UK-based writer Harry Gowland notices the acceleration of the meme cycle, a result of accessible multimedia tools and perhaps pandemic boredom.
In the last twelve months, the birth-death cycle of memes online has been faster than ever. In recent days, especially, we’re getting through them at a rate of knots (no Suez Canal pun intended).
In the United Kingdom, Jackie Weaver’s internet stardom materialised and disappeared in a puff of smoke. The fanaticism over creepy but fake anti-piracy screens in video games only lasted as far as around two months ago. Even ongoing formats like the “all endings” meme on YouTube – 2021’s apparent answer to the wild success of Steamed Hams, the ever-customisable clip from the now infamous Simpsons episode “22 Short Films About Springfield” – aren’t built for long-term survival and are already showing signs of atrophy as the population moves on to new and shinier things. That boat in the Suez largely disappeared from the internet as soon as it was freed; the whole saga lasted only six days.
How did we get here? In the olden days of internet memes, circa the early 2010s, formats like ragecomics had enormous staying power (and, in fact, are seeing somewhat of a nostalgia-fueled resurgence). Perhaps this was because there were more bottlenecks to meme production: internet speeds were slower, limiting what you could upload, and image-editing software was worse. Fewer people were on the internet making things. As a result, good memes had limited competition and a lot of tinder to burn through, meaning stuff that was of reasonable quality stuck around.
That’s no longer the case. We’re now a little over ten years hence, and the technology landscape has evolved beyond recognition: internet speeds are now much faster, making video and audio memes as well as static, image-based ones more common. Editing software is leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessors, with some offerings, like Mematic, providing a free meme-producing service with lots of established formats and the capacity to ingest custom work, lowering the barrier to entry still further. More people are on the internet, but the routes to meme production are so plentiful now that the rate at which they’re put out has skyrocketed far beyond digital population growth — one needs only look at the consistent cultural output of meme subreddits to see this.
As a result, more memes than ever are being produced, and they are competing, proportionally, for an ever-shrinking bandwidth of our collective attention. However, that doesn’t explain quite why the rate at which memes are being created and being cast aside appears so high in very recent history. To complete the picture, we need to consider the context of this moment: the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March 2020, the world suddenly found itself thrust into a great, unprecedented public health crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen, really, since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Humanity was commanded by their governments to return to their homes and wait the problem out. This, in my opinion, was the catalyst for the sheer level of output we’re seeing online: we’re all indoors, now, using the internet as our primary means of keeping up with the outside world and our loved ones. It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to suggest that more people are succumbing to the idea of making memes as a form of self-expression.
The resulting jump has been both illusory and real: real, in that high-profile memes like Jackie Weaver’s brief stardom have lasted far less time online than they might have ten years ago (compare to the long afterlife of, say, Ken Bone), and illusory, in that we’re exposed to more memes than we would have been but for the intervention of COVID into our lives.
Does this mean that, when the vaccines have their impact, the pandemic ends and our lives return to normal, that the objectively best meme out of the last month, the Trade Offer, can rise to the top of the pile where it belongs? We can but hope. — By Harry Gowland