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“What is Air?” is a catchphrase used by Tumblr users to identify each other outside of the website. Since being introduced in 2010, the phrase has evolved into a form of trolling on anonymous chat site Omegle causing the Anonymous raid on Tumblr known as Operation Overlord.
The phrase “what is air?” was used on Tumblr as early as September 19th, 2010 to express the feeling of laughing so hard, one’s breath is lost. On November 8th, 2010, the phrase was included in an Urban Dictionary definition for the phrase “Tumblr Cancer” as an example of phrases Tumblr users will say to fit in with one another. The following day, a second Urban Dictionary definition was added for “What is air?”, which described its use as similar to HNNG on 4chan.
On November 9th, 2010, the first question inquiring about the appearance of the phrase “What is Air” on Omegle was posted to Yahoo! Answers. Over the course of the next three days, this phrase’s appearance on Omegle, combined with what 4chan users perceived as Tumblr users stealing memetic content from their site, led Anonymous members to launch “Operation Overlord,” a nod to the code name for the Battle of Normandy during World War II. Images advertising the plan to flood Tumblr with spam (shown below, left) appeared as early as November 10th, and a screenshot of thread from 4chan’s /b/ (random) board began to spread the following day (shown below, right).
Also on November 10th, the internet culture blog Urlesque broke the news of the incoming raid. On November 14th, the “final phase” of Operation Overlord (shown below, left) began at around 5pm (ET) with DDoS attacks on the microblogging platform. Warnings of this attempted attack were shared on celebrity gossip site Oh No They Didn’t, fashion blog Lookbook.nu, Gawker, and Wired UK. Tumblr did suffer some downtime that evening.
In response, Tumblr users fought back (shown above, right) using both the phrase “What is Air” and pictures of kittens to spam threads on 4chan, taking down the site for a short period of time on November 15th. Referred to as “Operation Overkitten,” Tumblr users’ counter-raid was covered by TechCrunch, The Atlantic, NPR, the Village Voice and Motherboard. Additionally, Tumblr users created threads on 4chan to point out that each site is populated by “desperate virgins” of the opposite sex, which led to an influx of fan art depicting anthropomorphic website mascots of Tumblr and 4chan as being romantically involved. The fictional relationship was bestowed the nickname 4chumblr.
Search queries for “what is air?” spiked in November of 2010, the same month that Operation Overlord took place.
The Atlantic – Inside the Teen Hacker War Between Tumblr and 4Chan
Motherboard – 4chan vs Tumblr Is A Boring War Over Who Owns Memes