After years as a meme, ‘Disaster Girl’ takes control of her image — with a hefty payoff

·8 min read

Zoe Roth couldn’t stop checking her phone. “What’s it at now, what’s it at now?” her co-workers asked as they passed by the hostess stand at the Italian restaurant Il Palio. She gave a live play-by-play, and everyone on staff was invested.

As the clock neared 6 p.m. on April 17, she was shaking. Zoe was in the middle of an online auction for a photo, one that years ago had made her 4-year-old self famous.

In that photo, Zoe’s hair is askew. A close-up of her smirking face is in the foreground of the frame, and in the background, a house fire blazes. In her eyes there is a knowingness, as if she is saying, “Yes, it was me. I did this. Wouldn’t you like to know how.”

Zoe wasn’t an arsonist. Now 21, she’s a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. Online, in the world of memes and 280-character messages, Zoe lives out her alter ego as the always devious, “Disaster Girl.”

With just minutes to go, the highest bid sat at around $25,000, and she was still seating customers. She walked patrons to their table, passed out menus and explained the drink options, and then rushed back to her phone.

The terms of the auction dictated that in the last 15 minutes, every additional bid extended the auction by another 15 minutes. And the bids rolled in, with a new one almost every three minutes. $38,000. Then $45,000. More than $50,000.

For the second time, Zoe’s life was about to change.

How a meme was made

The now-viral meme was first taken in January 2005. Zoe, her parents and her brother lived two blocks away from a fire station in Mebane. Sirens were the soundtrack of her childhood. One day, the noise was especially close. Her mother stepped outside and saw billowing smoke. The fire department was putting out a controlled fire purposefully set on a nearby piece of property to clear the land.

For her father, Dave Roth, the burning house was the perfect background to test his new camera. Dave Roth, an amateur photographer, often uploaded his work to photo-sharing sites such as Flickr and eventually began entering photography contests. Three years later, Dave won JPG magazine’s “Emotion Capture” contest.

The magazine arrived in the mail. Zoe, then in second grade, flipped through it, with no idea of her dad’s latest victory. She turned the page and saw her own mischievous face smirking back at her. “Did you know about this?” she asked her dad, quickly followed up with, “Am I famous now?”

She wasn’t then. But she soon would be.

Zoe and her family don’t know when the photo was first shared. The photo was uploaded to the JPG website as part of Dave’s prize, and suddenly, the image was everywhere.

One of Dave’s friends from the photo-sharing website Zooomr messaged him in late 2008: “Hey, your picture is in a PhotoShop contest.”

“I was like, ‘Oh that’s neat,’” Dave said. “Not realizing that that’s not the end of it.”

How a meme becomes an NFT

There was nothing Zoe could say or do to stop the rapid spread of the meme. Year after year, while the Internet saw her as a 4-year-old pyromaniac, Zoe grew up.

In February, Zoe received an email that encouraged her to sell the meme as a non-fungible token, or NFT, with a potential profit of six figures. Zoe and Dave Roth thought it sounded suspicious.

“There’s no way,” Zoe thought.

An NFT would allow Zoe and Dave Roth to create a string of unique computer code for the original image and store it on a blockchain, which tracks all future transactions. By creating the NFT, or minting it, Zoe and Dave could exercise control over the ownership of the image, an image that already had been shared millions of times across the internet.

Zoe and Dave thought about it for a few weeks. Zoe sought advice from her fellow “meme” celebrities, such as Laina Morris of “Overly Attached Girlfriend” and Kyle Craven of “Bad Luck Brian.” Zoe said they even hopped on a Zoom call and made tentative plans for getting drinks together — if they ever found themselves in the same city.

After researching the sale of other memes-turned-NFTs, Zoe expected that her meme might sell for 100 Ether, a cryptocurrency that equates to about $2,200 on average per unit. The cryptocurrency, recorded on the blockchain Ethereum, is volatile. Its value changes minute to minute. But the initial email wasn’t a scam. Zoe and Dave were looking at a potential six-figure sale.

When Zoe and Dave decided to go all in, they worked with a manager and a lawyer to handle the logistics. It would take more than just uploading the image and waiting for bids to come in. No, the team had to get access to one of the host websites for blockchain transactions, Foundation, which was by invitation-only.

The creator of the Nyan Cat gif, sold for 300 Ether in February, sent Zoe and Dave an invite. Then they had to upload the file and “mint” the NFT before they could list it. And the transactions occur only through cryptocurrency, which Zoe and Dave had to buy.

Finally, they listed the token. It was open for a 24-hour auction, with the countdown set to start when someone placed the first bid. So the team had to consider the audience: Which time zone would a potential buyer be in? When is the optimum time to start the auction?

They officially listed the token at 6 p.m. on April 16.

Dave set a rule for himself: he would check the progress of the auction once per hour. When he went to sleep that night, the highest bid was at 4 Ether. When he woke up, it had bumped up to 5.5.

For the last hour of the auction, while Zoe was pacing around the restaurant, trying to distract herself from the life-altering scene playing out on her phone, Dave brought his computer outside and sat on his porch swing.

Then things got interesting. As 6 p.m. came and went, the bids passed back and forth.

“I’m out there probably shouting expletives into the air,” Dave said. “Every time it would bump up, I just couldn’t believe it.”

An hour later, it stalled. And finally, with Dave’s eyes glued to his computer screen at home, and Zoe’s on her phone at the restaurant, the results were in.

The account @3fmusic officially purchased the token for 180 Ether — worth about $430,000.

Value of digital collectibles

If cryptocurrency represents a digital form of money, NFTs are digital forms of collectibles. Each NFT is one-of-a-kind, like any piece of physical artwork hanging in a museum. NFTs have built-in proof of ownership because they are stored on a blockchain, a type of digital ledger. Like other cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin and Ethereum, the blockchain records each transaction into part of the code of itself.

David Yermack, professor and chairperson of the finance department at New York University, describes the blockchain as “a revolution in accounting.” Because the blockchain records every transaction, it serves as a way to prove that someone owns a digital asset, even if there are exact copies of the image out there.

“There’s only one person who has the bragging rights to it,” Yermack said.

NFTs are most often used to buy, trade and collect works of digital art, such as the artist Beeple’s collage piece selling for $69 million. But celebrities are also cashing in. Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, sold an NFT of his first ever tweet from 2006 for $2.9 million.

But why is it worth so much? Well, Yermack counters, why is any work of art worth so much?

“I think the fact that people are beginning to collect digital art really reflects the generation having grown up online,” Yermack said.

A sense of control

Before the sale of Roth’s NFT, despite having her face plastered across social media, she didn’t make money as her likeness was shared again and again.

But in minting the NFT, Zoe and Dave coded the token so that anytime the NFT is bought, the Roths receive 10 percent of the sale. And while the sale of the NFT represents a transfer of proof of ownership, they keep the copyright.

For the first time, Zoe feels in control of that image.

“Being able to sell it just shows us that we do have some sort of control, some sort of agency in the whole process,” Zoe said.

The family plans to share the money between the four of them. While Zoe’s photo is the one that went viral, Dave snapped dozens of pictures that day at the fire in 2005.

“Like I said, her brother, Tristan, was there that day, and he could’ve been ‘Disaster Boy,’” Dave said.

Already, Zoe is researching nonprofits that she can donate her portion to. Dave said he will probably fix the air conditioning in his Honda Civic.

In 2008, the photo made Zoe a household image. Now in 2021, the photo has made Zoe almost a half-millionaire. When people express adoration or curiosity as to how Zoe found this fame, she is always shocked. She insists she didn’t do anything.

“Nobody who is a meme tried to do that, it just ended up that way — Is it luck? Is it fate? I have no idea. But I will take it,” Zoe said.

Likely with a familiar, wry smirk.

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