Meme rockets to the moon
“I posted Doge for the first time,” John Monarch mentions casually, just minutes after I sit at his table upon sneaking into the Tokyo hotel’s breakfast buffet.
Excuse me? Yes, apparently I was sitting next to the creator of the original Doge meme, and we were about to board a bus to the 18th birthday party of Kabosu, the real-life dog behind Doge.
Kabosu: The real-life Doge turns 18
Kabosu lives in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture, which is not far from Tokyo’s Narita Airport. When her breeder went out of business in 2008, she and 19 other Shiba Inus were taken to an animal shelter to be put down. However, she was rescued by local kindergarten teacher Atsuko Sato, (better known as @kabosumama to her 67,000 followers on X), who named her after a citrus fruit due to her round face.
“Kabosu likes to make this face all the time when relaxed,” Atsuko responded to a question from the birthday crowd.
In a rare 2020 interview with KnowYourMeme, Atsuko recalled that she contacted the shelter because “two years had passed since I lost my previous dog, and I wanted to live with a dog again.” Most of Kabosu’s brothers and sisters weren’t so lucky.
Fifteen years later, on November 2, 2023 at her party, she’s lucky to still be with us. 18 is about 90 in dog years, which is an impressive feat.
As the mayor of Sakura excitedly addresses a crowd gathered around a Dutch-style windmill, Kabosu’s stroller is wheeled toward the stage, delighting onlookers. It’s her 18th birthday (sort of), with Atsuko having decided she was three years old on adoption. A declaration by a National Day Calendar representative is read out: henceforth, November 2nd is International Doge Day.
“I remember her staring at me from the corner of the room with doll-like eyes,” Atsuko recounts, holding her.
Kabosu is DOGE — “Do Only Good Everyday,” as Atsuko puts it — though for years, she hadn’t even heard the word.
The rise of Dogecoin: From meme to crypto phenomenon
The story of the dog of the day forked in 2010 when, in North Carolina, Monarch, then 23, happened across an image of an anonymous dog sitting on a couch, making a funny face. The image was originally one of a series of eight taken by Atsuko’s husband earlier that year and posted on her blog. John posted the image on Reddit with the title “LMBO LOOK @ THIS FUKKIN DOGE.” The word “doge” itself was already in use, though obscure.
“You make a dumb post and don’t expect it to do anything — 300 likes, not so serious.”
It spread slowly, at some point picking up a comic sans theme and eventually getting its own subreddit, r/doge, in early 2013. Images of different Shiba Inu dogs were presented in a similar format, and text in Doge speak like “much wow” saw it named Know Your Meme’s “top meme” of that year. At that point, it was everywhere, with a late 2013 Huffington Post article complaining that the “beloved internet meme” was being ruined by uncool Republican members of U.S. Congress using it incorrectly.
A decade on, doge reigns strong. It has recently also become associated as a mascot of another meme, NAFO, which is described as a “meme and social media movement dedicated to countering Russian propaganda and disinformation about the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
On the bus to Chiba, I ask some of the birthday party organizers and attendees what Doge means to them and what it stands for. “To me, Doge is that spark of magic, a noble mission of spreading joy,” explains Gary Lachance, a big fan of the doge meme, who once drove a McLaren wrapped in Doge faces across the United States. He sees it as a wholesome counterweight to the dark and toxic places that exist on the internet.
Along with “doge-loving hippy hacker” Griff Green, Lachance previously worked to bring a doge-themed art car — Disco Doge — to Burning Man.
“Silliness and whimsy,” says another, because the world is too serious. “Doge means love!” another pipes in with confidence. For some, this is a pilgrimage.
Others look at the crypto angle, with local doge fan and birthday attendee Kaneko Otanel saying, “Doge is a starting point for those unfamiliar with crypto, especially in Japan.”
Then I got to ask a meme himself: Tay Zonday, known for his 2007 “Chocolate Rain” song video, which 4chan helped make viral.
“I’m a meme, Bad Luck Brian is a meme, Doge is a meme,” he stated matter-of-factly, referring to meme colleague Kyle Craven, who was also present at this “meme gathering.”
“I believe blockchain has the potential to save us from the worst outcome of social media.”
Elon Musk and the celebrity influence on Dogecoin’s popularity
Billy Markus and Jackson Palmer launched their joke cryptocurrency that no one would take seriously on December 6, 2013. And they picked doge as their mascot.
Despite the founders’ exit, the Dogecoin community has banded together to crowdfund some memorable projects.
In January 2014, they made headlines after raising money to send the Jamaican bobsled team to the Sochi Olympics, inspired by the movie Cool Runnings.
Later that year, 100 million DOGE was collected to sponsor Nascar driver Josh Wise’s car #98, which came to be known as the Dogecar. The car is playable in the Nascar 14 video game.
Fun and social, Dogecoin has also seen success as a tipping currency on online forums like Reddit.
In mid-2020, when coins cost a quarter of a penny, a viral TikTok trend promoted the idea of DOGE eventually going “to the moon” and reaching a $1 valuation. Not long after, a known spaceman named Elon Musk jumped onto the doge train in December 2020, writing a short tweet: “One word: Doge.”
In January 2021, Dogecoin became connected with the meme-stock community surrounding the GameStop short squeeze and gained nearly 1,000% in a two-week period. The rise to $0.07 was in part fueled by a barrage of tweets from Musk, including a play on the Vogue magazine as “DOGUE.”
In May, Musk held a Twitter poll asking if Tesla should accept DOGE (78% agreed), soon announcing that the car company was selling merchandise for DOGE, and SpaceX would soon follow.
Then came the announcement on April 1 — April Fool’s Day — that a literal Dogecoin was going to the literal moon aboard a SpaceX rocket, and the price soon quadrupled into the $0.25 range.
Doge-1 to the moon: Will Dogecoin moon, too?
The next month, on May 9, Dogecoin reached its all-time high of around $0.70. On that day, Canadian technology company Geometric Energy Corporation announced it would launch Doge-1, a CubeSat fully funded by Dogecoin, into lunar orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
According to Musk, founder of SpaceX, it would become both the first crypto and the first meme in space. (However, a physical Bitcoin was sent into space on the Peregrine lunar lander last month. This developed problems shortly after takeoff and never made it to the moon.)
The Doge-1 probe will feature a camera livestreaming a screen, and users can put up messages and pictures by controlling pixels via tokens. There will be “five tokens available: two for location (Beta for the X coordinate and Rho for the Y coordinate), two for pixel control (Gamma for the brightness and Kappa for the color), and XI for time — meaning, how long the advertisement will be displayed,” according to Space.com.
“There might be companies which want to depict their logo… or it might end up being a bit more personal and artistic,” the company’s CEO, Samuel Reid, told Business Insider.
One noted critic of the mission has been Dogecoin co-founder Jackson Palmer, already known for taking a harsh tone regarding the industry and for accusing Musk of peddling pyramid schemes. Billy Markus, the other co-founder, is known as Shibetoshi and famously sold all his Dogecoins in 2015 when prices hovered around $0.0001, netting “about enough in total to buy a used Honda Civic.” Doge peaked at around $0.70 in 2021. Though he’s no longer attached, he observes that “it’s weird that something I made in a few hours is now part of internet culture.”
A $258-billion class-action suit was brought against Musk by investors who alleged that he had “engaged in a crypto pyramid scheme” involving Dogecoin, stating that “this is a securities fraud class action arising from a deliberate course of carnival barking market manipulation and insider trading.”
Real life Doge more than a meme
Despite the commotion around Dogecoin, Kabosu has led a quiet life in Sakura with Atsuko and her family, which included three cats to whom “she is like a big sister.” The doge meme isn’t that widespread in Japan; however, Kabosu is still a minor celebrity, with Atsuko’s pet blog being among the most popular in the country.
“Around me, nobody knows about the Doge meme. Maybe I don’t understand memes very well, because I’m living such an analog life,” Atsuko told The Verge in late 2013, adding that she had become aware of risks related to the personal information she shares publicly.
10 years on, her distance remains. For all but a handful of visits and encounters, Kabosu has lived a life removed from the meme and token she inspired.
“I’m not too familiar with cryptocurrency, but seeing my beautiful dog’s face on the internet is heartwarming.”
This was apparent at Kabosu’s birthday party, where Dogecoin the cryptocurrency seemed little more than a tacked-on addition to a community celebration for a beloved dog. “I came to this event because I read about it on Atsuko’s blog — I had no idea it was related to crypto,” mentions Lauren, an English teacher from Canada who — in one-to-a-billion odds — recognized me as a high school classmate from half a world and lifetime away. Doge magic, they called it.
Dogecoin DAOs and community: Charities and social impact
In 2021, with some outside help, Atsuko minted the famous image as an NFT, and PleasrDAO purchased it at auction for 1,696.9 ETH, or $4 million. The original couch that Kabosu was pictured on was also sold — with the anonymous buyer taking delivery at Twitter (now X) headquarters, a source involved with the sale tells me. Donating much of the NFT proceeds to charity — some of whose representatives attended the birthday — Atsuko said she believed Kabosu had been “given a special mission by the universe.”
“During the past decade the meme had been on its own story — Atsuko was doing her own thing, and never profited from Kabosu as she is not crypto native or a meme-r.”
“I think nobody really drew a line back to Atsuko and Kabosu, despite other dog-coins like Shiba taking off,” says Tridog, a member of PleasrDAO and now also the “top dog” at Own The Doge. He describes the latter as a “culture DAO of Doge” that aims to proliferate the Doge meme mainly through real-world positive impact. He recalls someone at the Ethereum Foundation drawing the line back to Atsuko, who in October 2019 brought Kabosu to a Devcon 5 event in Osaka.
PleasrDAO fractionalized ownership of the NFT across 16,969,696,969 DOG tokens, allowing anyone to purchase a “share” of the image with the possibility of “dog-parking,” a take on staking, to claim ownership of a specific pixel of the image. PleasrDAO sold 25% in a presale, with plans for 20% to be distributed via airdrops and 24% going to Own The Doge. “They’re going to give Atsuko 1%, too!” says CryptoPathic, an involved influencer who previously led the fractionalization of another of the original Kabosu images, known as Feisty Doge, into Non-Fungible Doge NFD tokens.
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Doge, Shiba Inu and other dog tokens
Kabosu is not the only famous “meme” dog in the Shiba Inu breed. Cheems Baltze, also known as Ball Ball, was a contemporary of Kabosu, appearing in the “bonk” and the “Swole Doge vs. Cheems” memes, the latter of which features a giant muscular Kabosu and a sedate Baltze. Baltze lived in Hong Kong and passed away in August 2023 at the age of 15.
There are also more than a few kennels worth of dog coins. On a CoinMarketCap listing of memecoins, dogs dominate, with Shiba Inu (SHIB) holding a respectable — or absurd, depending on who you ask — $5-billion valuation and the Cheems-inspired BONK sitting near $1 billion. Dogwifhat (WIF) is a Solana token and the new talk of the town. There’s also Dogelon Mars — because, of course, there would be.
The future of Dogecoin
Diagnosed with leukemia in late 2022, Kabosu no longer eats solid food nor moves around independently without a custom wheelchair. Though she appears calm, she is sleepy and barely able to lift her head unaided, making one wonder whether her quality of life is worth the struggle. She spends many of her days resting at the kindergarten where Atsuko works. At the birthday celebration, Atsuko told the crowd that “your love has saved Kabosu’s life many, many times,” crediting fans’ “love and support” for allowing her to live into old age.
“A lot of memes fizzle out — a lot of communities do, too — but somehow, Kabosu and the doge has only expanded from the blog, to Dogecoin, to NFTs, and now DAOs — some day, the torch may pass on. We are just spreading smiles,” Tridog notes.
Come next what may, Kabosu is now a permanent part of Sakura through the newly unveiled bronze statue of her, flanked by three cats, sitting on the very couch on which she was famously photographed. The project was led by SaladPingers, an Australian-based project manager for Own The Doge. “Doge is about people of all backgrounds coming together to celebrate a funny, loveable dog. It’s silly and wholesome and accessible, and the real world impact is always doing good and giving to charity.”
The statue, a gesture paid for mostly with Dogecoins, left Atsuko visibly moved.
“We have received a wonderful gift, a statue of Kabosu. I believe Kabosu will forever be here where she will see beautiful sunsets.”
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Elias Ahonen is a Finnish-Canadian author based in Dubai, who bought his first Bitcoin in 2013 and has since worked around the world operating a small blockchain consultancy. His book Blockland tells the story of the industry. He holds an master’s degree in international and comparative law and wrote his thesis on NFT and metaverse regulation.