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Trolley Problem memes present head-scratching new dilemma with multi-track drifting

This adds a whole new dimension to the trolley problem.


Jay Hathaway

Internet Culture

Posted on Feb 13, 2017   Updated on May 25, 2021, 12:21 am CDT

The trolley problem is a classic ethical dilemma. It asks whether you’d be willing to divert a train that was about to kill five people so that it would instead only kill one person on a different track. Darkly humorous trolley problems became a meme on 4chan circa 2013, but they’ve been in decline for the past year or so. Until this week, that is, when new twists on the old thought experiment started getting popular.

A typical trolley problem setup looks something like this:

The variations replace the victims, the switch operator, the trolley, or any combination of those with other characters or ideas. Some of them do away with the junction altogether:

And some make it way more complicated:

The meme was taken to a new level recently with the addition of multi-track drifting. Multi-track drifting is a stunt where a train jumps the tracks, swinging its real wheels from one track to another, effective riding both tracks at once.

According to Know Your Meme, multi-track drifting started out in 2004 as totally obscure meme taken from Densha de D, a manga parody of the Japanese car racing series Initial D. It looked like this:


Densha De D

This meme didn’t really come into its own until recently, when someone realized it could be combined with the trolley problem as a way to select both tracks at once. The move either kills everyone on the tracks or collects every beneficial outcome, depending on how the problem is set up.

Here’s one good example:

Right now on Reddit, we’re seeing a resurgence in Trolley Problem memes based on the multi-track drifting concept. It seems to have started when someone reposted this old Trolley Problem, sometimes known as the “Hedonist’s Trolley Problem,” on the Dank Memes subreddit:

Soon, people were posting stuff like this, with an image that suggests a real-life multi-track drift (but it’s probably just a train that got stuck). The photo seems to have originated from Hungarian news site

This new trolley image is a weapon of meme destruction, able to smash two concepts at once. Here, we see it used against meanstream “normie” memes Saltbae and Chewbacca Mom:

According to Google Trends, interest in the Trolley Problem peaked in 2014, with a brief revival in August 2016. The uptick in Reddit posts today could be headed down one of two tracks: It could be a minor blip of interest in the Trolley Problem, or it could be new lease on life for a very good meme.

Throw the switch, see what happens.

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*First Published: Feb 13, 2017, 2:47 pm CST