Living the meme: What happened to the Hipster Barista?

How does it feel when your staff photo gets stolen and becomes a meme? Six years on, Dustin Mattson explains. 

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Dustin Mattson has never bought a scarf in his life – and he probably never will. Six years ago, a picture of Dustin wearing a thin black scarf and thick black glasses became an emblem for all that was wrong with hipster coffee culture. “That’s the first and last scarf I’ve ever owned,” says Dustin over the phone from his home in Atlanta, Georgia. “The scarf became a symbol of the hipster culture and pretension but what’s funny is that I got that scarf as a gift from the owner of my company, as a Christmas present. I only wore it from time to time.”

It was 2009 (maybe 2010), and the café where Dustin worked was having a photoshoot. Each staff member needed to have their portrait taken for the café’s website, but Dustin and his colleagues spent the day “taking silly group pictures” and “not really being very serious” before the photographer said she needed one serious shot. In response, Dustin wrapped his scarf around his neck, posed with his arms crossed and “basically tried to look as angry as possible”. That was the photo that made it onto the website – and there it stayed, for nearly two years.

Dustin isn’t really sure what happened next. “I’m not sure if someone local took the image from the site, or who knows really with the internet? Who could have started the whole thing?” he muses. What he does know, however, is that in August 2011 he became a meme.

Dustin’s staff photo became a meme in the most traditional sense, with internet users adding white text on the top and the bottom of his image to create a joke (these are called “image macros”). “I got this tattoo for my love of coffee / I got this one because it’s ironic,” read the meme’s first iteration, but many more were made – each mocking the snobby and “hipster” aspects of American coffee culture.

“I was somewhat a poster child for that,” says Dustin, who believes the meme changed his attitude to his work. Now a barista and customer support representative for an independent coffee roaster called Counter Culture Coffee, Dustin feels the meme taught him to think more about his customers. “There was a lot of really real things that are represented in a lot of those memes,” the 33-year-old explains, “you had a lot of anonymous people creating memes as a way to vent their frustration at their local barista who doesn’t treat them very well, you know.” Dustin has taken this on board.

“I’ve definitely seen how myself and others have failed at times, by just being more concerned about making coffee than actually serving customers,” he says. “I’m not that person [in the meme], I definitely didn’t get a $100,000 art degree and I’m not like that sort of that level of hipster that people describe… but at the same time it has caused me to put more effort into how I come off to others.”

Despite this positive outcome, Dustin’s meme status initially came with problems. When he gave an interview to Eater.com in 2011, many felt Dustin was every bit the pretentious barista that the meme made out.“I do find it discouraging and disappointing that there was so much exposure brought to an attempt at making a joke of a culinary industry and the professional barista,” he said at the time. “It’s very telling [that] it’s ok to have no respect for the specialty coffee world and the people who are committed to it.”

When I ask about this now, Dustin laughs warmly. “I still very much believe that but at the time me expressing that almost seemed to fuel some of the actual attitude towards the meme.”

Strangers began stealing pictures of Dustin and his wife from their personal social media accounts. They made memes out of Dustin’s private pictures because, he feels, they were more interested in making fun of the person in the meme itself, rather than the attitude the meme represented. “I guess you could probably consider cyberbullying or something along those lines,” says Dustin, who tried to ignore the meme-makers but admits his wife became upset. “That was the part that really has affected my life more than anything.”

But offline, Dustin’s life has stayed much the same. “My life really, outside of like maybe a two week stretch where that meme was very, very viral and there was a lot of online activity about it, mostly my life has been very much like normal, you know.” Only one stranger has ever recognised him in real life – a child who came into his café. He jokes about the meme with co-workers, but doesn’t like to talk about it much. And unlike many memes I have spoken to, he has earned no money at all from his viral fame, with the only mainstream iteration of his meme being a short-lived “Hispter Barista” Halloween costume.

“I definitely couldn’t see myself starting my own YouTube channel or anything like that… I don't think it’s my personality per se,” Dustin laughs. “People have figured out a way to monetise it or start their internet persona or something, I guess maybe because I'm 33… part of me also doesn't really understand how someone makes a career off of Instagram, you know? How do people do that? How do people actually make that much money off being a meme?”

Yet in the end, Dustin doesn’t really mind that he didn’t make money. The only thing he wishes he’d done is use the opportunity to change the consumer perception of craft coffee – although he’s not sure how he could have, and it seems to have changed now anyway. “I think coffee has gotten to a place where its overcome that hump, you’re seeing more establishments being able to figure out how to sell a high quality coffee but not make customers turned off by a level of pretension or over seriousness about it,” he says, proving that even if he isn’t the pretentious hipster in the meme, he is still passionate about coffee.

 “Living the Meme” is a series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the previous articles here.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh