Tweens are smarter than you think: the wonderful, true story of the ERMAHGERD meme

Maggie Goldenberger and her fourth- and fifth-grade pals used to amuse themselves by dressing up in weird clothes, doing crazy stuff to their hair, and posing for polaroids holding funny objects and making weird faces. Years later, Goldenberger uploaded some of her favorites to her Myspace and Facebook accounts, which led to Jeff Davis, who she didn't know, posting it to Reddit, where a Redditor called Plantlife ganked it and captioned it with "GERSBERMS. MAH FRAVRIT BERKS" -- and a meme was born.

The meme was pretty much perfect, a super-awkward tween frozen in a moment of crazy nerding-out over some super-awkward tween books. Combine that with the wordplay in which every vowel sound is "strangulated into 'er'" and you get a meme that has refused to die, year after year.

Darryn King's Vanity Fair profile of Goldenberger and history of the ERMAHGERD is a fascinating read. Most interesting to me is the fact that the meme's premise -- that the retainer-wearing, squinch-faced Goosebumps-clutching kid in the photo was a gormless, awkward tween with no idea of how weird she looked -- is totally, perfectly wrong. The picture was posed, created by a savvy, funny, witty tween with more smarts than tweens are credited with by an unfair world, who created a genuinely comic character that inspired millions of people to riff on it. Not bad for a nine- or ten-year-old.

Also interesting is the equanimity that Goldenberger has displayed since becoming net-infamous, being pretty much totally cool with it all, laughing it off and moving on (except for when some douchenozzle doxxed her, obviously). In contrast, RL Stine got pretty grumpy about it ("Well I’m on Twitter and about five people a day say, ‘Have you seen this?’ I just don’t get it. I don’t get it.").

I was also delighted to learn that "rhotacized speech—that is, speech in which the “R” sound is somehow disfigured—tends to be amusing for English speakers." As an English speaker with a rhotic, Canadian accent, I delight in my English wife's non-rhotic pronunciations of "hair" ("hehhh") and "there" ("thehhh"), and often find myself parroting her when she says them to the point where selectively rhoticizing and de-rhoticizing our speech has become a running gag in our family.

Speaking to Goldenberger now, it seems clear that she always felt that the Internet was laughing with her at the obviously ridiculous character she was playing—not at her.

“It was a middle schooler’s perspective of what funny is, so I’m always surprised when adults are such fans. It’s essentially making fun of a nerdy girl for being excited about books. . . . So what? I'm always baffled that it still comes up three years later.”

An online quest to identify “Berks,” however, did cause Goldenberger some distress: her real name started getting attached to the pictures, and an anonymous bounty hunter tracked down and uploaded a photo of her on a beach in Hawaii in a bikini. This second picture—it was actually of her this time, Goldenberger said, not a character—attracted some nasty comments. It was the only really hurtful episode of the experience.

“I have no idea who did that,” she said. “And if I'm going to have a bikini shot floating around on the Internet, I’d like to be spray tanned and under a waterfall somewhere.”

Goldenberger has, she freely admitted, derived some actual enjoyment from the meme. The one with her face on the hull of the Titanic (“ERMAHGERD ERCEBERG”) is one of her favorites. She also feels a kind of solidarity with the people—and animals—whose strikingly unbeautiful expressions get Ermagherdified.

Ermahgerddon: The Untold Story of the Ermahgerd Girl
[Darryn King/Vanity Fair]