Blake Boston takes a seat on a bench outside the Red Line station in Kendall Square, lights up a Newport, and it happens. Immediately. A young MIT student sees him, does a double take, and then approaches, cautiously.
“Are you . . . ” the student says, then pauses and takes a big swallow. He’s about to call a stranger a bad name.
“Are you, um, Scumbag Steve?”
“Yeah, man,” Boston says, then shakes the student’s hand and poses for a photo.
Blake Boston is the Internet’s favorite scumbag. He hasn’t always been thrilled with this honor. But after nearly two years as the butt of one of the most persistent jokes in the history of the Internet, the 22-year-old Millis resident has come to embrace being Scumbag Steve. And now he is trying to capitalize on it.
It all started when Boston was 16, and his mother took a photo of him standing in a doorway in their house when they were living in Medfield. In the photo, he is wearing a puffy winter coat with a faux-fur collar and — most importantly — a fitted, flat-brimmed baseball cap on backwards. At the time, he admits he thought he was “all that,” and the tilt of the hat and hard-guy look on his face leaves no doubt.
The photo went up on his MySpace page, and then was forgotten until, for reasons no one has been able to explain, it became a viral sensation in early 2011. The photo was turned into what is known as a meme, an Internet term for a piece of media that is traded and remixed, and strangers began attaching captions to the photo, basically blaming Blake Boston for being “that guy.” And that guy was given an alliterative name: Scumbag Steve.
The meme’s captions all follow a standard format: at the top of the photo is the set-up line, then at the bottom is the wounding punchline.
“Steals your wallet/Spends 20 minutes helping you look for it.”
“Finally has a job interview with McDonald’s/Is already 15 minutes late. Needs a ride.”
“Yo, whose house is this?/My bros need directions.”
“Hey can I borrow/Everything.”
There are now hundreds of thousands of examples on the Internet.
Needless to say, when Boston discovered what was going on — late one night when his Facebook page blew up — he was confused and upset. He had never heard of a meme, and he was furious that strangers were calling him a scumbag (not to mention calling him Steve).
He woke his mother up and they tried to figure out what was going on. When they Googled “Scumbag Steve,” Susan Boston started crying immediately.
“She kept saying, ‘I caused this,’ ” Blake Boston — yes, that’s his real name — said recently as he sat in a Cambridge restaurant, the notorious hat resting on a windowsill next to him. Boston was adopted as a young child into a family in Charlestown, and he said his mother was very worried that his birth mother would see the meme and assume she’d given her child up to be raised into a scumbag.
It was a chaotic time for him. The situation was out of his control, and he learned you can’t fight the Internet. Though he certainly tried. As the anonymous daggers flew his way, Boston spent weeks writing profanity-laced tirades and promising to string people up from their sensitive parts. This only added fuel to the fire, he said. The Internet became certain it was picking on the right guy. His own words started appearing as captions on the photo.
He contacted websites and demanded they remove the meme — they wouldn’t — and they told him to relax, that it would be over in a few weeks. Memes rarely last long.
But the Internet was only getting started with Scumbag Steve. And his hat.
“People started Photoshopping the hat onto anything that was on the wrong side of public opinion,” said Brad Kim, the editor of the knowyourmeme.com, a site that catalogs memes and analyzes how they get remixed. “It became a conveyer of people’s complaints and commentary.”
One of the first to get the hat treatment was former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, after he shut down the country’s Internet for a few days. From there, hundreds of people and things have been hit with the hat. “Scumbag Obama” and “Scumbag Romney” were hot during the election.
As the meme raced on and changed form, so too did Blake Boston. He stopped swearing at people who asked if he was Scumbag Steve, and started smiling at them. When he heard that the woman featured in a new meme, the “Annoying Facebook Girl,” was freaking out, he wrote her a kind, open letter, offering advice on how to deal with accidental Internet fame.
Pretty soon, the Internet began asking, very begrudgingly: “Is Scumbag Steve a nice guy after all?”
Is he a scumbag?
The real Blake Boston basically admits it. “That’s probably why it hurt,” he says.
He’s famous for borrowing lighters and not giving them back, a regular theme of the meme. And, as the meme often implies, he hasn’t been above stealing a girl. “If I see you dancing with your girlfriend, I might wait till you go to the bathroom and slide in,” he said. (He has a girlfriend now, so he says he’s not playing that game anymore.)
And, just from that one photo, caption writers have been able to guess many things about Boston that are accurate. He smokes menthols. He drinks Mountain Dew. He’s unemployed (he studied to be a chef at a technical college). He lives at home with his parents. He’d like to be a rapper.
But now, he owns those things. They are part of his brand and, he hopes, will launch him into a career in entertainment.
“Ever since I started to embrace it, I’ve thought that maybe it happened for a reason, that it’s a blessing in disguise,” he said. “Once that shot comes, you make your own luck by forcing your way through the door and trying to come out the other side.”
He has a manager now, and has launched “Scumbag Thursdays,” where he releases a new song online each week. The music video for the “Scumbag Steve Overture” has over 2 million views on YouTube. He’s also working on an avatar for the Xbox store, and is trying to coin a hybrid of “bro” and “homie” he calls “bromie.”
As for the hat, he’s turned down big-money offers to buy the original — a New Era Red Sox hat with an “A-Tooth” pattern similar to a Louis Vitton handbag. Instead, he’s working on coming out with a limited-edition hat because so many people want one and the original style is no longer available.
Even his mother has softened; she’s constantly sending him memes she finds online. They both, now, think it’s hilarious.
Ultimately, Boston says that being Scumbag Steve is bittersweet. He’s glad it happened, but still worries that in the future, his fictional alter ego could tarnish him forever. He has a little boy now, and wonders what he will think when he grows up.
But at this point, he knows there’s nothing he can do to control it. Whether he likes it or not, he will forever be shelved in that corner of the Internet with Bad Luck Brian, Winning, Fail, Chuck Norris facts, Charlie Bit Me, “Hide yo kids, hide yo wife,” Winnebago Man, the Possessive Girlfriend, the Double Rainbow guy, “McKayla Maroney is not impressed,” David After Dentist, and Good Guy Greg (who is seen as the antithesis to Scumbag Steve).
Still, he wonders who started it all, who pulled that photo from his MySpace page. He suspects it’s someone he knows, but he no longer wants to rearrange their face.
Now that he’s become famous as Scumbag Steve, he thinks the joke is on them.
Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.