Beloved Nickelodeon cartoon series SpongeBob SquarePants might be the internet’s most fertile soil for memes. This week, we’re examining some of our favorites.
Somewhere in between my college years and now — probably right about when the word adulting came into favor — the internet turned its back on FOMO. “Fear of missing out,” the grown and stupid version of adolescent peer pressure that propels people out into the night, lest they miss something epic, is out. Staying in is, well, in.
Reaction images to the tune of “it me” corroborate the assessment. A virtual landscape of screenshots from television and film support a few “universal” truths: Netflix — good; parties — bad. Getting ready to go out — fun; going out — not. Making plans — hot; following through on those plans — no bueno. There’s no shortage of panicked “Millennials Gone Mild”–type pieces and, even if not entirely representative of the evening habits of my generation, the trials of being in public versus the small penalty of flaking out catalyzes a robust category of online humor.
Strange then is the virality of one particular SpongeBob SquarePants meme among the same sample of introverted homebodies. Dubbed “Squidward staring out of the window,” the meme, as its name describes, includes an over-the-shoulder shot of Squidward as he stares out a shuttered window from inside his Moai-head fortress. Outside, SpongeBob and Patrick are caught mid-frolic, eyes bright, mouths open, both hands in the air. We cannot see Squidward’s expression, a void that ultimately proves crucial to the meme’s comedy.
From the season-eight episode “That Sinking Feeling,” the image occurs in a scene where, as per usual, SpongeBob and Patrick rouse the grumpy Squidward, likely from some highbrow pursuit. Just before the memeable screenshot, we see him open the window from the outside, face blank. He watches SpongeBob and Patrick run back and forth between their respective houses, his pupils like red apostrophes moving left to right to left before his face curls into a bristling scowl. He stomps outside, stops his neighbors in their tracks. “Stop. Playing,” he grits out. “In my yard!”
Squidward has had cause to regret his curmudgeonly ways on several occasions across the show. In “The Paper,” he trades everything, including the shirt off his back, for a piece of paper after SpongeBob demonstrates the fun to be found in a simple object. In “Idiot Box,” he envies his neighbors’ capable imaginations when he is less entertained by a new television than they are by the discarded box it came in (that episode, incidentally, gave rise to another meme, “Imagination SpongeBob”). But in “That Sinking Feeling,” Squidward remains solidly unamused by their antics. He wants nothing to do with their play, so much so that he prohibits them from stepping foot on his property, compelling them to dig a hole underground in order to continue their back and forth merriment.
Excerpted and restaged in the language of digital culture, Squidward’s missing face becomes a means to express the most acute FOMO. The visual is only part of the joke. Like most internet memes, the image acquires substance through a match with text. In “Squidward staring out of the window,” text gives voice to Squidward and his neighbors from their respective positions on either side of the window. SpongeBob and Patrick, true to the visual, are having the time of their lives. Squidward, an onlooker, transforms into a creature of longing. “Juniors looking at graduating seniors like,” says one simple version of the meme. The juniors play Squidward, jaded and exhausted and jealous of seniors’ freedom, or perceived freedom.
Perhaps the most illustrative of the meme sprang from an event that occurred on Twitter the night of January 5, 2017. At 11:01 ET, Yahoo! Finance tweeted an article about the projected size of Trump’s navy and made a crucial mistake. “Trump wants a much bigger navy: here’s how much it’ll cost,” the tweet was supposed to say. Unfortunately, QWERTY places the letters B and N right next to each other. Fortunately, the twin powers of Night Twitter and Black Twitter are unmatched. Yahoo left the tweet up for 45 minutes, a lifetime in Twitter years and more than long enough for folks to get their jokes off. That same night, a version of the Squidward meme arose to represent the racial barrier that excluded white people from joining in the fun.
Here, SpongeBob and Patrick are “Black Twitter” (the part of the internet run by black people that drives tons of memes and social-media chatter) turning a corporate blunder into a comedy festival. “White folk,” necessarily prohibited from joking about a racial slur, could only watch from afar. Though the identity of the person who originally tweeted this version of the meme is unknown (that account, @ErikaBaDolt has since been suspended), its language suggests that it comes from someone black, reemphasizing the communal in-ness of the Nigger Navy moment by envisioning a sense of FOMO among white observers. Whether or not any white users felt genuinely excluded on this night in particular matters little. The crux of the joke — that the broader internet, and white folk, constantly surveil and mine the exploits of “Black Twitter” — rings accurate.
As in another popular SpongeBob meme, contrast is important. However, the real driving mechanism behind “Squidward staring out of the window” is projection. Whether seen from the point of view of the observer or those reveling or a third-party witness, the meme presumes to know who feels what — less “it me” than “it them.” After all, the concept of FOMO is more a projection than a premonition; the prospect of being excluded causes us to imbue going out with unearned urgency. When we give in and become participants, instead of watching Instagram Stories from the wings, it is a disappointment — not because there wasn’t fun to be had, but because that fun could never have matched the emotional amplitude we imagined.
Maybe FOMO isn’t quite dead yet. Maybe FOMO has merely slid into other venues and experiences compatible with the ever-expanding ways in which a person may be “out” and “in” as an adult in the social-media age. The best memes do not simply reflect life, but refract it, giving space to work out anxieties by first admitting to them in communal space online. Sometimes we are Squidward, sometimes we are SpongeBob, sometimes we are content to watch from just out of frame, knowing soon enough our turn will come again.