The name Zoë Roth may not ring bells. But you’ve probably seen her photo.
On a Saturday morning in 2005 when Ms. Roth was 4 years old, her family visited a burning house in their Mebane neighborhood. NC Firefighters deliberately lit the fire as a controlled fire. So it was a relaxed affair: neighbors gathered and firefighters allowed children to take turns on the hose.
Ms. Roth remembers how the flames engulfed the house when her amateur photographer father asked her to smile. With crooked hair and a knowing look in her eyes, Frau Roth grinned devilishly as the fire blazed behind her. “Disaster Girl” was born.
In the years since Dave Roth, Zoe’s father, entered and won a photo contest in 2007, the image has been transformed into various disasters from history. Ms. Roth grinned mischievously as a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs or the Titanic sank the distance. Now, after more than a decade of endlessly repurposing her image as an integral part of meme canon, Ms. Roth has sold the original copy of her meme as a non-fungible mark (NFT) for nearly half a million dollars.
The meme was sold at auction on April 17 for 180 ethers, a form of cryptocurrency, to a user identified as @ 3FMusic. As with any currency, the value of Ether fluctuates, but as of Thursday, 180 Ether was valued at more than $ 495,000. The Roths retain the copyright and will receive 10 percent of future sales.
The market for property rights in digital art, ephemera and media known as NFTs is exploding. All NFTs, including the recently sold “Disaster Girl,” Ms. Roth meme, are tagged with a unique digital code that identifies their authenticity and stored on the blockchain, a distributed ledger system that powers Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
In the Meme Hall of Fame, Disaster Girl is next to Ermahgerd, a pigtailed teenage girl who poses with Goosebumps books. “Bad Luck Brian” immortalized in a grim yearbook photo in curly brackets; and Success Kid, a toddler on the beach with a clenched fist and an expression of intense determination.
In an interview, Ms. Roth said selling the meme was a way for her to take control of a situation she had felt powerless over since she was in elementary school.
Before Ms. Roth made the decision to sell, she consulted “Bad Luck Brian” herself – his real name is Kyle Craven – and Laney Griner, the mother of “Success Kid”.
“It’s the only thing memes can do to take control,” Ms. Roth recalled Mr. Craven.
“Disaster Girl” memes have spread far and wide. Once a group from Poland asked for permission to use the meme in teaching materials about a dying indigenous language. Someone in Portugal sent Ms. Roth pictures of a mural with the meme.
“You just make it fit how you want it to fit,” she said. “I love to see them because I would never do one of them myself, but I love to see how creative people are.”
Over the years she has seen hundreds of iterations of her image. One shared during the racial justice protests last summer was one of her favorites, she said.
“Once it’s out there, it’s out there and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Mr Roth. “It always finds a way to stay relevant whatever happens to a new kind of terrible, terrible, bad thing, so I laughed at a lot of them.”
Ms. Roth, now 21, is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying peace, war, and defense. She was never directly recognized as a “Disaster Girl”, but most of her friends and acquaintances know of her meme fame.
“People who are in memes and going viral is one thing, but the way the internet has held onto my picture and kept it viral and relevant is so crazy to me,” she said. “I’m super grateful for the entire experience.”
Still, she said, she hoped that one day she could do something useful to move “Disaster Girl” to the second page of search results for her name.
After graduation, Ms. Roth plans to take a year off before completing a degree in international relations. She said she would donate the fortune she made of her likeness – which is still in cryptocurrency form – to charities, including repaying her student loans.
When she’s at home, she often walks past the property where it all started and wonders if the locals know it’s a “meme place,” she said.
“People who are into memes really didn’t have a choice,” she said. “The internet is big. Whether your experience is good or bad, you just have to get the most of it. “
Ben Lashes, who manages the Roths and Stars of other memes including “Nyan Cat”, “Grumpy Cat”, “Keyboard Cat”, “Doge”, “Success Kid”, “David After Dentist” and “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy”. His customers had totaled over $ 2 million in NFT sales.
He said NFT sales helped establish memes as a sophisticated art form and “serious pieces of culture.”
“I think whenever you can find a collector – regardless of the price – who will respect and appreciate the art behind it, that is a successful sale, regardless of whether it is an Ether or a 200 or 300”, he said.