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The bleak future of the Internet meme

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The Reddit community rejoiced. Users wrote phrases like “praise be Jesus,” “about friggin time,” and “feeling #blessed.” Why? Advice Animals—home to 4.2 million meme-obsessed subscribers—had been booted from Reddit’s front page. 

While the news was buried in the excitement of the addition of 26 new default subreddits—a massive addition to Reddit’s front page—it symbolized of a great shift in content on the popular social news site. 

As Reddit grows up—the site turns 9 years old in June—it only makes sense that cats and Impact text are losing ground to more meaningful content.

The image macro is perhaps the most well-known type of meme. You’ve seen it all over your Facebook wall: photos of cute felines saying dumb things (LOLcats), a socially awkward penguin (Socially Awkward Penguin), or an angry-looking kid wearing a fitted baseball cap (Scumbag Steve). They’ve been bled dry of all their novelty, and they’re just not funny or relevant anymore.

Today’s memes require more substance. They’re more open-ended, more adaptable to various social media; they don’t need places like r/AdviceAnimals to foster creativity. But Reddit is a battleground of Internet content, where only a small number of recurring jokes are embraced by the community; the rest are chewed up and retired quickly and downvoted to meme hell. 

The bludgeoned losers are piling up. Here are a few.

I Can Has Cheezburger?

No other Internet property captures the rise and fall of the image macro than the Cheezburger network.

Hawaiian blogger Eric Nakagawa’s I Can Has Cheezburger? site, founded in 2007 after a photo of a fat gray feline spread on 4chan, hung its business model on Internet users’ obsession with cute cats. The gamble paid off.

In June 2007, icanhascheezburger.com was collecting about 500 submissions per day and netted "about $5,600 (U.S.) per week” in ad revenue.  In September, Nakagawa sold his site, which was now collecting 500,000 visitors a day, for $2 million to Ben Huh

Over the next five years, Huh shortened I Can Has Cheezburger? to Cheezburger and turned his business into an empire of more than 50 sites. Huh’s empire included the purchase of the Daily What, a small online viral-content farm. In 2011, Huh closed a $30 million round of funding. And on Nov. 7, 2012, Huh and his quirky team of netizens premiered their reality series LOLwork, providing an intimate look inside the meme-generating operation.

“A lot of people think it’s a ton of fun to work at a place like ours—like, you’re laughing all the time,” Huh told Entertainment Weekly

The laughter didn’t last. By December, LOLwork ratings were in the toilet. In April 2013, Cheezburger axed 24 employees (about 35 percent of Huh’s staff). Huh called it a need to be “nimble and innovate on one platform optimized for any device, everywhere.”

Or maybe, as Valleywag’s Sam Biddle suggested, the layoffs were for another reason: “Declining ad revenues are a problem, but so is the basic business: it's just very, very easy to find an animal meme picture online.”

Facebook

With some media organizations collecting upward of 30 percent of their traffic through Facebook promotion, every little tweak to the magic formula draws significant criticism

This was the case in December when Facebook adjusted its New Feed algorithm to favor what it called "high-quality" articles over image macros.

“Though Facebook doesn't go into detail about what types of articles it'll be trying to avoid, the announcement comes as short-form content sites like Upworthy and Viral Nova have begun filling users' feeds with articles defined by their provocative headlines,” the Verge reported. “Facebook doesn't say that it'll be removing any articles from the News Feed entirely, but it does say that lower-quality links will begin showing up less prominently as it places better articles up front.”

One of the sites immediately affected by the change was Quickmeme, once the third-most-submitted domain on Reddit. 

After all Quickmeme links were banned from Reddit in July for spamming and vote manipulation, the company switched gears to promoting their content on Facebook, where they experienced traffic spikes Reddit never delivered. Then Facebook dropped the algorithm bomb. Quickmeme has yet to recover, according to traffic stats from Alexa


 

Canvas

Launched in January 2011, Canvas was every meme lover’s dream. It was founded by 4chan founder Christopher “moot” Poole and combined the imageboard’s two greatest assets—its unbridled creativity and anonymity—into a safe-for-work platform. 

The site allowed users to upload images and remix them using a set of tools smack in between  Photoshop’s advanced features and Microsoft Paint’s rudimentary brushes. Content could also be posted and tracked anonymously or through a registered Canvas account.

This combination made Canvas a venture-capital sweetheart.

In June 2011, Poole raised more than $3 million for the New York–based venture. Six months later, the company employed six people in a spacious Union Square office a few blocks from Tumblr. It also had 1 million posts.

In January 2012, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer was photographed greeting Barack Obama at the Phoenix airport with a wagging finger. Brewer was pissed over how the president responded to her book Scorpions for Breakfast. Canvas took the image and fashioned several remixes that earned it a mention in the Washington Post


 

This creativity wasn’t enough to keep the site afloat. 

In January, Poole announced that the site had “simply failed” and would be closing.

“Building any business is hard, but building a business with a single app offering and half of your runway is especially hard,” Poole said. “I’ve come away with newfound respect for those companies who excel at monetizing mobile applications.”

Doge and Flappy Bird

In 2013, there were no bigger memes than Doge, a photo of a Shiba Inu pup with cheesy Comic Sans on top. So far this year it’s been Flappy Bird, a frustratingly addictive mobile game. 

Both memes represent the past and future of Internet memes.

To understand why the “Shibe” is the last of an endangered breed of Internet content, you have to know its history.

Shibe originated in 2010 after kindergarten teacher Atsuko Sato took the following photo of Kabosu, a puppy she had saved. 


 

Sato uploaded the pic to her blog, where it sat for the next three years in relative obscurity. In 2012 it bounced around Tumblr and 4chan’s video game board /v/. It was on Tumblr where the photo was called "doge,” a misspelled use of "dog" popularized by a 2005 episode of Internet cartoon series Homestar Runner.

In August, Doge was getting more and more popular. A group of pranksters from 4chan’s random imageboard /b/ decided to raid Reddit with photos of the cute pup. 


 

From there, Doge went mainstream. The meme had its own subreddit, a 3D-printed figure, and a lengthy Verge feature on the history of the pup. Then, in December, Doge got its biggest breakthrough yet. That’s when Dogecoin was launched—a cryptocurrency that has inspired people to donate more than $70,000 to the Jamaican bobsled team, an Indian Olympic luger, a clean water initiative in Kenya, and a NASCAR driver.

Like memes like Nyan Cat before it, Doge had won over the media and a large swath of the Internet. Its randomness played a large part in that. It came from a place of pure entertainment. It was “a fantastic weird thing,” wrote Adrian Chen in Gawker. “The meme had been honed and perfected to the point that it just inevitably exploded.”

Inevitably, brands and the GOP discovered Doge, and the poor Shiba was taken out behind the barn. The cute pup was old news.

“The only notable meme of 2013 I can remember is Doge and even that wasn't meant to be a big thing at the beginning, either,” says Chris Torres, creator of the Nyan Cat meme. “Everything else was just trying too hard. If everybody can just take a step back for a second and create content solely because they want to, and not because they think it'll become popular, we would be seeing more quality things more often.”

One of the other memes that tried very, very hard was Flappy Bird.

In the fall of 2013 Flappy Bird became the Internet’s greatest guilty pleasure. The game, which has you navigate a bird through a maze of Super Mario–inspired pipes, drew people in with its simple gameplay and the immense effort it took to master. 

By January, Flappy Bird was the best selling app in Apple’s App Store. A month later, Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen removed the game from the App Store.

The result was mass hysteria and a meme explosion.

While people tried selling their iPhones featuring the game for more than $99,000, at least a half dozen clones rose up almost overnight to cash in.

This included Doge, Fall Out Boy, Miley Cyrus, and Vladimir Putin versions. There was even a porn parody.


 

By March, one Flappy Bird clone was being added to the App Store every 24 minutes, Forbes reported

“The reason this gold rush is even possible is because of how simplistic the code is for the game,” Forbes’s Paul Tassi added. “Wired recently ran an interesting piece where they set out to see the minimum amount of effort it would take to make their own Flappy Bird knock-off. What they found is that after purchasing the source code from another clone (‘Flappy Crocodile’), they were able to slap one together in three hours for a total cost of $99.”

This immediate rush to make the next Flappy Bird clone resulted in the meme plummeting in popularity. The money-hungry clones reeked of desperation. 

The following graph not only plots Flappy Bird’s decline, but it may also foreshadow what similar memes can expect in the future.

The end of memes was first predicted by technologist Andy Baio and blogger Chris Menning in 2012. Baio argues that the rise of the mobile Web is bringing an end to remix culture. Menning noticed that the world’s fascination with Anonymous was fading, and so was the interest in 4chan-based art.

In other words, the old cultural signifiers are all dried up, and we’ve lost the incentive to create new ones.

“The popularity of Reddit and the Advice Animal format led to overkill—with people like Scumbag Steve and the artists behind Rage Comics being able to capitalize on their Internet fame,” says Tumblr’s Amanda Brennan, a Know Your Meme alumna.

But while Vadering, the “Way Guy,” and Hillary Clinton’s New York Times Magazine cover are memes that barely registered blips on Google Trends, the term “meme” has never been more popular. 

Much of this can be attributed to how the term “meme” has been diluted. It’s now used as a catch-all for any seemingly popular thing on the Web. Everyone has his own definition of the term, and social networks have become oversaturated with all sorts of marketing gimmicks and corporate remixes

“Memes—the way we've thought about them for a the past few years—are dead,” Brennan says. “Advice Animals marked a transition from memes as a secret cool Internet club which met on places like 4chan and LiveJournal and blogs to this pervasive thing that started showing up on your mom's Facebook feed. With this massive [meme] influx, however, their 15 minutes of Internet fame started to shorten. The turnover was too quick, causing people to lose interest and not care past the short window of time people were interested in participating.”

Memes, as Torres suggests, are returning to their roots.

As things like the Tumblr-made meme “Miss Officer and Mr. Truffles,” Reddit’s “banana for scale,” and 4chan’s toast art show, Internet communities will never stop creating inside jokes as a form of playful communication, even if they don’t cross over into the mainstream.

“The Internet doesn't really need to have its hand held anymore with websites that choose memes for them,” Torres says. “There may be a small lull for new memes right now, but as long as there is creativity in this world then they are never going away. This may just be the calm before the storm of amazing new material.”

Illustration by Jason Reed