Meme Studies

Meet Shawn Cotter, the Man Behind the Rickroll

Rickrolling 101
 Meet Shawn Cotter, the Man Behind the Rickroll

(Photo: YouTube)

On May 15, 2007, a then-19-year-old YouTube user named Shawn Cotter–employing the handle “cotter548”–uploaded the music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit song “Never Gonna Give You Up,” intending to troll some of his fellow gaming cohorts on 4chan. Mr. Cotter, who was serving in the Air Force in South Korea at the time, linked to the video under the pretense that it was a new trailer for Grand Theft Auto: IV. But as that now-familiar drum cadence faded in and the caption “You just got Rickroll’d” floated across the screen, users discovered they weren’t watching a video game trailer at all.

The digital bait-and-switch of Rickrolling was born, and 4chan was not amused.

“The reaction was pure rage,” recalled Mr. Cotter with a laugh on a phone interview with Betabeat. “They were so mad because people had been pumped for this game for so long.”

Within days, the video exploded across the web and became one of the modern internet’s most well-known memes. To date, “Rickroll’d” has been viewed over 64 million times–most of them probably by mistake, considering the spirit of the meme. Mr. Cotter remained anonymous before coming forward in a Reddit AMA late last year.

“I figured it would last a couple hours and that was it,” Mr. Cotter said of the video’s success. “I didn’t figure it would get reposted so much. It just was craziness when it did. Within the first day it was up to a crazy amount of views.”

We found Mr. Cotter through his AMA, but were still skeptical that the phenomenon of Rickrolling could actually be tracked back to a single person. In order to prove that it was really he who uploaded the original video, we asked him to add a few lines to the YouTube description. Sure enough, he wrote “Hi, Jessica!” in the description, and we actually felt kind of famous, if only for a moment.

In the ’80s, “Never Gonna Give You Up” was a worldwide number-one hit that catapulted Mr. Astley to music stardom. His first eight singles hit the U.K.’s Top 10, but he decided to retire in 1993—at the ripe age of 27—to focus on his family. But 15 years later, with the click of a Nebraskan Air Force kid living in Korea, he was suddenly relevant again.

We asked Mr. Cotter which video he’d choose to start a similar trend, if he could choose today. “I’m a pro wrestling fan so probably what i would do is instead of doing a music video, I’d bring back a wrestling theme song. Hulk Hogan’s ‘Real American’–that’s a classic.”

Here’s what Mr. Astley thinks of the whole thing.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com