The first DVDs of Arrested Development shipped to homes in the fall of 2004. By the end of 2006, DVDs of the original three season run had been distributed to fans all over the world. After the show’s cancellation, those DVDs were especially important — they were the only tools fans had to fuel a fanatic screencap culture driven by a sense that with enough enthusiasm and devotion, they could will their little critically-acclaimed TV show back to life.
3. Google Trends data for “Arrested Development” shows a peak in online interest when the show was cancelled in 2006, as fans flocked to blogs and messageboards to commiserate.
That two-year period between 2004 and 2006 is an interesting one in terms of online culture. Myspace was still a few years off from becoming a dominant social network, hitting peak user numbers in 2008, and Facebook wasn’t yet a force for sharing. Facebook wasn’t even available to people who didn’t have a college email until the end of 2006.
Instead, an unregulated meme culture was growing at an exponential rate. Messageboard users were sharing early versions of what we now classify as “viral content.” That usually meant usually weird songs, clunky flash cartoons, terrible GIFs and more than anything, silly images.
5. Images like these.
In 2005-2006, the world was given its first LOLcat and its first advice animal and the idea of an “image macro” steadily crept into the internet’s consciousness.
Image macros surged in popularity because were they incredibly portable. Someone could slap some text on a picture, post it to 4chan or an IGN Messageboard, and then someone else could steal it and post it somewhere else like eBaum’s World.
Communities were trading content, mostly out of boredom, or wanting to be funny, or maybe moving up a tier in their community’s ranking system. When you were a Something Awful Goon or a 4chan troll, the rule usually stayed the same that you wanted to be funny.
6. And it’s as true today as it was then that if you wanted to be super funny on the internet you had to find a way to knowingly wink at as many people as possible.
Say you were trying to be funny on a Livejournal comment thread. You could write something funny or you could write funny words on a funny picture. The funny words on the funny picture always won out though, because two funny things is double as funny as one funny thing.
But making an image macro isn’t as easy as it is now — you needed to have to Photoshop or some equivalent (or you could try your hand with MS Paint).
Why go to all that trouble when you could take the easy way out and find an image macro?
8. So, it’s 2006, you’re in a comment thread looking for funny words…
10. …that would wink to the largest number of people on the internet and thus make you seem funny, cool, and with it.
11. It’s not a coincidence that searches for “arrested development” (in blue), “lolcat” (in red), and “meme” (in orange) all have the same kind growth.
And you can start to see why early social media users would favor Arrested Development. It had a devoted fanbase among high-minded, college educated white people.
And on a more technical level, it was perfect for sharing, because it was filmed with annotations and captions already in the show, it was a show full of image macros. All of them ready for shooting out into cyberspace.
13. The show was tailor-made to get plastered all over the internet. It was quirky, weird, high-minded, and contained tons of overlaid text.
14. It was full of sight gags, giving Easter eggs to fans who wanted to freeze the frame and catch the joke.
15. So in the early days of social media, fans had both a medium to share those sight gags and an incentive to do so: If you liked Arrested Development you were hip.
16. In 2013, it’s been seven years since the show was cancelled, but we still see the same images and the same quotes and the same moments passed around at the same steadiness of interest.
The grassroots movement around Arrested Development, combined with share-ready screencaps lined up perfectly to create the longest running, untarnished meme the internet has ever had. It helped that the show never fully crossed over into the mainstream.