I was studying Josh DeSeno’s face while he tried to explain what makes it so important. I certainly wasn’t able to tell by looking at him . He has large, close-set eyes, thin lips, and dimples on his cheeks. As we talked over video chat, DeSeno wasn’t making much eye contact; he was talking to his keyboard more than to me. “I’ve gotten used to people constantly using my face,” he told me. I looked at that face — that unremarkable white-guy face — and wondered: Outside of the queen and the other famous people on currency, how did DeSeno’s face become perhaps the most reproduced one in human history?
Blame video games. DeSeno’s face has come to represent the emotion most native to the Internet: soft mockery or provocation. Light trolling, in other words. And light trolling appears to be one of the most popular forms of human interaction today. More than 15 times each second — that’s more than 1.3 million times each day, and more than 350 million times so far this year — somebody deploys an image derived from DeSeno’s face on Twitch.tv, the Amazon-owned streaming service. More than 100 million people use Twitch each month to livestream video games, watch others play, and chat with one another about the games. A whole lot of Twitch users type “Kappa” into the chat bar to suggest that whatever they typed previously was meant in jest. Twitch then turns “Kappa” keystrokes into a pictograph of DeSeno’s head. Kappa is by far the most used emoticon (or “emote,” as Twitch calls them) on Twitch, used several times more often than other popular emotes such as “PogChamp” (shock) and “Kreygasm” (pleasure), according to TwitchEmotes.com.1
There are lots of reasons Kappa became top dog in Twitch, but the major one is that sarcasm is universally loved but complicated to express in print. “There’s a big difference between ‘Man, you’re terrible,’ and ‘Man, you’re terrible :)’” said Chris Kluwe, the former Minnesota Vikings punter who has become a minor online celebrity and gamer in his post-football “career.” (If you can call it that .) Why does Kluwe like using Kappa? “Because it’s basically a sarcasm indicator and people love being sarcastic, but … dry humor is tough to pull off without facial and intonation cues.”
How Josh DeSeno became the face of impish sarcasm is at once simple to explain and complicated to understand. The origin story is pretty straightforward. In 2009, DeSeno was hired as an early engineering employee of Justin.tv, one of the first livestreaming video sites on the web. His first task was to rewrite the chat client for the gaming channel that would become Twitch, one of the many new community-based products Justin.tv was rolling out. Since many of the original Justin.tv staffers had inserted their faces as emoji easter eggs for the chat room,2 DeSeno decided to do the same, using the photo from his employee ID.
Until then, DeSeno had never referred to himself as Kappa. But that day, something changed. DeSeno is a fan of Japanese pop culture and mythology (like all good gamer fanboys ) and he was especially interested in the yōkai, a group of supernatural monsters. When he was naming his emote, the word “Kappa” — the name for a strong, turtle-like trickster — came to mind. DeSeno’s easter egg stayed hidden for about a week, until an enterprising Twitcher sussed it out and started using it. And even though DeSeno is a fan of dry, almost parched, humor, and his emote shares a name with a mythical joker, “Kappa” didn’t initially mean trolling, or, really, anything else. “Meme chat culture wasn’t as prevalent then as it is now,” DeSeno said. “Initially, people were using it to replace parts of words in a punny sort of way, like ‘-licious’.”
About six months after it was discovered, though, DeSeno noticed Kappa start to take on its modern connotation. Maybe it’s because Twitchers started to understand the origins of the Kappa name. Or maybe it’s because, in that famous photo, DeSeno has a subtle smirk on his face — or “just a feigned smile,” as he describes it. DeSeno prefers a different explanation: “Kappa” happens to be easier to type than all the other emote words, like “OptimizePrime.”3 Ease of typing is useful for when you’re filling up the chat screen with trolling emotes after you blow up all the other members of your raiding party with a poorly thrown bomb .
In the six years since he created the Kappa emote, DeSeno has left the company to help start a virtual reality testing firm and Twitch was acquired by Amazon for about $1 billion. But Kappa has kept rolling. “It’s been something that I’ve expected to die off after a while,” DeSeno said. “You don’t see people talking about ‘Chocolate Rain,’ but the Kappa meme has been really long-lived.” One of the reasons is the growth of eSports, which have attracted huge audiences who want to see professional teams compete in video games including “Counter-Strike” and “Dota 2.” In a story for ESPN The Magazine’s special issue on eSports earlier this year, FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman pointed out that 27 million people tuned in to watch the “League of Legends” championship online. Like fans at other sporting events, gamer fans love talking smack. It’s not uncommon to see a giant Kappa head waving in the stands at these events.
Kappa has become a mascot for Twitch users. The user group Creators On Twitch devoted the month of July to creating Kappa-themed art. “Wonkappa” and the “Kappa Lisa” are particularly impressive.4 Keyan Sanie, who goes by Dethskulpt on Twitch, has sold eight of the hefty Kappa resin sculptures he hawks on his site. (DeSeno: “Those kind of freaked me out.”)
While DeSeno remembers the corporate Twitch folks initially resisting the impulse to capitalize on Kappa, they — like DeSeno himself — have realized the emote isn’t going anywhere. At the first dedicated Twitch conference, a 20,000-person gathering that took place in San Francisco last month, all the attendees were issued Kappa-branded lanyards, and the education zone — where Twitch broadcasters learned how to make more money off their streams — featured a huge backdrop of Kappa in glasses. “We celebrated Kappa at TwitchCon simply because it has become so central to the way we all communicate on Twitch,” said Matthew DiPietro, Twitch’s vice president of marketing.
DeSeno guest-starred in fewer than 80 selfies at TwitchCon, which makes his face far less popular IRL than online . Maybe that’s because DeSeno’s face IRL today is now different from Kappa’s. His hair is longer these days, so it’s slightly harder to pick him out of a crowd. “[Kappa’s] an old picture,” DeSeno said. “I feel like I’m a little different from that now.” That makes it easier for him to dissociate himself from the Kappa phenomenon, which he admits makes him a little uncomfortable — not that he thinks he could end it even if he wanted to. “I’m more of an observer than anything at this point,” he said. He cited the Streisand effect when I asked what would happen if he asked Twitch to remove the emote. “You can’t stop the Internet.”
So DeSeno is trying to embrace his weird fame, an effort that includes talking to me. He’s also collecting Kappa-related clippings on his personal website. “You want to be a part of it once you see how big it can be,” he said. Then he acknowledged the downside of becoming a meme. “On a personal level, is this the biggest accomplishment I’m going to make in my life?”
Dhrumil Mehta contributed reporting.