Year in Memes

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Whatever else you might say about 2016, it was the greatest year yet for meme culture. Dozens of large and highly productive internet subcultures collided this year with mainstream cultural consumers: “Dat Boi,” the ubiquitous unicycling frog, freed himself from the labyrinths of Tumblr to ride across Facebook and Twitter; Hillary Clinton’s campaign felt compelled to explain “Pepe,” the (relatively) ancient 4chan meme adopted by the alt-right. Memes were no longer slightly embarrassing internet in-jokes but essential and omnipresent expressions of culture. For every day in 2016, Select All has picked one meme that either originated, broke through, or reached its height on that date, and done our best to explain it. (We’ll keep updating through the end of December.) The result is a collection of the best memes of 2016 — the funniest, weirdest, most outrageous, and most viral objects. It’s also, for better or for worse, a portrait of our collective unconscious: the story of our attention, and the things that managed to hold it, even briefly, throughout the year.

Of course, the most important thing to address if you’re going to look back on the Year in Memes is what a “meme” actually is. Despite years of discussion and debate, the only thing that everyone can agree is true about internet memes is that no one really agrees on what they are. Michael Godwin, the man who first applied the word meme to internet behavior, used it to refer to the message-board debate tactic of comparing an opponent to Hitler — a practice that, despite its sudden, unprecedented relevance, not everyone would regard as a meme in 2016. Now, for many people, “meme” refers only to what might more specifically be called “image macros” — text laid atop images of cats and other “advice animals,” such as “socially awkward penguin.”

The truth is that image macros and calling people Hitler — and much more besides — are memes. Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who coined the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, described memes as a sort of cultural equivalent to genes — mutating, evolving, self-replicating units of culture that spread throughout a society. This broad definition is the most accurate and most useful, encompassing not just the endlessly remixed images that most of us probably first imagine when we hear the word, but also videos (like that of “Chewbacca mom” Candace Payne), catchphrases (“Damn, Daniel”), dance crazes (the mannequin challenge), fads (water-bottle flipping), joke constructions (Twitter’s “*record scratch* *freeze frame*”), individuals (Ken Bone), and baffling but ubiquitous free-floating signifiers (Harambe). A good meme generates an outsized response — laughter or bafflement or outrage — that demands it be shared or repeated. It’s highly mutable — easy, or enticing, to refashion, remix, retrofit, Photoshop, edit, or import into something new. And it’s timely: In order to seize the attention of a substantial segment of the public, no small feat in 2016, it must scratch a particular collective itch at the moment it takes off.

The internet-meme model of cultural consumption — seizure, transformation, distribution — is now applied to news and stories of all kinds, not just odd viral images and videos. The year’s most widespread and long-lasting meme wasn’t a silly viral image or memorable catchphrase but a news story: the tragic killing of Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo into whose cage a toddler had fallen. Unsurprisingly, Harambe’s death immediately became a hotly discussed topic — in that sense a kind of meme — on parenting blogs and message boards. Less expected was that Harambe’s death would turn into a subject for parody song lyrics swapped on Twitter, and be deployed from there into obtuse satires of internet outrage and conspiracy culture (“Bush Did Harambe”). Eventually the word Harambe itself would become a punch line without a joke, to be inserted into high-school yearbook quotes and onto signs in the background of sports broadcasts as a sort of meme rubber-chicken, signifying “comedy” without having to go to the trouble of being funny. Harambe eventually wound its way into the periphery of the presidential election, his death mourned by Green Party candidate Jill Stein and his name polled as a presidential candidate.

Not that the election was lacking memes closer to its center, of course. In lengthy primary process and presidential campaign that often felt defined by widespread and infinitely remixable images and phrases — from “Please clap!” to “Birdie” Sanders — one candidate stood out, generating outrageous, attention-grabbing, mutable viral content at an obscene clip. And now we’re in for at least four more years of it. As one 4chan poster exulted on November 9, “we actually elected a meme as president.”