transit Authority and hardware stores where the five stole their paint were furious.

Thirty years later, the Five are gone, New York subways have been replaced with JPEG images and Adobe Photoshop has become the spray paint of the new century. The old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" has never been more apparent as jokesters on the Internet use doctored images in place of text to get their messages across.

The original "O RLY?"

With the rise of Web-based message boards, images with a caption stamped on them have become a common form of response to a posting. One of the first notable examples of this was the "O RLY?" owl. In 2001, photographer John White posted a picture he took of a snowy white owl with a ludicrous expression on its face.

White explained to InternetNews.com that like dogs, owls cool off by panting, resulting in the bird's expression. Someone interpreted the expression to say "oh really?" and used Photoshop to stamp "O RLY?" in large letters at the bottom.

Very quickly, the O RLY? owl became a standard response to a disputed statement. Britney Spears is a great singer? O RLY? XBox is better than PS2? O RLY? Other owls followed up, like the "YA RLY" and a number of others with captions that seemed to convey the bird's expression.


White doesn't know what became of the bird; they have a life span of about 10 years, but it lives on in images, several video game references and a virus, W32/Hoots-A, which appeared in 2006. It would send pictures of the owl to a printer attached to the infected computer. A number of video games feature O RLY? references, as did an Australian sketch comedy show, where Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy was translated via subtitles to include "O RLY?", "YA RLY", and "NO WAI!".

Adobe, not surprisingly, is rather amused at how its software is used. "It's actually pretty exciting to us to know that the same tool that sits at the core of the designer's and the photographer's workflow also can be used for everything from medical imaging to comic photo manipulation," said Kevin Connor, senior director of product management of Adobe’s professional digital imaging products.

Drew Curtis, who runs the news aggregator FARK.com, knows a thing or two about Photoshop art. There have been Photoshop contests on FARK as far back as 2000.

"I had an idea for a caption contest," he told InternetNews.com. "What happened was people started submitting Photoshops to the caption contest, so we decided to see if we could do a Photoshop contest and it took off so well that we stopped the caption contest. Not as a whole, but [Photoshop contests] pretty much replaced it."

FARK now holds multiple Photoshop contests, including the "Iron Photoshop" contest -- a reference to the kitschy Japanese cooking show "Iron Chef" -- in which artists are given a challenge, like doing a drawing using a limited palette of colors.

Curtis said it attracts pros and amateurs alike. "Some people are so talented they can rip those things out in no time flat," he said. "There's more pros involved using Photoshop than you'd think."

He also said that during the past few months, he has been contacted by a number of universities' photo-editing teachers. Increasingly, they're having their students enter photo editing contests like the ones on FARK.

"They say it's a great teaching tool for that kind of thing," he said.

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