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Why that “distracted boyfriend” stock photo meme is suddenly everywhere

It’s appealing because it’s both extremely versatile and delightfully simple.

Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

It’s a simple yet effective stock photo scenario: A man, walking with his girlfriend, can’t help but chance a look at another woman — much to his girlfriend’s disgust.

And now it’s part of one of the biggest internet memes in recent memory.

The image above began its now-wild internet life as a mild-mannered stock photo, one of a series by photographer Antonio Guillem that’s available to license through the popular stock photo website Shutterstock. Up until a few days ago, “Man Looking At Other Woman,” as Know Your Meme dubs it, languished in obscurity, known mainly to fans of this six-month-old viral-ish Instagram post:

Tag that Aawara dil fhek aashiq

A post shared by DekhBhai Funny Bollywood Meme (@_dekhbhai_) on

Cute but hardly memorable, right?

But five days ago, this happened: a tweet by Twitter user @n1m161 making a joke about millennials’ growing affinity for socialism was copied by Twitter user Omar Essam, and Essam’s version hit the big time.

Essam’s tweet has been retweeted more than 35,000 times and favorited nearly 100,000 times. As it has spread, people have copied its format, changing the labels on the three people in the photo to make them represent any number of different things. And now the resulting meme — alternately known as the “Distracted Boyfriend,” “Disloyal Man,” and/or “Wandering Eyes” meme — is everywhere.

The concept of the meme is super simple, borrowing an old format of superimposing metaphorical descriptions onto photos to quickly and efficiently tell a story. The format has been popular on Tumblr and Reddit for years — which likely explains why the meme instantly exploded on both platforms, and even got meta about memes:

Tumblr

The beauty of this meme, like other similar ones, is that its simplicity means it can map onto pretty much anything in any context and still be funny — older memes, current events, historical events, pop culture, you name it.

Although the meme began with just one photo, stock photographers routinely create expansive photo series using the same models or centering on one major theme. And once people began to dig up more of the photos in Guillem’s original stock photo series — which, in true stock photo style, covers a disturbingly wide range of potential scenarios featuring the love triangle from the original picture — they started weaving stories out of what they found. Some are more positive than others:

At that point, as the original meme reached peak social media saturation, its variants started flying as quickly as the original version:

Unlike past meme hits, the origins of this one have zilch to do with broader political contexts, social commentary, or serious topics of the day. It’s just a fun, funny meme based on humanity’s universal love for the ridiculousness of stock photos and pairing unlikely things together.

So enjoy it guilt-free — at least until the next flash in the pan wanders by to distract your attention from this one.

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