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Back in 2011, when internet memes were still young and primitive, one of the most popular reaction images was an anime screenshot of a man misidentifying a butterfly. “Is this a pigeon?” he asks, smiling. The image was especially popular on Tumblr, where it was used to express confusion or point out a misguided belief. Many years after it first went viral, the image is back, and it’s been updated for today’s much more sophisticated meme culture.
Here’s the original screenshot, from the anime The Brave Fighter of Sun Fighbird. For context, this character is a robot who’s still getting the hang of human existence. There’s no translation mistake here—the “pigeon” line is a gag that’s part of the plot.
The butterfly meme first emerged back when memes were still called “image macros,” “All Your Base are Belong to Us” was a cool catchphrase, and Photoshopping characters like Sad Keanu into different scenes was the height of creativity. At that time, it was mostly used without editing; it just worked as a “WTF” reaction image or a funny non-sequitur.
In 2018, memes are much more dynamic, and meme people will use every part of an image like this. They’ll edit the caption, they’ll replace the butterfly, they’ll use object labeling to make the man(droid) and the butterfly represent various concepts. Sometimes, they’ll do all of these things at once. We’ve come a long way since 2011!
Here’s a more modern butterfly meme. Instead of expressing confusion, it’s calling out the ubiquity of a trendy phrase. Is this a big mood? Yes, it is!
has this been done yet? pic.twitter.com/fdHfNEMaBL— chava aybby (@chvschpr) March 31, 2018
The hugely popular “big mood” post was what brought the “pigeon” image back for a new generation of memers, but they quickly took it in a different direction.
Often, the new butterfly memes are used to bluntly call bullshit on something or someone. For example, being asked to avoid slurs is not oppression:
The classic action series Kamen Rider is not the newer (but also classic) manga/anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure:
April is not winter, despite the crappy weather in New York City earlier this month:
Art teachers don’t always “get” manga-style illustration:
And sometimes Tumblr censorship goes overboard:
These memes are functionally similar to the “Is This Your King?” meme, starring Black Panther character Erik Killmonger:https://twitter.com/TheyWant_Nolan/status/976092785316163584
But the butterfly meme has additional dimensions, and it isn’t as strongly tied to a specific media property (hardly anyone using the meme knows or cares what Fighbird is).
The tone of the butterfly meme isn’t always critical and sarcastic, for example. Sometimes it’s superlative, or even awestruck. “Is this a dream?” you can ask. “Is this God?”
Even though people have forgotten the relatively ancient origins of the butterfly meme (if they ever knew them at all), it’s thriving this month under the stewardship of the next meme generation. They’ve imbued it with their own aesthetics, politics, and big moods. Is this a good meme? Yes, yes it is.
Jay Hathaway is a former senior writer who specialized in internet memes and weird online culture. He previously served as the Daily Dot’s news editor, was a staff writer at Gawker, and edited the classic websites Urlesque and Download Squad. His work has also appeared on nymag.com, suicidegirls.com, and the Morning News.