The word meme is a neologism coined by biologist Richard Dawkins back in 1976*, but few know that, because it has morphed into a short form of “funny thing on the internet.” How do you and Know Your Meme approach the concept?
BRIANA Both apply at Know Your Meme. We cover the popular image macros (think Drake or Galaxy Brain) and current events, but we also include lesser-known formats, like snowclones (phrasal templates), participatory media, and video memes. Many people think memes are just “funny pictures with words,” but a wider way of seeing them is as an in-joke. You can show you’re in on something in ways beyond a screenshot of a tweet or with an object-labeling meme.
So, statistically speaking, most memes are humorous?
BRIANA They’re usually intended to be. I’m hugely into this semi-recent popularity that cringe content and memes have gained. While some cringe happens to be funny, a lot of it just produces a sort of visceral pain. There are also “memes” that are shocking and horrifying. For example, the Blue Whale Challenge and Momo Challenge, which have promoted self-harm and suicide.
What is your job at Know Your Meme? Could your work be described as curatorial?
BRIANA I’m an editor for Literally Media, the parent company of Know Your Meme, but I contribute pitches and assist with ad-hoc projects for the site. I spend a lot of time looking at memes on Reddit and Instagram, but most of my job is creating meme listicles and other kinds of easily digestible content for the bored and humor-hungry. My duties feel more like a necessary service now that so many people are in lockdown.
Can you tell us about the history of memes? If you created a timeline, what are the most important memes on it?
BRIANA Many younger meme-makers probably aren’t familiar with the first widely accepted memes. Dancing Baby, which sports a pretty self-explanatory title, began circulating in 1996. I remember kids talking about it in elementary school. I didn’t have the internet at home and had to sneak a viewing during a typing class. We held a Two Decades of Memes event and exhibition in 2018 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. One of the highlights was inducting ten iconic memes into our Hall of Memes.
Here’s the list, which is in chronological order:
1. All Your Base (1998) 2. Rickroll (2006) 3. Facepalm (2007) 4. Rage Comics (2008) 5. Pepe the Frog (2008) 6. Loss (2008) 7. Nyan Cat (2011) 8. Doge (2013) 9. Galaxy Brain (2017) 10. Distracted Boyfriend (2017)
Do you have favorite memes? Some you go back to after years?
BRIANA I’m loving this resurgence of Wojak memes, which came on the scene in 2010. A few of them, such as Dick Flattening and Money Printer Go Brr, have become hugely popular among shitposters. But I go through phases. It’s easy to get meme fatigue when you’re looking at them all day. After a while, even memes I once loved become pretty unfunny. Seeing a Loss meme still elicits an agonized groan from me, which is saying something. People use memes as a way to express and share feelings and thoughts.
Are they a form of societal seismograph?
BRIANA In a way, sure. But we tend to exist in bubbles. Looking at my Instagram feed, you’d think the people of the United States were just about ready to send every aging politician besides Bernie Sanders to the guillotine. That’s not a reflection of reality. But for some situations, such as the coronavirus outbreak, we can take the outpouring of relatable memes at face value. This terrifying experience is one we’re all sharing, largely from behind our screens and under a heavy shroud of anxiety. Meme culture is obsessed with raw relatability, and coronavirus has taken that to the next level.
What would be an example of a very popular meme that is more known in conservative or right-wing bubbles?
BRIANA I think NPC Wojak and “red-pilled” fall into this category. NPC Wojak memes are supposed to represent people who don’t think for themselves. They’re the opposite of people who are “red-pilled.” Yes, this is a The Matrix reference. The blue pill gives you blissful ignorance, and the red pill represents the option of learning a painful, harsh truth. There seems to be this feeling of being a battered-down crusader for some hidden truth on the right. These memes resonate with that.
Did you see more memes emerge in the coronavirus lockdown?
BRIANA An enormous number of memes have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since we first began covering the virus back in January , there have been more than 60 related entries submitted to the Know Your Meme database. Also, over 3,700 images linked to the virus have been uploaded to the database. This amount is staggering. It might be one of the most significant meme events in internet history. Memes remind me of Roland Barthes’s essay The Death of the Author. Compared to other forms of creative or artistic output, nobody cares who created a meme.
No one is a famous meme creator. Or are there?
BRIANA That’s correct. Most big meme accounts on Instagram become popular because they put out seriously lowestcommon- denominator content. A lot of these creators end up shilling products. Many of my favorite content creators shy away from watermarking their work. Memes are such a reflection of the transient nature of the internet and trends, it feels tacky to demand recognition and credit, at least for the memes that I make. Most memes are based on copyrighted material.
Do you run into problems collecting them?
BRIANA Not really, no. While many memes use copyrighted source material, I’m not sure we can say with confidence that most do. And it’s not an issue in the area of collection. Merchandising, for sure. Additionally, one of the things we take pride in is our ability to accurately identify the source material used in various memes. Pinpointing the source can take a long time, and doing so can subject us to a lot of unsavory content if the meme is particularly offensive or lewd.
BRIANA MILMAN is a terminally online New Yorker and an editor at Literally Media.
Follow Briana on Instagram: @hauntedtoilet