Mar.15

How the Internet Fell in Love with Leonardo DiCaprio

It’s hard to find a less pitiable man on earth than Leonardo DiCaprio. The actor and environmentalist has achieved stratospheric levels of success. He’s often photographed poolside. And that pool is usually on a yacht.

In the world of film, he’s famed director Martin Scorsese’s favourite leading man and has won awards for his environmentalism and acting. DiCaprio has picked up three Golden Globes, two Critics’ Choice Awards, and one Scream Award. He even holds two Blockbuster Entertainment Awards: a testament to his long tenure in show business.

Until this year, DiCaprio seemed to have everything but an Oscar.

What did winning an Academy Award do to Leonardo DiCaprio online, and why did the Internet care so much?

Becoming Meme

In the 90s, before Tumblr and Reddit churned out memes like studios churn out remakes, DiCaprio’s image in the public eye was enviable… but not pristine. As a member of the dubiously named Pussy Posse, he had a reputation that is entirely explained by that name.

But that was before most Millenials started making memes on the Internet. That was before Strutting Leo turned a megastar and global brand into an affable, goofy snapshot that has stayed popular for more than five years. Other snapshots of DiCaprio followed suit, becoming their own memes in the same Goofy Leo genre.

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DiCaprio’s lack of participation in the online fervour didn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. (DiCaprio’s only social account is a Twitter handle he didn’t launch until 2010). As found in Crowdbabble, his earliest forays online (in the form of tweets) had low engagement: about 0%.

Strutting Leo was the perfect remix of a very polished brand into a funny, Internet-made meme. In 2008, grassroots enthusiasm for Strutting Leo skyrocketed with Buzzfeed and Funny or Die recaps, and thousands of notes on Tumblr. StruttingLeo.com was purchased and populated. At the height of the recession, making fun of a millionaire somehow made him even more likeable and less aloof.

Goofy Leo quickly blossomed into an entirely new genre of meme that would become even more powerful: Likeable Leo Pines for Oscar.

Poor Leo: Feeling Bad for a Movie Star

The characters DiCaprio played in the early 2010s were often victims of injustice. Young social media users found parallels DiCaprio and his characters, who are usually unfairly deprived some key ingredient (a family, escape, some sitting room on a giant piece of wood floating in a freezing ocean).

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The sympathy for his characters spilled over. Poor Leo became another sympathetic character waiting for much-needed validation. The first network to popularize Poor Leo, 9gag users started posting memes about the actor’s pitiable quest for a golden statue.

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In 2014, when DiCaprio was nominated for his role in The Wolf of Wall Street, the meme reached a fever pitch on Tumblr. More than 180,000 users supported a Tumblr post seething with (mock?) frustration. DiCaprio had been nominated for an Oscar four times, but had never one.  On Tumblr, this injustice was too much to bear.

Fuelled by the often-unfortunate characters he portrays, Poor Leo became a popular hashtag on Tumblr with thousands of posts.

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Reddit was soon to follow. Posts with DiCaprio in the headline have racked up more than 100,000 upvotes (I stopped counting after the first of many pages of submitted DiCaprio links and text posts).

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Still, the actor’s Twitter account didn’t receive much engagement. Leonardo DiCaprio the brand was not as engaging as Leonardo DiCaprio the meme. Between Oscars 2015 and 2016, engagement for the star remained low. The Crowdbabble infographic below shows a 2.3% engagement rate and a very low number of total tweets for the period.

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DiCaprio didn’t participate in the Poor Leo meme, though his starpower doubtlessly benefited from its huge online (unofficial) following. The keywords from his tweets show that his focus was elsewhere while . Below, DiCaprio’s most used terms and topics on Twitter over the past two years made in Crowdbabble:

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Before Oscars 2016, DiCaprio had what every movie star(‘s publicity team) dreams of: an engaged, young, and massive following online. Every year, Poor Leo memes grew in popularity. The Poor Leo meme became a sort of Mayan doomsday clock ticking down to the next Oscars. During the show, win or lose, the hundreds of thousands of Tumblr-ers, Redditors, and aggregator readers would react in a huge way.

Matthew taunts Leo with his oscar win

Every year that Poor Leo lost the meme continued with higher (and funnier) stakes than ever before. In the extremely unlikely event that DiCaprio won, the meme would implode in on itself like a dying star, creating a black hole threatening to break all of social media… and do what to the meme himself?

Mash of dicaprio memes, including INdiana Jones and blink back the tears

The Internet Explodes

When DiCaprio won the Oscar for Best Actor on February 29, 2016, the Internet exploded. Here, the Internet refers to sites dominated by user-generated content: social media, including Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. Two threads about the topic made it to the front page of Reddit with more than 12,000 upvotes between them. To use the correct technical terms, Poor Leo participants on Twitter basically lost their minds.

Did the social media fervour finally spill over to DiCaprio’s own accounts? Was he included, for the first time, in the online conversation about his Oscar?

For the official @LeoDiCaprio on Twitter, excitement over his long-awaited Oscar translated into a concrete and dramatic spike in engagement. The Crowdbabble graph below shows engagement — likes, comments, and retweets — before and after the show. Can you spot his tweet about his Oscar win?

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Let’s zoom in to a narrower date range:

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Sweet victory.

The giant engagement spike is the response to @LeoDiCaprio’s post-win message to fans. His tweet about winning attracted 367,729 engagements from more than 100,000 Twitter users within three days. At the time of press, two weeks later, engagement had snowballed.

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Engagement with the tweet is now up to 955,465 retweets and likes. Compare that number to his other top tweets from the period in the table below, generated on March 1:

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Fandom for Poor Leo the meme, it seems, does translate into fandom for Leonardo DiCaprio the actor. The Oscar-winning actor, though, does not participate in conversations on Twitter — even after his win, he was often left out. Mentions of @LeoDiCaprio stayed surprisingly low after his win. Below, DiCaprio’s mentions the week following his big night:

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Just 20 to 60 tweets per day mentioned @LeoDiCaprio. Perhaps sensing that the actor doesn’t tweet himself, Twitter users talked around and about him — they didn’t try to include @LeoDiCaprio in the Poor Leo/Validated Leo conversation.

The low number of mentions shows that the meme still operates independently of his official brand. The high engagement for his tweets, however, indicates that his official account was able to capture the enthusiasm generated by the Poor Leo meme. The actor didn’t lose a huge number of users between the grassroots fandom and his official account — no small feat for a big movie brand. To compare, Brie Larson’s post-win message on her official social account (Instagram) attracted 88,757 likes and comments. That’s fewer than 10% of DiCaprio’s 1m retweets and likes.

 What Now?

Leonardo DiCaprio has what no other Hollywood actor does: a very special relationship with the Internet. But the little golden statue that solidified Leonardo DiCaprio’s status as a bankable, talented A-List actor may have also killed his covetable online fandom. Now that DiCaprio has his Oscar, the running Poor Leo joke is over. The thrill is gone: each Oscar run from now on will have much lower stakes. Subsequent awards seasons are unlikely to generate the thousands of meme posts and comments on Tumblr and Reddit that they did before the win.

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Is Validated Leo – the movie star who now really does have everything – as likeable as Poor Leo? More importantly, is he as meme-able?

Between February 28 and March 3 2016, in the wake of his win and almost 1,000,000 engagements, @LeoDiCaprio gained 179,500 new followers on Twitter. But engagement with DiCaprio’s account, from March 3 to March 7, is back down to 0%.

Perhaps DiCaprio’s massive Poor Leo fandom will find a new way to celebrate Validated Leo. The thousands of social media users who enjoyed the Poor Leo meme might wait in suspense each awards season to see if the win becomes a streak. Maybe the actor will begin choosing roles that do not end with unjust horror in candlelit crypts or creepy mental hospitals — characters who get what they want (the dawn of a new Strutting Leo era on screen). Maybe Reddit and Tumblr users will find some other void in DiCaprio’s life to fixate on, and Poor Leo will re-emerge.

Poor Leo is sad

DiCaprio’s Twitter data suggests that the Internet’s on screen love affair with the actor is not over: high engagement is possible and follower growth is up. After a borderline-obsessive beginning, the Poor Leo fandom could evolve and grow as DiCaprio’s career changes post-win. Unlike his character’s love affairs, Leo’s special relationship with the Internet is one that could last — at least until Oscars 2017.

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