2018 in Memes: 7 Surprisingly Dark Revelations From Know Your Meme's EIC
"We’ve already passed the testing stage of memes as political weapons."
In Ancient Rome, citizens relied on self-constructed myths to give their lives structure. In 2018, in the United States (and around the world), we engage in myth building a little differently: We make memes.
It’s no secret that over the last decade, memes have evolved from poorly-photoshopped images floating through the backwaters of Reddit to the defacto conduit for online cultural commentary. This picked up steam in the wake of the 2016 election, which gave rise to the perception that memes had begun infiltrating our social discourse. Their factual accuracy, after all, matters considerably less than their garnered emotional response. To make sense of this brave new world, Inverse sat down with Brad Kim, Know Your Meme’s editor-in-chief, to figure out what memes can tell us about the political and cultural landscape of 2018.
If anyone is capable of rendering a reliable assessment, it’s the people behind Know Your Meme, the database for everything online meme-related, and which recently turned 10 this year. The company launched during the election cycle for Barack Obama, who Kim reminds us was America’s original social media president.
. But in an unexpectedly dark interview, Kim explains how memes have not only become more popular; they’ve arguably become more dangerous. Have we weaponized memes to the point of no return?
7. Meme Staying Power Is Characteristic of Our Divisive Times
The most culturally impactful memes are the ones that breed tension, explains Kim. And American politics, as volatile and prone to explosions as they are, have been aggressively primed for meme wars. “I think the divisiveness in politics is key,” says Kim.
6. Meme Appreciation Is Becoming More Segmented
Gritty as Antifa? Trump’s gorilla channel? 2018 saw a burst of deep cut political memes, memes that often require several levels cultural knowledge to make sense of. Increasingly niche jokes are emblematic of a larger macro-trend, says Kim: segmenting. Essentially, smaller groups of people with shared interests - say, pro-Trump stoner gamers - are able to bond over memes that function as Venn diagrams for their collective obsession of choice.
5. POTUS Still Dominates Meme Culture
While Know Your Meme compiles their end-of-year impact lists with diversity in mind, Kim says Trump still ultimately nabbed the top meme spot purely in terms of numbers. The effect was strong enough, Kim says, that the president’s impact on meme culture may be permanent.
“The textbook life-cycle of political memes that endure are ones that start with a politician or an electoral candidate saying something off-kilt,” says Kim. But the concept of gaffes as fodder for memes has shifted drastically since Trump came into office. He’s committed countless instances of what would have once been considered career-ending gaffes. And yet, somehow, he’s still around.
“When he’s on the input end of a thing or a comment that becomes a meme, it really doesn’t matter whether the meme spins out in a positive or negative light.”
He so dominated the conversation last year that any meme about him just became A Meme About Him, says Kim.
4. The Political Orientation of Memes Is Shifting
Sure, maybe the catchphrase “The left can’t meme” is still true, to some extent. But Kim says the internet is finally over the shell shock and persistent stream of Donald Trump-generated memes, and the playing field is beginning to level out, or at least stabilize.
3. Memes Endure Whether They’re Good or Bad
Even Kim, who was obviously among the first to realize that these meme-things were worth paying attention to, says he’s surprised at the extent of meme-staying power.
“I didn’t think that that memes as a cultural concept would have this level of endurance when it comes to staying relevant,” said Kim. “It just became the universal adapter of messages.”
2. Memes Are Eroding the Discourse
“We’ve already passed the testing stage of memes as political weapons,” said Kim. “Meme culture definitely played a vehicle for shifting the trend of conversations from, ‘Hey, let’s talk about this issue and let’s debate the accuracy of this fact.’ It’s become, ‘Let’s make a meme that portrays a subject in this way and see where it goes’.”
1. The Weaponization of Memes Is Just Getting Started
Maybe you saw this coming, but memes are on track to become grassroots political propaganda platforms. Smear campaigns are no longer the responsibility of a campaign manager; a particularly scathing meme, created by an individual, can now knock a candidate off-track just as effectively. And Kim sees the trend only intensifying, becoming “more of a free-for-all, and unapologetic.”
It’s hard to say for sure when memes, whose authorship is elusive and recursive by definition, took such a dark turn. But it does seem, distressingly, like the weaponization of memes is only just getting started — just this week, a security company found memes with malware commands embedded in the images. Perhaps, as has been often said of art, memes are a kind of mirror which can reflect back to us a picture of our own nature. If that’s the case, then it feels safe to say 2018 was a rough year. But hey, at least it’s almost over.