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The internet’s meme-industrial complex is defined by an ongoing tension between dank memes and mainstream memes that appeal to “normies.” It’s the classic hipster problem: Something is only cool until everyone likes it.
So what happens when a YouTube channel starts explaining underground memes to a normie audience? The dank memers have to fight back.
This week, after deciding that meme explainer channel Behind the Meme had gotten out of hand—explaining the Cat in the Hat meme was apparently the last straw—4chan created a hoax to annoy and discredit the channel’s host. They called it “Operation Zenzi.”
Here was the plan: a mob of meme enthusiasts would comment on Behind the Meme, asking for an explanation of “Zenzi.” Zenzi was not, at that point, a thing, but 4channers (and, later, redditors) used the word in a series of disjointed and unrelated images, making it as confusing as possible.
This is Zenzi:
This is also Zenzi:
And so is this:
In fact, there’s a whole subreddit full of Zenzi memes, built from nothing in the space of a day:
The idea was that Behind the Meme would be forced to explain Zenzi, but the resulting video would be a ludicrous mess. There was nothing to explain.
The excitement in the meme economy—a group of users on Reddit that trades memes in a way the parodies the stock market— over Zenzi was palpable at the beginning of the operation: This was going to be a comedy goldmine, and everyone would be rewarded with copious lulz for getting on board.
But then, on Sunday, the actual Behind the Meme video came out:
Disaster. Behind the Meme had discovered Operation Zenzi. Not only was his video not hilariously incoherent, it actually made the case that explaining memes to normies is a good thing. He didn’t even seem mad.
“The people who made the thread jizzed their pants when they saw this video, but then they killed themself when they watched the video,” wrote one YouTube commenter, in a slightly exaggerated description of the meme community’s reaction.
In a neat bit of irony, though, the failure of Zenzi might turn it into a real meme. In the process of faking it, the Operation Zenzi participants created a whole bunch of original content. And even if it meant nothing to them, they spread it far and wide. What’s to say that’s not “real?”
Some are even planning to turn the tables on Behind the Meme by making Zenzi legitimately popular in online “normie” spaces like Facebook, thereby rendering the video explanation incorrect and making the YouTube channel look bad.
“This is going to have to be a well timed attack, we have to wait long enough so that the normies see the video, but post shortly after so that the normies become confused and attack BTM for not being a credible source,” wrote one poster on Reddit’s r/MemeEconomy.
The operation is a throwback to the good old days of 2011, when 4chan would “raid,” or attack, derivative sites like 9gag in an effort to preserve the purity of its dank memes.
“Remember this man is responsible for the direct control of the meme market and should not be taken as a joke. Together we can confuse the normies and take back what was rightfully ours: Dank OC memes.”
Is this actually going to work? No way. This plan assumes that normies take memes as seriously as dank meme aficionados do and would actually get upset about something like an inaccurate meme video.
The backup plan, which also won’t work, is to create loads of gruesome, gross, and macabre memes and “force” Behind the Meme to cover them, making his channel unpopular in the process.
But Zenzi will persist for a short time anyway—especially in Behind the Meme’s comments on YouTube—because being in a war with the normies is a fun game that inspires a sense of community. This is basically a bunch of kids playing cowboys and Indians, but with Photoshop, and it totally rules.
Enjoy a refreshing Zenzi now, because it’ll probably be gone tomorrow.
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.