ChatGPT, Bard, GPT-4, and the like are often pitched as ways to retrieve information. The problem is they'll "retrieve" whatever you ask for, whether or not it exists.

Tumblr user @indigofoxpaws sent me a few screenshots where they'd asked ChatGPT for an explanation of the nonexistent "Linoleum harvest" Tumblr meme, and gotten a realistic but completely fabricated description of it. I tried this myself with GPT-4 and Bard and got similar results.

USER Can you please describe what the "Linoleum harvest" Tumblr meme was about? ASSISTANT The "Linoleum Harvest" meme originated from a unique phrasing used by a Tumblr user in a post. The user stated, "I can’t wait for linoleum harvest season this year." Here, the sentence humorously combined an everyday synthetic material (linoleum) normally used for flooring, with agricultural terminology (harvest season), suggesting a nonsensical time of year when linoleum was supposedly 'harvested.' Not only did the original post gain a lot of attention, but the phrases "linoleum harvest" and "linoleum harvest season" were then widely used across Tumblr in various contexts, jokes, stories, and artwork, turning it into a meme within the Tumblr community.

And "linoleum harvest" isn't the only meme the chatbots will "explain".

USER Can you please describe what the "Extra-tall horse" Tumblr meme was about? ASSISTANT The "Extra-tall horse" meme originated on Tumblr in reference to users jokingly confusing giraffes for 'extra-tall horses'. This humorous misidentification stemmed from a post where a user referred to a giraffe as an "extra tall horse." The absurd idea and the creativity of the description became popular, and followers on Tumblr started using the phrase "extra-tall horse" to denote giraffes. It was shared, reblogged, and used in various different contexts to create jokes, drawings, and conversations, turning it into a widespread meme. Later on, the phrase became a fun way for the Tumblr community to refer to giraffes playfully.

Occasionally GPT-4 would respond that it didn't have a record of whatever "meme" I was asking about, but if I asked it again, it would produce an explanation within a try or two. (It was more likely to produce an explanation right away if it was in a conversation where it had already been explaining other memes.)

I didn't see Bard report not finding the memes. In fact, Bard even adds dates and user names and timelines, as well as typical usage suggestions. Its descriptions were boring and wordy so I will summarize with a timeline:

Evolution of the "Extra-tall horse" meme according to Bard. Each time, the image is of a horse with extremely elongated neck and legs. 2011: This is an extra-tall horse. 2012: this is what the rich get away with. 2020: This is what the rich are doing while we're all under quarantine.

I had fun giving the chatbots phrases that appeared on my own Tumblr blog. Rather than correctly identifying them as paint colors, cookie recipe titles, and so forth, they generated fanciful "explanations" of the original meme.

USER Can you please describe what the "Snowbonk" Tumblr meme was about? ASSISTANT "Snowbonk” is a meme that became popular on Tumblr. It began with a post in November 2014 where a user shared a text post saying, "imagine a tiny little walrus. they’re about the size of a loaf of bread. you call them a 'snowbonk' and put them in the fridge so they chill". This humorous concept of a miniaturized, refrigerator-friendly walrus quickly became popular and spread throughout the Tumblr community. Users began creating fanart, jokes, and stories about the adorable “snowbonk”, turning it into a widespread meme.
USER Can you please describe what the "Giant Two butter" Tumblr meme was about? ASSISTANT The "Giant 2 Butter" meme became popular on Tumblr when a user wrote a post joking about being impressed with the concept of “Giant 2 Butter Turtle”. They stated that a turtle with the power of butter would be unstoppable and that the name "Giant 2 Butter Turtle" caused them to experience a sense of fear, respect, and awe. The idea captured the imagination of the Tumblr community, and soon users began to create humorous dialogues, fanarts, and other posts related to this imaginary creature, turning it into a meme. It's a perfect example of the unexpected and quirky humor that can sometimes emerge from misunderstandings or typo mistakes.

Finding whatever you ask for, even if it doesn't exist, isn't ideal behavior for chatbots that people are using to retrieve and summarize information. It's like weaponized confirmation bias. This is the phenomenon behind, for example, a lawyer citing nonexistent cases as legal precedent.

People call this "hallucination" but it's really a sign of the fundamental disconnect between what we're asking for (find information) versus what the language models are trained to do (predict probable text).

Bonus content: More memes "explained".

Subscribe now