for slate.com, | October 13, 2021

I Found ClickHole’s “Worst Person You Know”

I had to know what he thought of becoming a legend.

Read at slate.com

If you’ve spent enough time on the internet, you know his face: an ordinary-looking man whose face evokes a visceral feeling of resentment, but also hilarity.

In 2018, Clickhole published an article titled “Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made a Great Point.” Accompanying the copy is a balding man squinting somewhat intently, thin-lipped, in front of a blurred background. The short piece (which has no byline) captures a specific yet universal feeling: that upsetting realization that you have when, unfortunately, you do gotta give it to them. It’s also a commentary on how insufferable social media is, a place that in one’s average experience appears so overrun by horrible people with terrible opinions that any exception to that general rule feels almost shocking.

It wasn’t long after the article was published that Worst Person You Know became internet shorthand—a meme and a constant reminder of our fallen state. And this has meant people have used this man’s face probably millions of times. Every few seconds someone in the world is letting everyone else know that a smart observation is coming from an otherwise wreck of a human being. “OK,” the face conveys to Ben Shapiro, “you may be right that the Beach Boys are better than the Beatles, but you’re still a peanut.”

In this way, using the Worst Person You Know is also supposed to reflect kindly back on you—that you’re open-minded enough to consider what someone says, but wise enough to remember exactly how much they suck.

At some point it struck me as I saw his visage for the umpteenth time that while the Clickhole article was fake, the man in the photo was real, and had become as familiar a face as the faces of those closest to me—his stubble, his furrowed brow, his thin beard and even thinner hair. But who was he? And did he know how synonymous his expression had become with the language of the internet? I felt I had to find out. And it turned out, I was hardly the first to feel that way. The internet is strewn with posts of people asking if anyone knows who this man is, all abandoned without an answer.

But for some reason, I felt I had to look harder. To a borderline compulsive internet sleuth, the mystery of who he was felt like an itch that I yearned to scratch but was just out of reach.

The image on Clickhole’s website isn’t credited. I emailed Clickhole, but never heard back. A reverse Google Image search returned dozens upon dozens of results that traced back to the satirical website’s use, leaving me no closer to finding its original source.

A Twitter search revealed that user @iamtherog had previously traced the image back to Getty, one of the largest stock and editorial photo companies. That meant someone—professional or amateur—had submitted the photo to Getty’s library for others to use. When I tried to look up the photo, the file had been removed from their website, but the image’s ID number gave me an additional search term to use for my internet trawling.

I spent my spare time over months trawling through pages upon pages of Google searches from the image—looking for a scent, anything! One weekend I found myself on an Indian health website. The same face greeted me there, illustrating a page about the risks of vasectomy. His eyes were squinting as they always did, but this time as if to say “oh you’re still looking for me?”

I downloaded the image file to check the metadata for clues, as I had countless times before. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This time, the metadata included the original photographer’s name and location in Spain. I found him on Instagram and sent him a message briefly explaining my obsession and asking whether he could put me in touch with the model. Nothing. So I sent another message, and another.

The photographer, who obviously had no idea about the Clickhole article, responded by asking why I was interested. After a back and forth in which I tried to explain the provenance of my search, which sounded the weirder the more I typed, he finally responded “sorry i don’t interested” and stopped responding.

I was distraught. My only connection to my white whale, gone. I tweeted through my sadness. A handful of people who read my posts about the Worst Person pointed out that one of the photographer’s friends on Instagram looked a lot like him.

It was him. And yet it wasn’t. It was the guy from the meme, yes, but he was doing things my mind couldn’t quite parse: He was joking with friends, he was doing unironic gym selfies, he was even doing the weird thing that happens to all men in their late 30s where they suddenly lose the ability to smile at the camera. I felt a sense of cognitive dissonance as two competing versions of this man clashed in front of me.

Trembling, I tapped out a message to him. The Worst Person You Know responded in Spanish and English. I resorted to using Google Translate to speak to him. I asked if he knew that he was famous or how his image was used. He gave terse answers.

“No, sorry. Im from Barcelona and I don’t now it,” he wrote.

At no point did he show any curiosity about why people might have thought this about him. He even dropped a Spanish slur in a self-deprecating way at one point in our conversation. And he rebuked my interest in how the photo came about and questions about his life.

“But, why?” he said in response to my queries. “I’m sorry but I don’t think it’s that important.”

Finally, he said he didn’t want to talk anymore and blocked me.

At the time, I was bummed. He really was the Worst Person you could speak to for a story like this. It’s not that he was boring (though a little brusque), or merely that he chose not to offer any introspection, insight, or color that could make his accidental fame as a meme come alive. It’s that he didn’t care, and that made my own consuming desire to find him seem like a big joke. I shelved the story and ignored the requests I received about whether I’d found my man.

As time went on, it began to dawn on me that I had been looking for something from this man that he could never provide. The meaning of his face to millions of netizens really has nothing to do with him as an actual person. He’s just some dude whose friend took a photo of him that, by chance, happened to be stock image chosen by a comedy website that struck satirical gold with its post. Hell, people differ on whether his ultimately inscrutable expression means he is the titular Worst Person or if he’s the person who realizes that the actual Worst Person, somewhere off screen, Made a Great Point. (For the record, I was in the former camp but now I’m in the latter.)

But this randomness shouldn’t diminish what ol’ squinty means to us. The power of his face comes from the meaning that we’ve collectively imbued it with. He may have lived up to his reputation as the Worst Person for the purposes of my quest. But in some ways, it’s better this way, that he can go on living his life, with his friends, at the gym, while his face goes on to live a completely different one online.