Charlie Bit My Finger should be acquired for the nation

08.14, Friday 2 Jun 2023

The status of Charlie Bit My Finger is uncertain. It should be acquired as art by the nation.

The backstory:

  • Charlie Bit My Finger (Wikipedia) was one of the earliest YouTube hits: most viewed of all time by the end of October 2009, and 878 million views by December 2020
  • It was sold as an NFT back in 2021. As part of the deal, to cement the sense of it being a unique digital asset, the video was scheduled to be deleted from YouTube
  • The new buyers relented and, while they maintained ownership of the NFT, agreed that Charlie Bit My Finger should stay public.

Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote about this whole story.


if you go to /watch?v=_OBlgSz8sSM on YouTube (here) you’ll get this message: This video is private

What gives?

Charlie was set as Unlisted: a public video to anyone with the link, but it doesn’t appear in on-site searches or recommendations (it’s for personal sharing).

In July 2021 there was a policy change to keep owners of such videos safe: all older Unlisted videos were set to Private – unless the owner decided to opt out of the change.

The new owners of Charlie did nothing… and so the video has gone.

This is sad.

Part of me thought that the NFT thing was just part of the overall NFT craze, and we would all quietly step away from it and it would turn out that the original creators of Charlie still owned the actual video, etc.

But maybe that auction had a whole legit contract behind it?

You can see the Charlie NFT on OpenSea and, from there, the profile of the new owners, 3FMusic. They seem active still… though they’re not the meme-history collectors I assumed they would be. But they own a bunch of different NFTs.

I guess they’re just sitting on this particular asset. Or maybe they’re forgotten they have it.

In 100 years there will be a viral podcast or whatever about tracking down this once-famous, now-lost art, and how it ended up in the hands of a Dubai crypto speculator and then left on an abandoned and rotting blockchain. It’s weird seeing this “losing” step play out in real-time.

So clearly this video belongs in a museum.

(A British museum, probably, given it’s of British origin, although the “site” is American, so there’s a Parthenon Marbles-style dispute for the distant future.)

Charlie is important because it’s one of the first massively popular bits of content of the global scale internet. It’s representative of society in a way that earlier content isn’t. And important! In lieu of knowing what is historically “significant,” mass popularism will do.

Plus it’s a meme. It’s of the internet. Music videos would go big in any medium. But for a home video to achieve this? “User-generated content” (as we used to call it) as big as the professionally produced stuff? It says a lot about what the internet was to become.

Whether it belongs in an art museum or a cultural one I don’t know, but two things need to happen:

  1. Google’s arts & culture programme needs to have a policy in place to monumentalise certain URLs. Whether or not the owners of /watch?v=_OBlgSz8sSM have set the video to private or not, this URL now belongs to the world, and at the very least it needs to be preserved and a link added to explain what kind of monument this is. The video itself can be re-added later – it’s the process that matters for now.
  2. Charlie needs to be acquired for the public… somehow.

(In the future, monument URLs should be treated differently. The big sites should retire them from regular service, intercept the request away from whatever app they are currently running, and redirect the URL to a server farm running in the Svalbard Global Meme Vault or whatever.)

To begin with I felt like Charlie, the NFT, should be bought directly by the nation from 3FMusic. I know the UK government has a process for this.

BUT: direct acquisition isn’t traditionally how art has ended up in the big museums.

We need collectors! Philanthropic donators! Tax dodges! The whole kit and caboodle of the art and cultural artefacts ecosystem.

So really what we need is a billionaire who wants to put some real effort into figuring out what it means to collect memes.

How do you collect Charlie Bit My Finger, really? How do you display it? How do you attach your name to it?

How do you do that for another dozen memes of similar value? Not memes that you personally feel are funny, or that are “meaningful” somehow. Let’s be blunt here: the arbiter of value is views.

Then how do you lend a collection to a museum? And eventually donate it?

Museums used to promise to build a new wing to display the famed collection of a benefactor. What’s the novel architecture such that the public can visit and enjoy memes? How do school kids sit down to sketch them and learn the significance?

How are memes valued so that our philanthropic billionaire can get the tax writeoff in addition to their legacy?

There’s a huge pathfinding exercise here. But this kind of process has to start somehow.

I know someone who works in acquiring art on behalf of the country. I’ll have to ask her.

And if you’re a wannabe meme-collecting philanthropist, perhaps I should put the two of you in touch.

More posts tagged:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.