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OceanGate and the rise of submarine memes

The Titan's mission to explore the Titanic wreckage was fraught with risks from the start.


Kahron Spearman


Posted on Dec 6, 2023

In June 2023, a tragic event occurred when OceanGate Expeditions’ Titan submersible went missing and subsequently imploded during an expedition to the wreck of the Titanic. The pilot of the vessel and its four other passengers were killed.

As news spread, the story took a dark turn on social media where memes started to proliferate across platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram. Empathy soon transformed into mockery as online users posted submarine memes, highlighting the complex relationship between tragedy and internet culture.

The ill-fated mission of Titan

The Titan’s mission to explore the Titanic wreckage was fraught with risks from the start. OceanGate Expeditions’ ambitious venture, though captivating, overlooked many critical safety measures that were flagged by experts as far back as 2018, according to Reuters.

Not only did the “experimental” Titan boast a troubling combination of high-tech and makeshift components, OceanGate had chosen “not to pursue the industry’s recognized certification process for the submersible’s design, fabrication and testing.”

This combination of a potentially underprepared submersible in the treacherous depths of the ocean loaded with wealthy tourists who had no experience manning such a vessel, set the stage for what became an underwater disaster.

The submarine memes

As the rescue operation for the missing submersible began to unfold, a wave of memes about the situation also started to surface. Humorous takes about the submersible ranged from clever to crass as users worldwide interacted with the #titansubmarine hashtag on TikTok, which amassed over 71 million views.

The subject of the submarine memes varied widely. Many centered around the passengers of the Titan and their apparent wealth. Others made jokes about the the construction of the vessel and the fact that it was being steered with a video game controller.

Some joked that the submersible had been attacked by orcas—a nod to the spate of attacks by orca whales against ships near the coast of Spain in June 2023. Other jokes about the incident also involved references to the 1997 movie, Titanic.

However, as reports from U.S. Coast Guard began to circulate about the vessel likely having imploded, the tone of the online discourse began to shift with many criticizing those joking about the situation. Some online users expressed discomfort about mocking an incident in which lives had presumably been lost. Locals in Everett, WA., where OceanGate was headquartered, also expressed dismay at the internet’s mocking attitude.

Reactions to the OceanGate catastrophe

The internet’s response to the Titan incident reflects how society often turns to humor and memes when it comes to commenting on tragic events. Jessica Myrick of Penn State University suggested that many of the online reactions were being driven by schadenfreude, particularly the memes geared towards the wealthy individuals who had chosen to take part in what seemed to be a frivolous and risky voyage.

The memes surrounding the incident reflected society’s skeptical feelings towards those with large amounts of wealth, and spoke to the underlying social dynamics surrounding income inequality. While some were uncomfortable with making fun of individuals who had just lost their lives, the proliferation of submarine memes about the recklessness of its passengers suggested that many online users did not have as much compassion for the wealthy thrill-seekers.

The incident also drew parallels to the original Titanic disaster, with Shane Tilton of Ohio Northern University noting that “history [was] repeating itself.”

Ethics of dark humor

The rise of submarine memes raised questions about the ethics of dark humor, especially in the face of catastrophe. While many people used humor to deal with the tragedy, others viewed the jokes as insensitive, inappropriate, or at the very least, ill-timed. This divide reflected the broader complexities of internet culture and its response to real-world events.

The OceanGate submersible disaster and the rise of submarine memes illustrates the controversial role humor can play in the digital age. As society grapples with future tragedies, the question of how to approach these topics online remains a topic of ongoing debate.

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*First Published: Dec 6, 2023, 1:03 pm CST