Digitally combining the faces of a group to show what a theoretical “average” member would look like is a relatively recent innovation in data visualization. It was perhaps most famously used in 2011 when National Geographic created “the world’s most typical human by combining the faces of 190,000 Han Chinese men, but the technique can work on any group with a large enough sample size. And, as of this week, it’s a meme.
The “500 faces” meme seems to have started with a legitimate post to Reddit’s “data is beautiful” subreddit, averaging the faces of the top 500 professional golfers. (Here’s the code behind it, if you’re curious about how it’s done.) This nondescript white guy is not a real person, he’s just an amalgamation of other faces:
But after this image reached the front page of Reddit, it provided a template for meme-makers to assert whatever they want about whomever they want. One of the most popular examples came from r/the_donald, the notoriously trollish pro-Trump community that’s sometimes called an “annex” of 4chan’s white supremacist /pol/ board. It essentially called Hillary Clinton the most crooked politician in America:
When this example also reached the front page of Reddit, it triggered a flood of imitators. People used the 500 faces trope to assert that Kanye West is the best musical artist of all time:
And that Tom Brady is the best football player:
They also used it to make pop culture references—to Game of Thrones’ faceless men, for example:
or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Sweet Dee. There’s a running joke on the show that she’s a bird:
It can also refer back to other memes, like Chancellor Palpatine’s “I am the Senate!” from the Star Wars prequels:
The 500 faces meme is extremely versatile and simple to execute: you can call anyone anything, and you don’t even need to use a blur filter. In fact, as the Hillary version proved, you don’t have to bother with labeled X and Y axes from the original image, either. It couldn’t be easier.
The drawback is that the images don’t currently stand alone. The punchline is found in the Reddit headlines, which makes it impossible to simply copy-paste the image to another network. It’s not hard to copy-paste the headline, too, and put the joke on Facebook or Twitter, but then you’d be missing the reference to the original golfers’ image, which was a Reddit thing. 500 faces could be popular on other networks, but it’ll have to run its course on Reddit first.