The Mannequin Challenge became, for a brief moment, a physical challenge levied at the American people. Hillary Clinton rose to it. So did the Dallas Cowboys and the Red Lobster marketing team. Each of them froze in place, straining their muscles and suppressing the urge to gasp, as a cameraperson wove through an elaborate, frozen tableau like Quicksilver in the X-Men movies. Masterminded by a group of Florida teenagers, the viral meme documented implied dramas, prompting friends, classmates, and coworkers to envision the most intense moments they could spend together.
Not only was the Challenge a viral sensation for creators, it drew a massive viewership that to professional athletes and rappers like 2 Chainz embracing the fad and stirring up a competitive approach that led to increasingly intricate videos.
Eager to understand why challenge went so profoundly viral so quickly, Inverse talked to Know Your Meme Editor-in-Chief Brad Kim about the history of similar trends, Black Twitter’s role in blowing the MC up, and what the future of online challenges might look like.
What other memes and challenges influenced the Mannequin Challenge?
The mannequin challenge can be seen as a next level iteration that draws inspiration from a bunch of different photo fads that have gone viral in the past. Many of these kind of photo games were static. I can name at least three distinct challenges that involve basically looking lifeless: playing dead, the lying down game, and planking.
After that era, we started seeing more adventurous and action-driven games. People weren’t posing lifeless anymore; it wasn’t a static thing. They would stage these unusual photos of people jumping in the mid air and taking a well-timed photo of it. Some examples being leisure diving during summer 2011. That was an early example of the second generation of photo fads, there were others like Pottering. It was a thing among Harry Potter fans where they would do a little jump with a broom between their legs and it looked like they were playing a game of Quidditch.
There’s a couple of examples leading up to 2014. People were still using the medium of still images, but they were bringing some dynamic elements into the games. Now what we have is a video format. The Mannequin Challenge is a video challenge that basically reverses what has been played out before. Essentially they are living portraits. It’s the panning of the camera to show everybody staying still.
Why did the Mannequin Challenge become so popular?
It’s a combination of factors as to why the Mannequin Challenge kind of stood out. I think the fact that the social media platforms have been encouraging video sharing and communication in the past couple of years or so has helped. Video fads in general have been pretty rare. Using the video format to make still-like videos is a clever diversion of the medium. When photo fads were trending, YouTube was probably the only outlet where you can easily upload a video challenge until the Ice Bucket Challenge when Instagram and Facebook videos started taking off.
I would consider the Mannequin Challenge as is a super meme that combines a variety of visual elements that have been trending in the past five years and put it into a video format.
How has Black Twitter influenced the popularity of the challenge?
I think in the past couple of years basically, Black Twitter has become a powerhouse of memes especially among teenagers. The first big photo fad that caught on with Black Twitter is the Selfie Olympics which has a resemblance to the Mannequin Challenge with posing in physically difficult positions.
Black Twitter also played a big part in popularizing dances. Theres a bunch of dances that we can name, but the most recent relevant one is the dab. A lot of these things go from the local hip-hop subcultures and blows up into a thing on Vine or Twitter. Black Twitter has long been building its own collection of social media challenges, but mainly involving dances. But the Mannequin Challenge is pretty interesting because is kind of counters the trend of Black Twitter dance memes that weve seen so far where you have to learn the moves step by step. This one is kind of doing nothing.
What happens when a brand or company partakes in one of these challenges?
As far as the online reaction to commercialization of these things, most people have come to terms about it. It usually signals the beginning of the decline of that meme when it either reaches the commercial level or the political level. The’s when the joke is over. In comparison to how people are reacting to the Harlem Shake showing up in television commercials, things have changed a lot. Most media outlets and people who are looped into the meme culture see that as the beginning of the decline of the meme.
What do you think the next viral challenge might entail?
It’s hard to say. All I know and all I can say for certain is the average life cycle of these fads has gotten way shorter; it’s suddenly getting shorter and shorter. The average frequency of these challenges has also been speeding up. As far as forecasting, it’s a little bit cyclical. A lot of memes do tend to have some sort of connection or ties to culturally relevant things. Whether its a song or current events. As far as teenage fads go, its kind of absurdism played out of boredom. It’s rather unpredictable.
Anything else you’d like to add?
One thing I would like to mention is that it does reflect one of the main mechanisms of how memes continue to evolve and play off of one another — you can really see the one-upmanship. If anything, the Mannequin Challenge shows that even though we can say all these old photo challenges are dead, someone will bring either new elements to it or recycle an old one and incorporate it into a new thing. It illustrates the one-upmanship of memeing.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.