If there’s a single meme that describes the state of online discourse in 2017, it’s the Galaxy Brain. The meme is premised on increasingly smart takes next to pictures of increasingly aroused brains… until we get to the end, where we find a take that has gone totally around the bend, next to a picture of a glowing brain that seems to comprehend the mysteries of the stars themselves. A “Galaxy Brain” idea is one that the poster seems to feel is very clever, but it’s actually completely ridiculous. This kind of “dumb-smart” quality is what it means to be Galaxy Brain, and 2017—the year where “smart” people went down ratholes about Russian spy conspiracy theories and the “Deep State”—had it in spades.
Galaxy Brain began life on Reddit in a more sincere form: The biggest brain originally represented an option that the poster honestly felt was smarter or better than the others. This quickly shifted to jokes where the biggest brain was the funniest, weirdest, or most blatantly deficient thing the poster could think of: bad TV shows, bad video games, or pooping in the bathtub (seriously).
Once it reached Twitter, though, the joke became more subtle and sarcastic. Instead of filling out the entire graphical brain chart, people would just derisively refer to a take or opinion as “Galaxy Brain.” This indicated that, despite the author’s confidence in their own intelligence, they were actually extremely dumb.
As America’s politically fraught first year under the Donald Trump, 2017 was as Galaxy Brain as a time period could be. People Galaxy Brained about sexual assault, about Russian election interference, about the NFL national anthem protests, about Nazi-punching, about video games, and about memes themselves. They did it on Twitter, on Reddit, on YouTube, and on the editorial pages of major newspapers. Our collective brain was so, so big this year—and by “big,” I mean ironically galactic.
Let’s look at some of the many times the Galaxy Brain seemed like the perfect shorthand to describe a bit of Bad Discourse:
Remember when Chicago offered to divert Amazon employees’ local taxes directly back into Amazon’s pockets? Galaxy Brain.
regular brain: a universal basic income
galaxy brain: paying your employer taxes because they bought your town
— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) November 27, 2017
Remember when Eric Trump was willfully ignorant about why people were mad that his President father called Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “Pocahontas?” Galaxy Brain.
The irony of an ABC reporter (whose parent company Disney has profited nearly half a billion dollars on the movie “Pocahontas”) inferring that the name is “offensive” is truly staggering to me.
— Eric Trump (@EricTrump) November 28, 2017
Galaxy brain: https://t.co/Ly7ykLvcek
— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) November 28, 2017
Remember when white people were realllly mad at the NFL because Black football players were kneeling during the national anthem, but football’s terrible history of causing brain damage didn’t hurt viewership numbers at all? Yep, that’s Galaxy Brain.
NORMAL BRAIN: BOYCOTTING THE NFL OVER KNEELING
GALAXY BRAIN: NOT BOYCOTTING THE NFL FOR GIVING ITS PLAYERS SEVERE BRAIN DAMAGE
— Hooting Softly (@HunsV) September 28, 2017
Sexual assault, a hot topic about which every dumbass on the internet feels qualified to pontificate, is a deep and rich vein of Galaxy Brain takes:
And the debate about universal healthcare? There’s a Galaxy Brain for that, too:
small brain: health insurance for all
big brain: i have health insurance and it sucks
galaxy brain: if it sucks then why give it to all
— pete gohan creator of raid shadow legends (@sexualjumanji) June 28, 2017
Galaxy Brain is in some ways a symptom of the rise of the Take Industrial Complex, the media phenomenon where writers (and tweeters) race to come up with opinions that haven’t already been posted. When all of the good, sensible opinions and the counterintuitive, insightful takes are already gone, what’s left is Galaxy Brain. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been doing this for years, and posters in 2017 have retroactively acknowledged him as a sort of patron saint of the meme:
Add your voice: RT to replace the galaxy brain jpg with Tom Friedman's op ed headshot pic.twitter.com/xTGlvezafO
— grappling with local oaf (@BileCube) August 14, 2017
This year I’m thankful for the original galaxy brain, tom friedman pic.twitter.com/T0boVpr6zT
— grappling with local oaf (@BileCube) November 24, 2017
The same pattern could be seen all over Twitter debates. In 2017, the state of online discourse is neither good nor subtle, and people mainly post opinions that support their chosen political side. In this climate, it sometimes becomes necessary to convince yourself of some truly absurd garbage to support one’s chosen team. When a belief accords with one’s political views, but doesn’t bear any relation to reality, you get Galaxy Brain. On the left, the most fanciful and elaborate Trump-Russia conspiracy theories form a deep rabbit hole of Galaxy Brain. On the right, hysteria about the news media and the “Deep State” conspiring to depose Donald Trump are Galaxy Brain as hell. The socialist “Dirtbag Left” on Twitter has also used “Galaxy Brain” to describe people who defend capitalism and the free market even as it seems to be crushing their livelihoods.
Another prominent type of Galaxy Brain is the bad-faith take. This is an attempt to defend an indefensible political position by intellectualizing it, making an argument that even the poster doesn’t actually believe. This maneuver has become increasingly common as Republican voters grapple with the cognitive dissonance of supporting a party without supporting its policies. The gymnastics required to convince themselves and others that voting for Trump or Roy Moore has a logic other than party affiliation and white supremacy are totally Galaxy Brain.
See, e.g., Breitbart’s attempt to paint Net Neutrality as elitist rules that “favored Silicon Valley Internet provider monopolies over telecom providers.” Oh, those poor little telecom monopolies! This is Galaxy Brain to a T.
Small brain: DLC
Medium brain: online passes
Massive brain: online only
Galaxy brain: micro transactions
Universe brain: No Net Neutrality
— NiqqaDatzKawaii (@xHenjin_NDK) November 28, 2017
So is Donald Trump’s legal team’s recent declaration that he can’t possibly obstruct justice because, as the president, he is justice. Hoo boy. Galaxy Brain.
The "President cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under [the Constitution's Article II] and has every right to express his view of any case" https://t.co/U5bgXrQCqz
— Axios (@axios) December 4, 2017
The beauty of the meme is that it’s not limited to the news and major political issues. It’s equally suited to address mundane, everyday “deep thoughts” about what constitutes a sandwich:
galaxy brain: corn is a sandwich
— grappling with local oaf (@BileCube) July 15, 2017
Or what kind of movie viewing is the best:
normal brain: watch tv
galaxy brain: watch documentary
genius universe brain: same documentary but in language u dont know with eng subs
— elf wife: full wife consequences (@bonerman_inc) July 26, 2017
Or what to watch on TV:
*galaxy brain* the office is bad compared to parks and rec
— Adult Bart Simpson 🏴☭ (@AlmightyBoob) April 9, 2017
Or some shit about escalators:
More than any other meme, Galaxy Brain tracks perfectly with how we talk and think in 2017. It’s a very specific, very elaborate, very petty insult that only makes sense to those who are Extremely Online. It’s an object lesson in the way online life has become gradually more insular and unsatisfying, and winning an argument has become more important than making any sense.
When words lose meaning and positions change like the weather, even those with good intentions can find their brains swelling and glowing. That was 2017. That’s what being did to us. That’s Galaxy Brain.