How the Shiba Inu Became an Internet Meme and Took Over the World

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For more than a decade, the Shiba Inu, one of Japan’s oldest and smallest working dog breeds, has been the internet’s best friend.

Most recognizable as the original “doge” — a meme intended to cutely convey support, confusion, and often both — its reach has been vast. Race has appeared ubiquitously in GIFs, stickers, auto-text reactions, and countless “meme” iterations of the original viral image.

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The commercial market has also joined the pack – the dog can be found gracing the hood of a NASCAR car whipping around Talladega Superspeedway; becoming the face and namesake of Elon Musk’s favorite cryptocurrency, Dogecoin; and featured in advertisements for Stockholm’s public transport system.

More recently, an online brigade of Shiba Inu-themed accounts called the North Atlantic Fella Organization (NAFO) came together to spam and interrupt Twitter users who post misinformation about the war in Ukraine. They notably targeted Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov, who often uses his account as a pro-Russian propaganda tool.

The internet is the eternal home of the Shiba Inu, said Jamie Cohen, assistant professor of media studies at Queens College at the City University of New York. The race image survived when so many other viral images did not. Remember that blue-gold dress everyone was fighting over? Will Smith slap Chris Rock? Even those Little Miss memes are a thing of the past.

But what is it about the Shiba Inu that helps it endure as “the biggest meme on the internet?” Cohen asked.

The backstory is partly bizarre coincidence, partly cute animal psychology. Here’s how the Shiba Inu got caught up in the modern media zeitgeist and became internet famous.

Grid spoke to Cohen, who has researched and written extensively about the breed’s online history, about the popular pup.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: Videos and images of cute animals are everywhere online, whether you follow trends or not. So much so that you said: “Internet is cats”. Could you tell me what role they play in our Internet experience?

Jamie Cohen: Cats, as far as entertainment value goes, have been around since the beginning of the movie. In the very first photographs, cats were photographed with clothes on, and then Thomas Edison, in some of the earliest movies, had cats boxing. When the media proliferated, they used animals more than people. And in the internet age of Lorem Ipsum – when you first started a website, and it was just fake text – images with the space were also cats.

G: So among all these different animals and breeds, why did the Shiba Inu go viral?

JC: It didn’t have to be the Shiba Inu. It was a series of events that happened over almost the same two-year period that made this specific breed the dog of the internet.

The noise was created by a web cartoon called “Homestar Runner”. In a 2005 episode, there was a misspelling of the word “dog”. One character said, “You are my dog, my doge”, then the other character replied, “Your DOGE?” And that word, for the first time in literal centuries, has re-entered the lexicon. It was a term that had died out about two centuries before and referred to a Venetian aristocrat, the doge, who were essentially the financiers of the Byzantine Empire.

G: How did the word “doge” become related to the Shiba Inu?

JC: So the word reappeared, but it was restricted to the back sectors of the internet until February 2010, when a Japanese man named Atsuko Sato posted a photo of his Shiba Inu named Kabosu on his blog. And it wasn’t until October 2010 that someone on Reddit commented, “lmbo [laughing my butt off] look at that fucking doge.

That’s how the internet works – everything from Gamergate to the Trump presidency is about these weird coincidences. It is one of those spaces where the culture itself becomes volumetric and very quickly goes from one or two to tens of thousands. And it’s amazing because that’s when that specific dog got attached to that specific word.

In 2012, a Tumblr blog started collecting images of Shiba Inus around the time the “Doge Meme” was happening. It became the doge moment – from then on, the Shiba became the dog of the internet.

G: And I heard that former President Barack Obama played a huge role in this? Is it correct?

JC: In 2014, Obama assembled a group of young social media influencers to help him sell the Affordable Care Act [ACA] to millennials, and they started a campaign called Doge Healthcare. Obama wanted to use it [specific] iconic image of Shiba, but it was copyrighted at the time. So he actually posted an ad at a subway station for ACA with a [completely] different Shiba Inus.

Of course, the internet, being a reactionary space, took this as a sign of the commodification of memes. For example, you take our meme from the internet and bring it to a commercial space for your own benefit.

It also coincided with a period when Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj used the Pepe meme on their blogs and really bothered the internet – who collectively saw it as another sign that people were upping their memes. [for commercial use]. People saw it take [the Shiba Inu] of the Internet for your own benefit and not for our benefit, [and took a virtual stand]. From there, the Shiba Inu materialized as an internet-only dog. And the internet has this nebulous copyright space, so who cares?

G: With this backlash of commodification, how do we understand Elon Musk’s support for Dogecoin?

JC: In 2013, the cryptocurrency Dogecoin, using this image of Kabosu, was born in protest against Bitcoin. You have to keep in mind that cryptocurrency is a belief and as long as the blockchain exists, you can create any type of cryptocurrency.

Dogecoin was therefore a joke. It was designed as a way to signal Bitcoin – who’s going to believe that? But, like any viral incident, it needs an influencer to make it popular. And Elon Musk is probably the biggest owner of Dogecoin. Even to this day, Tesla will accept Dogecoin. It’s still part of Elon Musk’s architecture and infrastructure.

G: Shiba Inus aren’t the most popular or accessible dogs in the United States, but I’d bet most people make very strong connections between any image of the Shiba Inu and the same doge!

We’ve been opposing the concept of digital dualism for about a decade now, like literally since 2012. Digital dualism is the belief that we exist separate from our physical space – that we have internet personalities and we have our physical selves – and it’s is completely false. We are the same in both spaces.

The Internet is increasingly recognized today as an extension of ourselves. Where TV is reception – you sit and absorb what someone else has done – the internet is what you do and people respond. It’s an ebb and flow of our lives.

I think it’s a very big misconception that people believe we exist separately on the internet. We are an extension of the Internet all the time. But that begs the question: what do you do when you walk your Shiba down the street and someone calls him a doge rather than a dog?

Much of the internet is obviously going to influence how we interpret the world around us, but I think we need to be careful about how much of this internet-centric or internet-native content reaches physical space and what we can do with this with responsibility. I think it goes beyond just talking about animals. I think it transcends politics and the responsibility of who’s on the internet versus what they’re doing in real life.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for writing this article.

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