Meme Culture Owes a Debt of Gratitude to SpongeBob SquarePants Creator Stephen Hillenburg

Stephen Hillenburg died this week at 57. Photo: Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

Stephen Hillenburg died on Monday at age 57, a year after revealing he had been diagnosed with the degenerative disease ALS. While you might not know Hillenburg by name, you almost certainly know him by his work. Hillenburg started his career as a marine biology teacher, a career that would serve him well when he pivoted to animation and created SpongeBob SquarePants in 1999. (Prior to SpongeBob, he wrote and directed for Rocko’s Modern Life and Rugrats, also on Nickelodeon.) More than just a colorful and funny children’s show with that coveted ability to entertain audiences old and young, SpongeBob SquarePants was also the show that launched a thousand memes. And then launched a thousand more.

Primitive Sponge, SpongeBob wearing a loincloth and making a face perfect for those moments when you’re home alone and you hear a noise that suddenly makes every hair on your body stand. Mocking Sponge, the aLtErNaTiNg capitalization meme for when you want to tell somebody off with a cartoon sponge. Squidward FOMO. Evil Patrick. The Krusty Krab vs. Chum Bucket rivalry meme for declaring winners and losers. “*breath in* boi.” (If you know, you know.) Imagination Sponge. Tired Sponge. “Do Y’all Hear Sumn?” Confused Mr. Krabs. [Insert the potentially endless number of memes that have yet to be fully realized online as of publishing this piece.]

Hillenburg’s cartoon creation was more than just fertile ground for memes. Memes, as anybody who has spent any time on the internet will tell you, come and go. They entertain, sure, but only briefly before they fade into obscurity. However, since SpongeBob SquarePants has been on for nearly 20 years, there’s no shortage of new generations of people who have “outgrown” the show but not its online counterparts. SpongeBob memes — through some perfect combination of whimsy, reliability, and nostalgia — grow increasingly relevant, more deeply woven into internet culture, and IRL culture, with every new addition to the canon. (See here: Teens marching for gun control armed with SpongeBob meme signs.)

Thank you, Stephen Hillenburg, for making the internet a better place. That’s not easy to do.

Meme Culture Owes a Debt of Gratitude to Stephen Hillenburg