Look at the above image. Soak it in. Become one with the abomination.
This chimeric nightmare was posted earlier this week to obtuse, anti-humorous Facebook group Wet and Soggy Memes. Contained therein is the face of the late ape Harambe, Arthur’s shaking fist, the torso of car-proof future man Graham, the cowl of “I’m gay,” Squidward’s dabbing arms, Spongegar’s mouth, the 👌 😂 emoji combination, a noos,e and a bootle of Clorox—all teetering on the narrow reptilian hind limbs of dat boi.
Contained in its hideous visage is the reason why memes are dead.
Hear me out. The internet was a very different place in the early days of memes. Many people did not have reliable access to a computer, the ability to steal a cracked copy of Photoshop, or a fast enough connection to do most of the things we now take for granted. The technological and social barriers to entry were markedly higher. As a result, the communities from which memes sprang didn’t cross-pollinate often. These macros and stock phrases existed for the enjoyment of people on a few specific sites and were a way of keeping newbies out. People spent time creating new jokes because, well, the idea of slapping new text on an obscure comic and having thousands of people read it was pretty novel and exciting (and in hindsight, pretty embarrassing.)
In short, internet denizens were shitposting uphill both ways in the snow, and no one but them cared. The idea that these stupid inside jokes could make sense to anyone else, let alone become a source of profit, was unconscionable.
People familiar with even a few parts of Grahamgarambe’s anatomy will know they also hail from completely different corners of the internet—and Google Trends reveals they reached vastly different levels of popularity, at totally different points in time. For instance, Squidward was born on Vine. “I’m gay,” belongs to YouTube. Dat boi allegedly marinated on Funnyjunk and Tumblr before getting his wheels on Facebook.
All have spread well beyond the confines of a single site or service, as memes have been doing for some time now. Vines get ripped to YouTube. Facebook posts get screengrabbed and posted to Tumblr etc. etc.
And with greater saturation comes meme dilution, an idea that people poked fun at with the concept of “rare pepes.” Then there are the bandwagoning brands and shoutouts from arbiters of wider cultural acceptability. Case in point: the overnight success of “damn, Daniel,” the inevitable tweets from Vans et al., a hyped up appearance on Ellen (30 million views), and then an immediate spiral into irrelevance. On to the next meme.
One need look no further than the backlash directed towards Miles Klee for “killing” dat boi to see that many people still ascribe to the earlier meme model. Obscurity is still, in some circles, a meme’s lifeblood. But obscurity implies that a meme exists within a select community. Frankly, that’s bullshit.
Likewise, a hallmark of the early meme was the creator sublimating herself to the community. You posted something funny? Good. It belongs to us now and we’re going to modify it until it ceases to be funny. The platforms on which jokes now proliferate all have some degree of audience acquisition built in— friends, likes, followers—and the attendant ability to leverage that audience. The introduction of both personal glory and money has led to dissonance. For example, the BuzzFeed staffer whose Photoshop project was recreated by a graffiti artist and sold for $100,000 or the entire career of noted content thief The Fat Jewish. If a meme can be cooped or stolen outright, is it still a meme?
Of course, the exception to the rule, contained in our dear unicycle-riding Frankenstein’s monster, is Harambe. This sad gorilla is by far the most well-known part of this sickening composite, owing to its origins as a legitimate news item. Some, like my colleague Matt Novak, contend that the ape’s memedom is safe from the grubby hands of profiteers because the subject matter is simply too dark. This is undoubtedly true. There’s no tasteful way for Gorilla Glue to monetize a deceased primate. But is Harambe—or the related phrase of “dicks out for Harambe”—a even meme? Arguably the phenomenon of Harambe is secondary it its place as a reaction to the monetization of user content.
People will always make weird shit on the internet, but “memes” as we once knew them are no longer part of the pantheon. The internet of exclusion is over and dead, replaced by an accessible future of personal brands, where everything can be leveraged to make money for someone who isn’t you. The murky pool of memedom has become the squeaky-clean sea of Content and baby, we’re all swimming in it.