When Marty McFly finally arrives in modern-day Hill Valley, California a little later this afternoon, I admit I’ll be a little sad. Because his arrival signifies the end of one of the best internet memes of all time.
If you were anywhere near a computer over the last decade, at some point in your electronic life, you received an email that included some text (which almost always included “that day is TODAY!”), a variation of the clock in the DeLorean photoshopped to the current date, or one of the many accompanying graphics (typos and all).
You might remember believing it, or maybe wanting to believe, that for just a moment, you’d lived to see the future. You might have accepted it as truth and gone about your afternoon.
Or if you were like me, you made it your job to squash this meme, which kept popping up like an errant lock of Michael J. Fox’s hair.
As a fan of the film, I always knew the date; it was burned into the back of my brain with Manhattan street addresses from Ghostbusters and the Mandarin lyrics to “Anything Goes” that opened Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I found myself to be a voracious debunker of the meme. I’d pound my retorts ferociously into my friends’ comment fields, but to what avail? Even the cinematic proof looked janky, like the dates had been doctored in post. Who would ever believe me?
More importantly, who was to blame?
Know Your Meme claims the hoax originated with a single tweet from Total Film on July 5, 2010, which was subsequently reported by plenty of publications as truth, even though it was five years and several months too soon.
Total Film claimed it was an accident. An honest mistake! They were just sitting around talking about Back to the Future and got it wrong. But then they did something weird. They photoshopped the supposed timekeeping panel to the date in question and uploaded it to Twitpic. Now the damage was done. And a meme was born.
The clock panel that Total Film manipulated was not even from the part of the film that showed the October 21, 2015 date. It’s from an earlier part of the first film, when Doc shows Marty the DeLorean for the first time and punches several potential dates he might visit into the time machine.
But this clear, unfettered view gave future pranksters an easy backdrop in which to toss in the date of their choice.
Although I first experienced the meme over email, social media meant it appeared more often, traveling through the cables of society faster than lightning striking the Clock Tower. Your college roommate gleefully posted it on Facebook. Someone you greatly admire dutifully retweeted it as fact. Your mom, ever the traditionalist, emailed it to you for the second time that year, subject line: “wow!!!!!”
A few years later, on June 27, 2012, the meme gathered enough momentum to merit national attention again. This time, though, was a completely premeditated effort on behalf of the ad agency promoting the film’s Blu-Ray release. Social media manager Steve Berry—any relation to Marvin?—told Mashable that he purposely recreated the image and worded the copy the same way, thinking no one would fall for it again.
Oh, but we did.
After that, though, fans began taking matters into their own hands. Fans created their own graphics to help dispel the rumor. Countdown clocks cropped up, providing us with an easy and efficient way to smack down the lies. Single serving websites poked fun at the madness, waiting for the one day when they might finally be able to change their message:
What will happen to the Future Day meme? Will it continue to travel through our inboxes and timelines, much like the DeLorean, stuck between two possible worlds? It’s not often that a fake internet meme eventually becomes true. Did we help it to become real, like McFly siblings materializing in a wrinkled photograph?
“Today is not the future” I used to type angrily at my friends when they disseminated the worst pop culture misinformation in history. Now I can’t say that anymore. Today is the future. And it will soon be the past.
Follow the author at @awalkerinLA