Imagine you’re scrolling through Instagram one night, idly browsing, and then suddenly you stumble on a picture of yourself. A particularly bad picture. From the third grade. And then you realize that this isn’t the first time it’s popped up: You’re a full-on meme.
That happened to Adrian Smith. He’s a biologist particularly obsessed with insects (he shares his work with high-definition videos on a YouTube channel called Ant Lab.) He’s also a researcher by trade, so it didn’t take long for him to trace back the meme—in which he’s known as “Grayson,” someone’s deeply awkward stepson—and discover the many iterations all over the internet. Like a true scientist, he recently shared his findings, and he agreed to speak to me so the public may understand his research. We spoke about what went through his head when he found out his child self was a punchline, which iteration of it was his favorite, and what 8-year-old Adrian would say. Our conversation has been lightly edited.
Aymann Ismail: So how did the internet get a hold of your childhood photo?
Adrian Smith: That was kind of my own doing. Back when Tumblr blogs existed, there was one specifically dedicated to posting your grade and middle school laser background school portraits called We Have Lasers. And I had a pretty incredible one, so I submitted it. And it’s lived its own life ever since. I don’t think that blog exists anymore, but the picture was still floating around, disconnected from me. It had been for a long time.
Do you have a rough idea of what year you uploaded it?
Yeah, I think it was probably like 2008, maybe 2007. A long time ago.
The photo is gold. When was it taken? Did you choose the laser background yourself?
I still have that photo at home. I flipped it over and looked at the back of it after all this stuff came up. It says 1992, so it was a third grade school picture. I’m a little fuzzy on this, but I think you had to pay extra, two bucks extra or whatever, to get the laser background. I talked my parents into it and I had the matching coordinated shirt, so my goofy face there is that smug grin of satisfaction—like, man, look what I pulled off. I got the $2 laser background. I remembered to wear my cool neon laser T-shirt. It was definitely a good day for the 8-year-old me.
When you saw it posted as a meme, how did you initially react?
I started following the Teenage Stepdad Instagram, because he made a music video for one of my favorite Jeff Rosenstock songs. So I’ve been like following it because I liked what he did. And then I’m scrolling through my Instagram stories and my picture pops up, and I’m like, what? That’s my picture! At first I was like, “Oh, maybe he just found it on the internet. It is a funny picture.” But then the text below referred to me as Grayson. So I went through this back catalog of memes, and there it was all the way back to like 2017. And then the rabbit hole just kept on getting deeper and deeper. There’s merch. There’s an entry-level Patreon thing that was like “Join team Grayson,” which, I guess, I’m Grayson in the meme. It’s bonkers to bump into yourself in the wild on the internet. It didn’t say like, “Oh, look at this funny picture of Adrian as an 8-year-old.” Nothing was attached to me at all. It’s living its own life and had weirdly reentered my own life on its own through the internet. It was weird.
What did you do then?
I went and woke up my wife and showed it to her. She couldn’t stop laughing. We saw all the iterations of the meme. She was thrilled about it. She might’ve immediately went and got me a Grayson shirt and that might be all I’m getting for Christmas this year.
You beat me to this Q&A and did one with yourself. You asked yourself if you cared about this, and you replied, “No, but also yes. A lot.” What does that mean?
So I’m a research scientist. Researching insects is my job. And the only thing I’ve been working on for the last two weeks is a grant application to study science communication, how scientists talk about their work and how they’re perceived as people. So in a way, I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot. I put a lot of my science work on the internet, so I think about public perceptions of me and my profession tons. And in a way, this folds into it because I had several choices when I figured out what was going on. I could just get mad and say you’re exploiting my image, blah, blah, blah. Or I could just let it go. Nobody has to know it’s me and I could just let it go forever. Or I can share how I feel about it, how I think it’s funny and how it’s an instance of this chaotic internet and how we as people show up on the internet and live on in weird ways. And so that was my choice. I came out with it. That’s the only power I had in this situation, to embrace it and talk about it. And I feel like that also goes in with what I do professionally, doing science and putting it on the internet. I was prepared for it.
What would 8-year-old Adrian think?
That’s a tricky question. Obviously a little kid would feel ashamed or embarrassed, but it’s so disconnected from me that I don’t feel any anger or shame or regret or anything like that. It took me a few days to figure out exactly how I felt. Obviously I’m cool with it, like I think it’s funny. But it’s weird to see people’s reactions to it. Some people think it’s bad for making fun of a kid. Other people were like, “You should sue them and get money.” I think it’s funny. It wasn’t generated with a mean spirit. This image is just living its own character life in its own meme universe. That’s not me, even though it is me, you know?
Are there more pictures of Grayson that the internet needs to see?
I have pictures around the Grayson era. But none of them are as glorious as that one, for sure. That’s me pre-braces, pre-glasses, just 100 percent raw power, blazing through life as a glorious 8 year old. It’s not going to get better than that.
Do you have a favorite of the Grayson memes?
The Chia Pet is a pretty amazing achievement in Photoshop. I love that one. I got pretty lucky to be memed by the Teenage Stepdad account because his memes are so well put together. I like the Chia Pet one, I like the rockabilly one. I think they’re all pretty good. Those ones kind of stand out.
Right when YouTube was a new thing, I was a teen, and my friend and I uploaded a video of ourselves rapping. It’s really embarrassing stuff. Do you have any advice for anyone who’s scouring the internet looking for memes of themselves?
Let the meme come to you. That’s the best way. If it was meant to be, the meme will find you. If your thing is glorious and the people are gonna do stuff with it, you’ll find it some way. I wasn’t looking for this at all. It just popped into my life.
Forgive me, but Grayson in the meme has a gawky, hopeless vibe to him. So … what are you doing these days?
I feel like in a way the adult I turned into wasn’t outside the realm of possibilities for what Grayson might age into. Like, I do do weird things. I study insects for a living. I’m an insect scientist. I think a lot about putting bug videos on the internet. I feel like that’s all pretty Grayson-esque.