handshakes

The New Meme Is Handshakes

Photo: Tetra Images/Getty Images

On May 7, the day of the Met’s annual, heavily hyped costume gala, “Page Six” reported that Tesla CEO Elon Musk was dating the musician Grimes. The pairing was odd, for varying reasons depending on whether you were a fan of Grimes, Musk, or maybe both (they may or may not still be together). A day after the report, and their appearance together at the gala, a now-deleted Reddit account posted this image to the r/ElonMusk subreddit, captioned “cough cough”.

The image is an artistic rendering of two muscle-y biceps, one black, one white, with veins popping as their hands clasp in unity. The painting is a recreation of a shot from 1987’s Predator, in which Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) greets old pal Dillon (Carl Weathers). That image, the bicep clasp, has been something of a meme for years, a more enthusiastic sort of Venn diagram signified by excessive bro-iness.

The history of the Predator handshake runs back more than a decade, to a simpler time when YouTube filmmakers and remix artists seized on the scene, posting countless remixes. The painting, done by DeviantArt user MILOSLAVvonRANDA, was uploaded in 2012.

In recent months, the Predator handshake has been reinvigorated by object labeling, the form of meme-making that allows users to recontextualize popular images by designating objects in them as a stand-in for other concepts. The meme form is particularly prevalent thanks to text-overlay tools founds in apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Perhaps you remember the pigeon meme, a recent popular one.

Fandom is inherently combative, and the imagery of hands clasped is nothing new. The current boom reminds me of an old meme circulated by Beliebers who were worried that Justin’s relationship with Selena Gomez would distract him from his fans.

Like almost every other social-media trend, a lot of this is driven by the sectarian nature of online interaction in which fandoms and hives are constantly battling to be king of the hill. It’s not just that your sect has to be good; it has to be better than similar competing sects. Millennials, Genz, Boomers, ’90s Kids, the Beyhive, Xbots, Little Monsters, Arianators, Superwholock, the MAGA crowd, the #resistance. Sure, it’d be more quote-unquote grown-up to account for nuance and the multitude of human experience, but that’d make fighting online a lot less of a rush.

But the new wave hints at unity, often in the form of teaming up against a greater evil, or setting aside differences in a rare truce. They point at weird overlaps in subcultures, the tiny details that bring us together. After all, what separates a sports team’s animal mascot and a furry? (Only the mental barriers we put up.) Over the summer, the Predator handshake has given way to an even more complex system of handshakes and huddles.

Some of the memes transcend language, carried by the image of hands joined in unity, bringing disparate communities together in celebration.

The new era of hands memes is headed how most memes head, from a simple binary into something more complex and meta. What is humanity but a never-ending web of handshakes and alliances?