Debora Westra for BuzzFeed News This decade, memes became something not just for a handful of internet nerds who lurked on message boards; memes are now for everyone. The online culture of this decade hasn’t just changed the words we use, it’s changed how we express ourselves. Huge technological shifts of the 2010s led to this: widespread smartphone adoption and the rise of newfangled social media platforms like Vine. Memes also became a business — brands used meme-speak and accounts like @fuckjerry made big bucks by reposting memes.
To determine the ranking of this list, we considered the overall popularity of a meme, its longevity, and historical importance — what kind of impact it had on other memes and internet culture. Here they are:
Yodeling Walmart Kid
In 2018, 10-year-old Mason Ramsey sang a Hank Williams song in a Walmart, and the internet went nuts. But this time, the reaction to a precocious kid singing somewhat oddly (a sort of yodeling) was very different than it was in 2011 when Rebecca Black sang “Friday.” Instead of mocking the kid, the internet loved him, declaring the clip a “bop” that “slaps.” This is the change that happened over the decade: Instead of relishing cringe, the more memetic and ironic thing to do is embrace and love something like a child yodeling in a big-box store. Ramsey has gone on to have some version of mainstream success, performing country music to live crowds, and, well, good for him. —K.N.
Moth Memes Twitter: @thebobpalmer
Much like a moth is drawn to a flame, we were drawn to memes about moths and their unquenchable thirst for lamps in summer 2018. They got their start with a Reddit post that July, a close-up photo someone took of a moth, which people soon began captioning and photoshopping until it took on a life of its own as a meme. There’s really not much you can say about moth memes, besides that they are funny and good and I will love them until I die. —J.R.
Every generation has its subcultures, and in 2019, Gen Z’s was undoubtedly VSCO girls. The aesthetic comes with a number of signifiers: scrunchies (piled high on the wrist), Hydro Flask water bottles (covered in stickers), puka shell necklaces, oversized T-shirts, Crocs, Fjällräven backpacks, metal straws (save the turtles!), Carmex lip balm, and the ubiquitous catchphrases, “sksksk — and I oop.” The easy-breezy look, named for the photo editing app VSCO, was essentially “Tumblr girl” meets “basic white girl.” Though the style became trendy in earnest through Instagram and internet stars like Emma Chamberlain, it catapulted to popularity (and mockery) on TikTok. —J.R.
Kevin Innes, a Norwegian twentysomething, was in a store with his girlfriend one day when they came across a bin of squeaking duck-shaped (technically, the toy is a pelican) dog toys. To embarrass his girlfriend, he pressed down on the whole bin, and an unholy cacophony that sounds like the wheezing sum total of human misery was released. Innes posted to Facebook, then YouTube, and then someone else ripped his YouTube video and posted it to Vine, where it went viral. The beauty of this 2015 meme was a perfect Vine: absurd, easy to understand, surprising, and based on something that happened in real life. —K.N.
Deep-Fried Memes reddit.com
You might not even know what they’re called if you saw them, but a deep-fried meme is one of those pictures that has been screenshotted, edited, and reuploaded across Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit so many times that has started to degrade in quality. At first this deep-frying process was largely genuine, kids refiltering and remixing each other’s images. But as the phenomenon became more known, a second wave of ironically deep-fried images started to appear. It’s a fairly silly thing on its surface, but it also speaks to the innate desire for people to share stuff online. If Instagram had a share button, there’s a good chance this sort of thing would have never started happening in the first place. The walled culs-de-sac of proprietary platforms will never be able to stop the world’s teens from sharing a picture of Peter Griffin from Family Guy smoking a huge blunt. —R.B.
Planking CC BY-SA 3.0 / Donkey100 / Via commons.wikimedia.org
In 2011, everyone was taking pictures lying facedown on the ground, rigid as a board. It was a thing, and that thing was called planking. Plankers would assume the pose in unexpected places — atop a car, inside a supermarket freezer, even across two camels — then get a buddy to snap a picture. The trend got so big
The Office even did a cold open about it. Soon, it spun off into other photo pose trends, including owling and leisure diving, but it also sadly led to at least one death.
Eight years later, these photo memes can feel a bit old-school, but they represent a key moment when ready access to cameras (both the digital kind and iPhones, which were still pretty new) was still a novelty, and people were leaning into ways to use it creatively. —J.R.
The point of bros icing bros was simple: At any point during the day, present a warm bottle of Smirnoff Ice to your bro, and he has to get down on one knee and chug the cursed beverage. However, if he produces his own bottle immediately, he is exempted, and it is you who must chug. This prank was the peak of IRL-memeing in 2011. Smirnoff denied any sort of marketing stunt, which makes sense if you consider that the central conceit is that being forced to drink a Smirnoff Ice is a form of punishment. The meme threatened a resurgence in 2017, but never really caught on again. —K.N.
Clowns Instagram: @davie_dave
Remember that brief moment in fall 2016 when towns around the US were overtaken by mass hysteria over scary clowns being spotted in the woods (which then immediately stopped being a concern when Trump got elected and everyone suddenly had other stuff to worry about)? Yeah, that was a thing that happened. Clowns had quite a ~moment~ in the latter half of the 2010s. Less than a year after the clown sightings, a remake of the horror movie
It came out, prompting a ton of memes of Pennywise in the sewer and dancing (and, of course, people wanting to fuck the It clown). The clown memes just kept going from there, with clown photos being used as reaction images to illustrate our most dumbass moments. Sometimes I wonder if those clowns are still in the woods. I hope they’re happy. —J.R.
Kim Kardashian Breaks the Internet Jean-Paul Goude / papermag.com
In November 2014, Kim Kardashian appeared on the cover of Paper magazine bearing her whole entire ass. It went massively viral, and people immediately got to work photoshopping it into a centaur, Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” (which had just come out), the turkey in a Norman Rockwell painting, you name it. The phrase on the cover “break the internet,” would go on to become timeworn, but it all started with Kim K and her big, glossy butt. —J.R.
In July 2010, Antoine Dodson appeared on the local news in Alabama after a home invader attempted to assault his sister, saying: “He’s climbin’ in your windows, he’s snatchin’ your people up… So y’all need to hide your kids, hide your wife…” The news clip went viral, and a few days later, Dodson’s words were remixed into the Auto-Tuned “Bed Intruder Song,” which made it onto the Billboard 100 charts and become the most-viewed YouTube video of 2010.
“Bed Intruder Song” captured two powerful vectors that would come to define the rest of the decade: a normal person being propelled to some sort of viral fame, and a critical backlash over the exploitative race, gender, and class dynamics. At the time, some people pointed out that turning a video of poor black man expressing anguish over the attempted sexual assault of his sister was problematic. Years later, this feels even more true. Dodson went on to a strange post-virality career, with a reality show that never got off the ground, celebrity boxing matches, controversial statements about being gay, and a Trump endorsement. —K.N.
Alex From Target Alex LeBoeuf / Twitter: @auscalum (deleted)
In November 2014, a young woman tweeted a photo of a teenage checkout clerk at Target with Alex on the nametag. Her tweet was simply, “YOOOOOOOO,” signaling that, well, this teen boy was cute. The tweet went viral, and people fell in love with this mysterious Alex from Target, creating memes and tributes in his image, leading anyone over the age of 23 to wonder: What the fuck is happening here?
There was some legitimate confusion over how and why Alex’s photo blew up. An internet marketing company stepped forward, claiming that it had gotten the original girl to tweet the photo of Alex as a viral marketing stunt, and seeded the meme with inorganic retweets and promotion. But the woman who made the tweet (whose Twitter account is now suspended) said she had never heard of the marketing company, and that she just randomly found the photo on Tumblr and tweeted it out, and it seems that the marketing company was trying to claim stolen viral valor.
But the ending wasn’t so great for the guy at the center of it. Alex LaBeouf, who went by Alex Lee as a stage name, eventually dropped out of high school because he had missed so many days to fly to Los Angeles for appearances on talk shows. He was homeschooled and joined the 2015 DigiTour, a tour for social media stars, mainly Vine stars at the time. In a 2017 video, he said that his managers at the time had stolen $30,000 from him, and since then he’s abandoned his public social media accounts. —K.N.
Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles”
The music video for “Miracles” debuted in April 2010. The song had been kicking around since 2009, but the video is what really did it. It’s been viewed 18 million times — and watching it back in 2019, it is still just as deranged as it was when it debuted. A lot of the meme songs on this list exist in that uncanny valley of like “misunderstood banger.” I want to be clear: “Miracles” is not that. It is a nonsense song. And while it’s best remembered for its “fuckin’ magnets, how do they work” and “Magic everywhere in this bitch” lines, I would argue the best part is the line about pelicans: “I fed a fish to a pelican at Frisco Bay / It tried to eat my cellphone, he ran away / And music is magic, pure and clean / You can feel it and hear it but it can’t be seen.” Damn, that’s real. —R.B.
First-World Problems Thinkstock / Twitter: @ughshaye
When you’re eating nachos and one stabs the roof of your mouth, when one pillow is too low but two pillows is too high; these sorts of issues — annoying, but generally indicating your life is pretty easy and privileged — were best summarized by the early-2010s macro image “First-World Problems.” A lot of things feel dated about “first-world problems” memes, ranging from the style of the image all the way to the use of the concept of countries being first world vs. third world. But the meme was also one of the first concerning social privilege, which many people would learn about for the first time in the 2010s. —J.R.
Sad Keanu nerdlikeyou.com
Keanu Reeves kickstarted the decade as a meme after a paparazzi photo of him eating a sandwich on a park bench was shared on 4chan. “Instead of Chuck Norris, let’s make Keanu Reeves a meme,” one redditor wrote as the image started to spread. Which is interesting to think about — that this particular decade, one so heavily shaped by increasingly radicalized social media platforms, began with users of heavily male communities like 4chan and Reddit deciding to abandon an aggressively masculine meme like Chuck Norris and instead embrace a picture of disheveled loneliness. Splash News, the agency behind the photo, has attempted to remove the picture from the internet via DMCA takedowns, but Reeves and his sandwich have proved too popular (and photoshoppable) to really scrub away. As for how Reeves feels about the whole thing, at the time he told the BBC, “Do I wish that I didn’t get my picture taken while I was eating a sandwich on the streets of New York? Yeah.” —R.B.
“Haven’t Heard That Name in Years” Twitter: @goIfkart
As you read this list, you’re probably at various points looking at a meme, taking a drag on a cigarette, and saying, “Gangnam Style? Haven’t heard that name in years.” —K.N.
If you dumped a bucket of ice over your head in summer 2014, it was probably to raise money for ALS research in the Ice Bucket Challenge. The challenge involved participants dousing themselves in ice water on video, then nominating others to either do the same or make a donation to fund ALS research. Many did both, using the viral videos to promote the cause, and the ALS Association wound up raising more than $100 million in a month. The rare meme that did demonstrable good. Sadly, the man who inspired the meme died in December 2019. —J.R.
“I’m in Me Mum’s Car, Broom Broom”
A Vine of a British girl in her mum’s car (broom broom) was a perfect Vine: It makes no sense, it doesn’t follow any known comedy format, it’s vaguely cringe, and yet it’s so silly it’s guaranteed to make you laugh. The brief and glorious life of Vine thrived on these moments of surprising and unexpected humor. TikTok is the closest thing we have now to Vine, and yet it requires a certain knowledge of its memes and tropes to “get” it. “I’m in me mum’s car, broom broom” only requires you to be a human with a pulse to find Tish Simmonds’ 2014 masterpiece funny. —K.N.
The Rent Is Too Damn High Kathy Kmonicek / AP
The thing about Jimmy McMillan’s slogan for the 2010 New York gubernatorial campaign is that he’s absolutely correct: The rent IS too damn high, and he was accurately predicting the coming housing market crisis in New York City. McMillan was a minor local politics figure, having run for mayor a few years earlier. But it was the televised debates for the governor’s race in 2010 that brought him national fame for his flamboyant facial hair, gloves, and his one-issue campaign platform. He was parodied on
Saturday Night Live, and a meme was born. —K.N.
“What Does the Fox Say?”
Few music videos of 2010s hit it bigger than one by Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis, as they tried to answer a perplexing question: What does the fox say? The video — which featured a cast of people dressed up in animal costumes and a whole slew of sounds a fox might purportedly say — was named the top trending video on YouTube in 2013. It’s a video that feels definitively old, and it’s hard to imagine it coming out now and being earnestly enjoyed, but we were doing lots of things more earnestly back then. And I’d bet you anything you still know the words. —J.R.
Hot Dogs or Legs times-new-romann.tumblr.com
Showing off your tan in 2013? The trendiest vacation humblebrag in 2013 was snapping a pic of your thighs and captioning it “hot dogs or legs.” The meme first went viral on Tumblr but had a long life on Instagram afterward. This was mostly annoying, unless it was actually hot dogs, which was pretty funny. –J.R.
One of the bright spots about the 2010s is the way that young people immediately understood and identified the parts of shit culture of the ’90s and ’00s, and mercilessly mocked it. Guy Fieri,
Shrek, Bee Movie, and the hit 1999 techno song “Sandstorm” by Darude. To be fair, “Sandstorm” is probably the best and most well-known trance song, but still, it’s incredible silly. It also became a huge meme to namedrop the song in the comment sections of random YouTube videos. What’s silliest about it is the idea that it has lyrics (it does not), and they’re simply dun dun dun dun dun dun DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN dun dun dun dun. —K.N.
What makes Paul Vasquez’s effusive awe at seeing a double rainbow distinctly from 2010 as opposed to 2019 is how it’s barely what we’d call a “meme” now. It’s a viral video, sure, and it was one of the first truly huge and popular ones. In many ways, even though it happened in 2010, it resembled the memes of the 2000s more: It went viral after Jimmy Kimmel’s show account tweeted it, and it spread over email and Gchat from person to person.
The things we think of as memes now are mostly defined by being iterative: a photo you can write new captions over and over ad nauseum and can mean a million different things. But “Double Rainbow” is just a funny video – you watch it once, you laugh, and that’s it. It’s more of the
Tosh.0 version of the internet where there are funny things to be found than the Distracted Boyfriend or Pepe the frog version where there are existing memes that we make our own meaning out of. The monetization of the video was also (by current standards) primitive: He appeared in a Microsoft ad. —K.N.
In early 2013, a dance meme was born. Set to the techno song “Harlem Shake” by Baauer, the premise was to start off dancing very mildly, and when the beat drops, all hell breaks loose and a large group of people dance wildly. It’s stupid, I know. As quickly as the meme came to life, it died: A few days after the first few videos went viral, BuzzFeed’s office did a version (Ryan is in the horse mask; I run and hide into a conference room), and six days after that, the
Today show anchors did one, which seemed to everyone to signal the end of the meme. But the real nail in the coffin was in 2017 when FCC chair Ajit Pai did a video to help explain the end of Net Neutrality. —K.N.
If you were a teen in 2016, you probably flipped a bottle or two. The trend really took off when high school student
Mike Senatore executed a flawless flip at his school talent show to rapturous applause. After that, everyone was flipping bottles, and a “replica bottle” signed by Senatore himself fetched over $11,000 on eBay. Teens do all sorts of kooky things, but to this day, it’s hard to watch a video of a perfect bottle flip and NOT feel unbridled joy and triumph. —J.R.
Bronies Katie Notopoulos / BuzzFeed News
The world first learned of bronies when in 2011 Wired wrote about the adult men who loved the rebooted
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic show. For the next five years, bronies seemed to dominate every aspect of internet culture — they were rampant on Reddit, 4chan, DeviantArt, Twitter, Tumblr, and even IRL conventions (and of course, horrible, horrible version of pony porn, known as “clop”). The fandom morphed through every phase of an online community, including a small faction of fascist bronies, creating fan art of the colorful horses in Nazi uniforms.
No group since furries has been as routinely mocked as the bronies. And yet, now that they’ve sort of faded away slightly, we sort of miss them. —K.N.
Bee Movie quilavastudy.tumblr.com
According to all known laws of memes, there is no way
Bee Movie should have been able to go viral. And yet, posting the entire script to the 2007 movie somehow became a big Tumblr meme. The reasons for this semi-flop movie becoming a meme aren’t totally clear. Perhaps it was the realization of how grotesque the plot is (a bee and a human woman fall in love), perhaps it was that star Jerry Seinfeld was having a moment. Or maybe because it was just because it’s random and shitty movie, which is inherently funny. Unlike beloved childhood characters Shrek or SpongeBob, Bee Movie’s mediocrity is what makes it memeable. The crummier, the more nonsensical the meme, the better. The layers of ironic detachment have to be so thick that to pretend to love Bee Movie and post its entire script is something only someone with a truly online brain in 2015 could be capable of. —K.N.
Fun fact: The symbol in the center of the shruggie is a Japanese Katakana character called “Tsu.” It’s commonly used in Japanese fiction to represent the end of a line of dialogue. Kind of perfect right? Nothing left to say? Shruggie time. The shruggie was the perfect emoticon of the Obama era: a slightly worried-looking, yet pleasantly numb smirk, throwing its hands up at everything’s lack of meaning. Also, it just looks really cool! Things are going to probably only get worse over the next decade, so I say we bring the shruggie back. Let’s all really get into casual nihilism. I mean, everything’s fucked, so why not, right? ¯_(ツ)_/¯ —R.B.
Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”
The infectious pop song became a hit in early 2012, and by late spring, the distinctive rhyme scheme of the chorus had become a meme. Example: This still of Marty McFly and his mom in
Back to the Future: “Hey I just met you / and this is crazy / but I’m from the future / and I’m your baby.” Or a tweet by @jwherrman: “HEY, I JUST MET YOU / AND MY DOG IS CRAZY / WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF / HE HAS RABIES.” —K.N.
There was a time right around the middle of this last decade where the internet was a largely more innocent place. Nerdy fandom subcultures built around TV shows like
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Sherlock, Doctor Who, and Supernatural weren’t quite in the mainstream yet, nor did people fully understand the realities of what happens when you bring a bunch of people from the internet together in real life. That giddy naivete died with Dashcon. The unofficial Tumblr-based convention wasn’t quite a Fyre Festival–level disaster, but the level of secondhand embarrassment it generated seems to have killed an entire mode of internet use. One could even argue that Tumblr — the little social network that could — lost its last bit of grip on the larger culture of the internet. From the sad photos of cosplayers sitting in a weird ball pit to the haunting photos of empty of showrooms to accusations later of fraud, for fandom internet there was a before and after Dashcon. Based on things like Tanacon and Fyre Festival, though, it seems like those who do not learn from Dashcon are doomed to repeat Dashcon. —R.B.
Galaxy Brain reddit.com
This 2017 meme has staying power because it’s so simple and applies to so many things. The format shows several different concepts in increasing order of brainpower, culminating with something ridiculous. It speaks so perfectly to how we argue and discuss any topic online: a basic idea, a smarter take, slowly devolving into anarchy. —K.N.
There’s really no way to sugarcoat what loss.JPG is. It’s a four-panel web comic about a miscarriage that has evolved into some weird
Where’s Waldo? game played on social media. The story behind the infamous comic is that Ctrl-Alt-Del creator Tim Buckley wanted to make his series more mature. His audience recoiled at the mature storyline and found the whole thing incredibly lame. To make matters worse, the text-less comic was uploaded to the site with the filename loss.JPG. There’s a good chance you’ve come across loss.JPG parodies and never even realized that’s what they were. Buckley has spoken a bit about the meme over the years. “Perhaps I had miscalculated my demographic’s ability/willingness to approach such a sensitive subject matter,” he said. “As much as I hate to admit it because I certainly don’t want to make light of the subject matter itself, I found them quite amusing.”
But still the meme remains. And there’s a good possibility it will continue to stick around well into the next decade, if only because it’s too tasteless to ever really address directly. —R.B.
The origins of why a techno version of a public domain campfire song became accurately described as “
‘Sicko Mode’ for babies” isn’t totally clear. Normally, internet culture has no interest in what the parents of young infants and toddlers are doing (gross, old people). And yet somehow the catchy story of a multigenerational shark family (doo doo doo doo) meant for babies became inescapable. In a review for the live stage show of Baby Shark, the New Yorker wrote, “It wasn’t Disney or Nickelodeon executives who plucked it from among the millions of other videos on YouTube. Instead, babies themselves made it a juggernaut, by relentlessly clicking Play on their parents’ phones. It might be the first genuine example of baby pop culture.” —K.N.
Infinity War Memes yoongis-home-moved.tumblr.com
TV shows and movies that become their own sort of visual meme language all tend to come from the same place emotionally. There seems to be a certain secret sauce for cracking through the zeitgeist, and it largely comes down to particular kind of glee people get from taking the piss out of something serious.
Avengers: Infinity War wasn’t the first Marvel film to get memed (Bruce Banner’s “That’s my secret, Cap” line from The Avengers was the first big one), but Infinity War hit in a big way. I’d argue that all came down to its shocking ending where literally half of everyone’s favorite superheroes all died horribly. First were the Infinity War spoilers-without-context posts, followed by the “I don’t feel so good, Mr. Stark” memes, and then there were even thicc Thanos memes. Ultimately, Infinity War memes didn’t have a huge staying power, but it seems to have rewired the way audiences digest big blockbuster movies; if you jump on Twitter right as you get out of the theater and start retweeting memes, you suddenly don’t feel so silly for crying when Spider-Man dies. To be honest, thicc Thanos is much more traumatizing. —R.B.
Binders Full of Women bindersfullofwomen.tumblr.com
Mitt Romney made a truly weird gaffe in a 2012 debate when he answered a question about pay equality — describing how, as governor, he asked to see more women candidates for Cabinet positions and was shown “binders full of women.” Twitter, in peak parody account mode, immediately latched onto this weird and vaguely sexist turn of phrase. A parody Tumblr was made that posted photos of binders. People flocked to Amazon listings of binders to write funny reviews.
Now it seems laughable that this was the biggest gaffe of the election, the most shocking thing a politician said. Yet in the 2012 internet ecosystem, this perfectly played out a cycle of political memes that we don’t really have the stomach for anymore. No one’s making a “grab them by the pussy” Tumblr. —K.N.
Here’s the thing about Psy’s 2012 hit: It’s extremely good. The song is catchy, but it’s the visuals in the music video that propelled it to an international hit and the most-viewed YouTube video for years. It’s a video you want to watch more than once, one you want to show it to your friends. The fact that it was by an artist unfamiliar to most people outside of South Korea didn’t matter. The videos that would later best its YouTube record — “Despacito,” “See You Again” — did so more because of how long their respective songs stayed at the top of music charts than the nature of the video itself.
But “Gangnam Style” is a wildly entertaining as a video. The sets and backup characters change constantly, Psy’s style of deadpan serious rapping while lying on an elevator floor with a man in a cowboy hate gyrating over him is funny. Psy’s pony-riding dance is funny. It was the dance, of course, that people did at weddings and high school dances and flash mobs. —K.N.
Forever Alone knowyourmeme.com
Constructing a linear narrative out of internet content is extremely complicated — things connect across time and space in ways that make a traditional retelling almost impossible. That said, if there is a story of the internet in the 2010s, I’d argue it’s about loneliness and the bizarre and surreal ways people try to overcome it. So perhaps it’s fitting that this decade started with FunnyJunk user Azuul’s May 2010 rage comic “April Fools” — the first appearance of the phrase “forever alone.” Azuul’s swollen-faced character has more or less gone extinct, but the phrase, and more importantly, the meaning behind the phrase, have gone on to define the core irony of the internet: We are deeply isolated, yet connected enough to each other to commiserate about it. —R.B.
Wholesome Memes Twitter: @tenderfiresign
Ah, wholesome memes. In a decade in which things online (and offline!) tended to be pretty bleak, wholesome memes were a salve. In these memes, the punchline lies in the genuine surprise of an online joke actually being pure and good — particularly about “loving and supporting” one’s friends, significant other, or yourself. —J.R.
Game of Thrones Memes reddit.com
Infinity War, Game of Thrones became its own genre of meme. It wasn’t the first peak TV drama to do so — I’d argue Breaking Bad set the stage for it — but GoT did something both Breaking Bad and movies like Infinity War didn’t: It got much worse over time. Game of Thrones, especially in its early seasons, was an outrageously grim, dark show full of sex and violence, which made the memes it generated feel even more fun and risqué to share. But as the show’s ratings increased and its digital footprint became nearly unavoidable, it also became a much stupider show. Somewhere in that uncanny valley of extremely serious and incredibly stupid was the perfect breeding ground for memes. Much like the army of White Walkers pouring into Winterfell in an episode shot so dark people had to desperately try to readjust their TV settings, once internet users smell blood in the water, they’re going to swarm. —R.B.
You Know I Had to Do It to Em Twitter: @LuckyLuciano17k (deleted)
There’s something so visceral about the YKIHTDITE photo. You either get why it’s funny, or it’s just a random photo. I also think people notice things about this photo in different orders. For instance, I notice the sock tan lines and the diamond earrings first. The tweet also begs us to answer the question of what exactly “it” is that he had to do to ‘em. Luciano’s pose — hand in hand, loafered power stance — has evolved into something akin to an internet-wide
Where’s Waldo? with people photoshopping him into anything they can. People even go on pilgrimages to where the photo was taken (it’s in Florida, obviously). Like I said, I can’t explain why it’s funny, but it is. Maybe that’s the “it” that he’s doing to ‘em. —R.B.
For a brief time in early 2017, people were transfixed by Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe, who would slice steak and sprinkle salt on it, but, like, in a sexy way? (See #13) A still image of “Salt Bae” tossing on the salt like it’s fairy dust became a meme representing any time we’re being our most extra selves. (Oh yeah, and then he hugged Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at his restaurant and Marco Rubio doxed him for it. Becoming a meme is a rich tapestry.) —J.R.
Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams timmie-cee.tumblr.com
The theory that 9/11 was an inside job, as evidenced by the fact that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams, was floated in the 2005 documentary
Loose Change, which, despite being Alex Jones–level conspiracy theory, became incredibly popular on YouTube. It takes countless levels of irony to use the phrase (along with “Bush did 9/11”) as a joke. On some level, it’s not unlikely that a young person has been exposed to Loose Change or some other truther and perhaps believes it a little bit. On another level, they’re making fun of boomers and truthers who actually believe it. And then there’s the gallows humor of laughing at a tragic event that only those too young to remember could exhibit. It’s not callousness that made this a meme; it’s a reaction to the noxious conspiracy theories that flourish online and the disillusionment of an event that led to a war that’s lasted the entire lifetime of the young people who make the joke. —K.N.
True cringe is something posted in earnest, and being earnest is the enemy of internet culture in the 2010s. Irony is the online currency. Cringe as a concept started on Reddit, where r/cringepics and a YouTube-focused version posted awkward and embarrassing earnest photos and videos taken from social media. R/CringeAnarchy, a more cruel board that tended to make fun of women and minorities, was banned in 2019 by Reddit (other forms of cringe boards are still active).
“Cringe” became a catchall for something embarrassing and uncool. Hillary Clinton tweeting in meme-speak was cringe. Your old LiveJournal is cringe. BuzzFeed is cringe. Everyone has posted cringe; it’s universal, and that’s why we’re so obsessed with it. —K.N.
Drake/”Hotline Bling” imgflip.com
Drake has been a massively popular and famous rapper for the entire decade, and there’s always been memes about pop stars. But Drake has managed to be more memeable than his musical peers, except for maybe Kanye West. There’s been the “In My Feelings” dance challenge, where people dance out the side of a moving car to his 2018 hit, the “hope no one heard that” lyric from “Marvins Room,” Drake’s myriad of faces and expressions while he watches basketball games, images of his character from
Degrassi High, and the handwritten scrawl of the cover art for his album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
But it’s the video for “Hotline Bling” that was memed a million times. The Day-Glo colors and goofy dancing made for perfect GIFable moments. The meme was nearly killed when Donald Trump danced to it on
Saturday Night Live, but a version managed to live on: Drake shaking his finger to one thing, and smiling in acceptance to another thing. —K.N.
Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life”
“Bring Me to Life” is like the goth cousin of “All Star.” It works for the same reason. It’s from that ridiculous Ben Affleck
Daredevil movie. It has a call and response. Its sadder lyrics definitely fit my general mood about all of life right now. Also, Amy Lee can sing! This song is a genuine banger. When is the Evanescaissance coming? —R.B.
Ryan Gosling feministryangosling.tumblr.com
Hey, girl. Ryan Gosling was more than just a Hollywood heartthrob in the 2010s — he was also the basis of multiple memes. First came the Tumblr “Feminist Ryan Gosling,” in which photos of the actor were superimposed with quotes that mixed feminist texts with shit your imaginary hot-yet-sensitive boyfriend might say (this was 2011, so the sheer concept of a man openly calling himself a feminist was still a Big Deal and kind of a pantydropper, which is bleak in retrospect!!).
On a completely different note, the actor became an online sensation again in 2013. In the Vine series “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal,” creator Ryan McHenry would feed real-life spoonfuls of cereal to an onscreen Gosling, who would “reject” the bite by turning away or appearing to slap away the spoon during intense movie moments. In 2015, McHenry died of cancer when he was just 27 — and in his memory, Gosling made a Vine of himself actually eating cereal. —J.R.
Cropped Gay Porn Instagram: @https://www.instagram.com/sean_speezy/?hl=en
Porn! It’s the central driving force of the internet (see #13). So much of the web culture created in this last decade has been defined by an explosion of diverse and global points of view suddenly entering the mainstream (and the conflicts that sometimes rise up when that happens). So it makes sense that most defining porn meme of the 2010s is cropped gay porn. It’s cheeky, it’s wildly inappropriate, and, fuck, it was so big. The meme really climaxed with the “Right in front of my salad” clip, where two adult film actors interrupt a woman peacefully eating her salad by having sex behind the kitchen counter. It’s sort of nice to think that no matter how crazy things get, there’s one thing that can still bring us all together online, and that’s porn. —R.B.
Cash Me Ousside
Imagine you’re Dr. Phil. Having helped families and individuals through countless crises on your television show, you’re feeling pretty good about your abilities. There is nothing you, a couch, and a camera can’t fix. Then one day, a 13-year-old Floridian named Danielle Bregoli comes on set and rocks your world. After she calls your audience a bunch of hoes, you repeat the accusation, just making sure you heard right. When she confirms, the audience goes berserk, and Bregoli gets upset. You hear her say “Cash me ousside, howbow dah?” five magical words used to challenge the audience to a fight. The phrase lives on in infamy. And now you, Dr. Phil, are part of one of the decade’s greatest memes. —Alex Kantrowitz
Spider-Man Pointing at Spider-Man ABC / MARVEL
It’s simple: Spider-Man points at another Spider-Man. What’s not to get. It’s us, looking at ourselves. Iconic. —K.N.
The Canadian band has miraculously remained untouched by the trend of critical reassessment and appreciation of pop music. They occupy an uncanny valley of being wildly popular AND wildly reviled by anyone who considers themselves a person of taste. For a while, they occupied a space as the punchline to something bad (there was a time in 2014 where you could use a Facebook graph search to find which of your friends “liked” Nickelback and unfriend them).
But it was the still from the video for “Photograph” where singer Chad Kroeger holds up a photo, along with the memorable lyric “look at this photograph,” that blew up in the second half of the decade. The meme ultimately died when President Donald Trump tweeted a version where the photo Kroeger holds is of Joe Biden golfing with his son and another American who also served on the board of a Ukrainian company at the center of the impeachment inquiry. Nickelback’s label filed a copyright claim, and the video has been removed from Trump’s tweet. —K.N.
It’s Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday! In 2011, then–13-year-old Rebecca Black made her debut with “Friday,” and looking forward to the weekend was never again the same. The music video went enormously viral, but it was widely dubbed the “worst song ever.”
Still, it was also a hit, and the song debuted at No. 72 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was covered on Glee, and Black even appeared as herself in Katy Perry’s music video for “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” Two years later, Black got in on the joke, releasing a sequel to “Friday” — named, of course, “Saturday.” Whether you think “Friday” slaps or is a nightmare, I’d bet you anything you’ll know all the words until you die. —J.R.
“Come to Brazil” diorc.tumblr.com
If you’ve ever clicked through on a tweet from any sort of celebrity, chances are you’ve seen the phrase “come to Brazil” written over and over in the replies. According to Know Your Meme, the first time the phrase was tweeted at a celebrity was April 2008. Then, when Justin Beieber joined Twitter in 2009, it exploded in popularity. I once asked some members of BuzzFeed Brazil why exactly it was such a common occurrence among Brazilian internet users. I was told the answer is actually pretty simple — American musicians rarely tour Brazil. But to really best understand why Brazilians mass-send it though, on a deeper level, you probably need to know the concept of “zuera,” Brazilian slang for “zoeira” which means “heavy fun.” It basically means that moment when a meme becomes a meme and spirals completely out of control. COME TO BRAZIL, MIGAAA. —R.B.
Guns or glitter?
Touchdowns or tutus? One of the most inescapable party themes of the 2010s was that of the gender reveal. At gender-reveal parties, expecting parents and their loved ones gather to find out what kind of genitals their unborn child will have. This is often accomplished by cutting a cake, with pink or blue frosting revealing whether it was a boy or a girl.
Party planners tried to one-up each other, sometimes executing the big reveal using explosives — which, as you might guess, often had disastrous results. In 2018, a father-to-be accidentally ignited a wildfire in Arizona. The following year, a grandmother was killed in an explosion, and there was even a gender-reveal plane crash.
As our understanding of gender (and how it was not the same thing as sex) evolved over the decade, so did
criticism and mockery of gender-reveal parties. And some people had changes of heart; in 2019, Jenna Karvunidis, the lifestyle blogger who had the first viral gender reveal in 2008, criticized the parties, which she said put “more emphasis on gender than has ever been necessary for a baby.” She added, “PLOT TWIST, the world’s first gender-reveal party baby is a girl who wears suits!” —J.R.
*tips fedora* Twitter: @MoonOverlord
One of the most magical things about the internet is when we all collectively realize something is a thing. For instance, sometime between 2010 and 2012, everyone on the internet realized that every town has a couple weird guys who wear fedoras, trench coats, fingerless gloves, have terrible facial hair, and talk to women like they’re 12th-century knights. Long before these dudes turned into violent incels, there was just a really nice moment where we could all agree that these dudes were goofy and awful and fun to rag on. Swag is for boys; class is for gentlesirs, m’lady. —R.B.
Confused Math Lady TV Globo
If there was one dominant theme in the 2010s, it was “I have no idea what’s going on right now.” This was expressed in a bunch of different ways, from the fact that teens and the internet curled up with increasingly obscure memes and terms meant to confuse the Olds (the boomers don’t know what “sksksksk” is) to the rise of explainer journalism like Vox or email newsletters/catch-you-up-quick news like the Skimm. We are all confused. We have no idea what’s going on. If you take the time to catch up on one story, you’ll miss what’s happening elsewhere.
Hence, Confused Math Lady, a meme featuring an actor in a Brazilan soap opera looking confused, spread on Brazilian internet. By 2016, the GIF of the confused woman became a four-panel comic with various math symbols over it, suggesting she’s trying to solve some complex calculus problem. Confused Math Lady is us, trying to understand it all. —K.N.
American Chopper Yelling vox.com
Paul Teutul Sr. and his son, Paulie, were the stars of
American Chopper, a 2000s reality show about their custom motorcycle shop. Not infrequently, they argued. The show was popular at the time, but not particularly cool or internet-y during its run. So it was slightly surprising when in 2018, stills of a scene of an argument between father and son became a meme. The more esoteric the argument — the role of media communication in science, , linguistics — the better. Part of the joy of the meme was seeing macho men argue about anime, but also acknowledging that a lot of our online lives is over-the-top screaming arguments about trivial things. —K.N. Lord of the Rings plot holes
A meme that mocks someone’s shoes might seem to be more mean-spirited than other memes of the decade. It’s a catchphrase to laugh at someone for wearing ugly footwear, after all. But the most effective examples of the meme, including the Instagram video (and then Vine) that started it all, are always about punching up — taking a small shot at someone more powerful, like a teacher, a celebrity, or even Jesus.
But like “on fleek” and other viral catchphrases and memes, the “what are those” meme spread without any control from its creator, Brandon Moore. In a 2018 interview with HuffPost, Moore said that he “felt sick” when he heard his catchphrase in the movie
Black Panther, because it was a reminder of how he had missed a chance to copyright or watermark his video and had seen his creative work monetized by others without him benefitting at all. Six months after the interview, Moore died in his sleep at age 31. —K.N.
Kanye West Twitter: @kanyewest (deleted)
Is Kanye West a meme? Is he a collection of memes? Is he the original material that gets remixed into memes? Is he all of these things? Perhaps. Kanye’s “Imma Let You Finish” moment happened in September 2009, but was still humming along by the time the decade started (the internet was slower then). For a while, his Twitter account was an endless source of internet content: “I hate when I’m on a flight and I wake up with a water bottle next to me like oh great now I gotta be responsible for this water bottle.” Damn. Huge mood. And then, of course, like many memes, he went full MAGA after the election of Donald Trump. For much of the decade, it seemed like all of culture either flowed from or through West. Based on the reviews for his newest album,
Jesus Is King, and the general lack of buzz around his Sunday Service project, that might be something we’re leaving in 2010s. Although, he did just bless us with Silver Kanye, so who knows really. —R.B.
Dat Boi ppt.wz51z.com
In the same way that a bunch of the X-Men are all blue for some reason, the internet really likes green frogs. Sadly for Dat Boi, he hasn’t had the same staying power as Pepe or Kermit. The version of Dat Boi that we all know was first posted in April 2016. In many ways, he’s the last meme specifically from Tumblr — a nice, wholesome shitpost featuring a picture stolen from an AP physics textbook that doesn’t really make any sense but is just kind of funny. Dat Boi, in my opinion, is the platonic ideal of a meme: It’s funny, it works as a cute little wink for superusers, it doesn’t make a lot sense, and it disappears before getting turned into some dumb brand tweet. —R.B.
High schooler Josh Holz loved taunting his friend Daniel Lara by following him around, filming him, and commenting on his sneakers. When he compiled the videos and tweeted it, the world loved hearing a creepy voice saying “Damn, Daniel, back at it again with the white Vans.” The teens boys went on
The Ellen DeGeneres Show and received a lifetime supply of Vans. In 2019, both Daniel and Josh are in college. Josh is studying fashion and works for, you guessed it, Vans. —K.N.
Tiffany Pollard Vh1
A still of Tiffany Pollard, best known as New York from the VH1 dating show
Flavor of Love, lying on a bed in her clothes, hands folded in her lap, sunglasses on, seeming to stew in quiet anger, became a meme in 2015 and continued for the rest of the decade. In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Pollard described what she was actually feeling in that moment: “I just remember being so alone, so pissed off; I wanted to get away from those girls … I was really having a rough time in that moment and I think me sitting there was actually me just trying to center myself, centering myself through this bad energy I was dealing with.”
Pollard’s memeability goes beyond that one image of her lying on the bed. Her over-the-top personality is what made her a standout reality star in the ’00s, and that same quality made her perfect for reaction GIFs in the ’10s. —K.N.
Blinking White Guy Drew Scalon / giantbomb.com
One of the biggest reaction memes of the decade, the “blinking white guy” perfectly summed up when you truly just could not believe what you were seeing. The man is Drew Scanlon, and the specific blink came from a gaming video he appeared in in 2013, though it wouldn’t become a meme until early 2017. It’s a simple reaction, but it seemed to say it all at a time when the world was a confusing mess and people were feeling pretty dang incredulous a lot of the time.
“As long as they’re not mean, I don’t have a problem with the tweets,” Scanlon told BuzzFeed News in 2017. “I think we need more positivity on the internet these days.” —J.R.
Minions Universal Pictures
Ah, yes, the official mascots of every boomer’s divorce announcement Facebook post. These little bastards took over the internet with a speed that was honestly unparalleled. Their disgusting yellow bodies flooded news feeds like a DDoS attack. I think to understand exactly how the great Minionfication of the internet happened you have to separate it out into two movements. First, there were people genuinely posting Minion memes. Then came the second wave, where people started using Minion memes to make fun of the people who posted Minion memes. I’d love to say that we’re in the clear now and we can leave these beasts in the 2010s, but
Minions: The Rise of Gru is coming out on July 3, 2020, so get ready, everyone. —R.B.
Gavin Twitter: @gavinthomas
There’s a good chance you know Gavin’s face even if you don’t know Gavin’s name. It’s sort of incredible to include Gavin Thomas on this list because he was literally born in 2010 at the start of the decade. He first went viral when his uncle Nick Mastodon started putting him in Vines. Gavin really solidified himself as a meme when he turned 5 years old. Suddenly, he was everywhere. He had this extremely relatable confused grimace that really seemed to capture the zeitgeist in 2015 and 2016 (not totally sure what was going on at the time that would explain why). He’s 9 years old now and has a million followers on Instagram. For all the cautionary tales out there about what life after being a meme is like, so far it seems like Gavin’s doing all right. His family seems to be looking after him and, more bizarrely, it also feels like the internet at large is looking after him. He grew up on social media, and it does feel like we’re all invested in making sure he ends up OK. —R.B.
Shrek Dreamworks / reddit.com
Even though the first
Shrek came out in 2001, it took a few years for the internet to really embrace the green Scottish ogre. Ever since, it feels like he’s buzzed just below the surface of mainstream internet culture — always there, always talking about onions. My theory as to why he’s stayed so popular? Aside from maybe a postmodern riff on the extreme overcommercialization of children’s entertainment (see Minions), I think there’s actually something really relatable about a big, fat ogre who doesn’t want to leave his swamp. It’s the perfect metaphor for being online. —R.B.
“Do It for the Vine”
Vine shut down on my birthday, and because of that, I’ve always felt a weirdly intimate connection to Vine. A good friend once told me he thought of a Vine as one sentence in the visual grammar of video. Everything you need to convey one idea in a video you could do in a six-second Vine. It was a revolution and you could argue it has had a more profound legacy on how we create and share videos than bigger platforms like YouTube or Netflix. For a long time, I, like many people, believed that Vine was shut down too soon. Now, I think it actually shut down exactly when it should. Social networks probably shouldn’t last! It’s weird that we still use Twitter.
The phrase “do it for the Vine” comes from a song created by YouTuber Kaye Trill and it immediately became the anthem of a summer full of people doing extremely outrageous things. Many of the original great “do it for the Vine” posts have been deleted, sadly. But, luckily, we’ll always have the YouTube compilations. —R.B.
Real Housewives Bravo / Instagram: @smudge_lord
Memes are often tied to some technological advance, such as the six-second looping video or the quote-tweet format. At the start of the decade, animated GIFs were actually hard to make. You needed Photoshop, which is expensive and hard to use. Sourcing high-quality video to turn into a GIF was also harder. In a pre-Giphy world, truly good animated GIFs were prized and hoarded, saved in folders on a desktop to use in reactions. On Tumblr, the main source of GIFs, there was a vast gulf between the number of users actually making GIFs and the amount of people reposting them. One of the early and prolific makers of high-quality reaction GIFs was the RealityTVGIFS.tumblr.com, made by a man named T. Kyle Buchanan (who now works for Bravo), who pumped out GIF after GIF from the Bravo universe, particularly the
Real Housewives series. Because of the format of the show, where the women were literally asked to react directly to the camera, the Housewives were perfect for emotional reaction GIFs.
The enduring power of the Real Housewives through the decades was proven in 2019 by the popularity of an image of an early season of
Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, where one Housewife is yelling while another holds her back, juxtaposed with a white cat named Smudge scowling at a dinner table. —K.N.
Why You Lyin’
The beauty of Nicholas Fraser’s Vine in his backyard singing “Why you always lyin’” over the music of “Too Close” by Next is that it makes no sense for why it exists. Why is his shirt open? Why is there a toilet in the yard? Who is lying and why is he so seemingly happy about accusing someone of lying? And yet, it turns out 2015 was the right moment for this meme to exist and serve as the perfect totem for the impending post-truth internet. Now, replying with a screenshot of Fraser’s smiling face is internet shorthand for “this is a lie.” —K.N.
The only meme of the decade to inspire an actually used form of blockchain currency, Doge was a breath of fresh air in 2013 when people were starting to feel burned out about what the first iteration of what “memes” were. “Memes” now means something different — funny tweets screenshotted and posted to Instagram, or absurd teen humor. But in a darker, earlier time, “memes” were something like rage comics or the Forever Alone Guy. They took themselves seriously in a sense, and were the domain of redditors or angry 4chan guys, or something a brand used in a Super Bowl ad to seem relevant. Then, a friendly Shiba Inu appeared with funny language and words around him, just being amused and delighted by the world. This wasn’t FFFFUUUUUUU, it was such wow. Doge was here to make us happy. Of course by now, the phrase “such wow” is cringey and outdated, but it had a good long run. —K.N.
Kermit Lipton Tea
The lovable green amphibian became one of the most memeable nonhuman characters of the decade, next to perhaps only SpongeBob and Shrek. Two massive memes, Kermit sipping tea and Evil Kermit, earned the Muppet his place in meme Valhalla, and made a bunch of smaller memes (Sad Kermit puppet, Kermit in the car) take off. There’s something deeply funny about children’s characters behaving like naughty adults, by the idea of Kermit having shady opinions about others while he sips his tea or encouraging you to do something dangerous or sexual or drug-related. Part of the joy of Kermit memes is that everyone knows Kermit; he’s not obscure or niche. And yet someone, the official Twitter account for
Good Morning America to be precise, called the Kermit-sipping-tea meme “tea lizard.” —K.N.
Reaction GIFs NBC / Via giphy.com
It’s hard to remember a time when reaction GIFs weren’t ubiquitous, but they really rose to prominence in 2012 with the launch of the Tumblr blog #whatshouldwecallme. The blog posted GIFs paired with ~relatable~ captions — for example, the GIF of Homer Simpson disappearing into the bushes, captioned, “When I’m in an argument with someone and realize I’m completely wrong.” This blog was a huge deal at the time, inspiring countless spinoffs, particularly at colleges. Though it was a pretty fresh meme format at the time, #whatshouldwecallme posts just look a lot like the way we communicate online today. —J.R.
The Dress Cecilia Bleasdale
“Black and blue or white and gold?” was the question that seemingly everyone on earth was asking on one day in early 2015. A woman in Scotland showed her friends a photo her mother took of a dress she planned to wear to a wedding, and a friend of the woman posted it to Tumblr, asking for help — “what colors are this dress?” She submitted it as a question to BuzzFeed’s Tumblr, and former BuzzFeed employee
Cates Holderness reposted it to our account. From there, it blew up as a fun visual gag that was infuriating and odd.
The Dress was posted to BuzzFeed the same day two llamas escaped in Arizona, and a live TV police chase of the two animals enthralled the internet as adorable mayhem broke out. In retrospect, that two such happy, carefree, unproblematic things took over the internet on the same day seems like wild serendipity. It also feels like the last day the internet felt purely joyful, before the onslaught of the 2016 election took place and things took a darker turn.
The dress is, indeed, black and blue, even though over two thirds of the millions of BuzzFeed readers who voted said they thought it was white and gold. In 2018, a similar sensory illusion, this time auditory, went viral over whether a voice was saying “yanny” or “laurel.” But somehow, the special feeling just wasn’t there again; it felt like trying to recreate some old magic that was lost, like kids who have graduated hanging back at high school. —K.N.
“This Is Fine” Dog K.C. Green / Via kcgreendotcom.com
The dog engulfed in flames, denying that anything is wrong, is from a 2013 webcomic Gunshow by K.C. Green. In the full comic, the dog’s face eventually melts, while he continues to drink his coffee and insist he’s OK, but the version that became a symbol of the decade is just the first two panels where he says “this is fine.”
The meme has been used a lot to describe various political situations: The official @GOP Twitter used it
once, and a senator even described the comic on the House floor while describing how Russian election interference was not fine. But the staying power of the dog is about how we all grin and bear it through everything that’s happened over this decade that feels like the house is on fire — the climate crisis, elections, the disappointing last season of Game of Thrones. There is nothing that captures the 2010s more than “this is fine” dog. —K.N.
Smash Mouth’s “All Star” me.me
Like Shrek, Smash Mouth’s “All Star” is another one of those millennial nostalgia points that has evolved into something bigger than itself thanks to the internet. It’s lasted for several reasons: One, it’s just a damn good song; two, the lead singer of Smash Mouth looks like Guy Fieri; three, it was on the
Shrek soundtrack; four, it’s a cheery song about how shit everything is — which is exactly how it feels to be online. —R.B.
What makes “on fleek” a crucial meme for understanding the 2010s is not simply why the meme was catchy, but what happened to the meme after it left the hands of its creator and what that says about the commercialization and monetization of memes — i.e., who gets paid and who gets credit. Kayla Newman, who goes by Peaches Monroee online, was a teen when she posted a Vine musing that her eyebrows were “on fleek” because she thought she looked good. The Vine caught on because it’s simple and fun and enjoyable. Soon, brands were using the phrase on their social media. IHOP tweeted “pancakes on fleek.” Denny’s tweeted “Hashbrowns on fleek.” JetBlue and Taco Bell also used it, and the phrase all of a sudden seemed inescapable in marketing. Corporations were using Newman’s invention of a phrase without giving her any credit or compensation.
In the Fader, Doreen St. Félix wrote how “on fleek” is an example of an endless trend of black teenagers creating the memes, lingo, and jokes that make up internet culture, and how those black teens are often uncredited and don’t profit when brands use their creative works. This is in contradiction to a handful of white teens who also went viral around the same time: The “Damn, Daniel” boys got free Vans and appearances on talk shows; the Walmart yodeling boy got a record deal, as did Danielle Bregoli, the “cash me ousside” girl.
In 2017, Newman started a GoFundMe campaign to launch a beauty line, but it only raised around $17,000 of the $100,000 she was hoping for. In a 2017 interview with Teen Vogue, Newman said if she had known the phrase would catch on like it did, she would’ve been more aggressive about it, adding that she was trying to trademark the phrase. —K.N.
Pepe the Frog Matt Furie
None of us wanted to write about Pepe. What’s even left to be said about him that hasn’t been said already? He started as a chill frog in a 2008 comic by artist Matt Furie. He then became a consistent, but largely forgettable fixture of 4chan in the early part of the decade. The first time I saw him was in a meme that read, “We are the middle children of history. Born too late to explore Earth, born too early to explore space.” I thought it was pretty funny. Sometimes he’d be in memes about blasting the toilet bowl with piss to clean it. He’s something different now — a literal hate symbol that is still being used by far-right extremists and white nationalists.
In the course of his transition from slacker goof to hate symbol, he’s taught us a lot about symbols — not just how the internet works — but he’s also maybe revealed something deeper about how symbols work. Furie has famously tried to litigate Pepe away from fascists, but it hasn’t really worked. Pepe’s effectively theirs now. It’s a grim, but important reminder that all culture can be hacked and warped and poisoned. All speech, online and off, is political. And all symbols, even chill frogs, require protection and upkeep. Feels bad, man. —R.B.
Crying Jordan Stephan Savoia / AP
Michael Jordan wept during his 2009 induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, but it wasn’t until at least 2012 that the still of his face, red-eyed with tears streaming down both cheeks, became a meme. It started with sports fans but soon spread to become an enduring and universal image for faux sadness. It’s a bit of an anomaly for a celebrity photo meme; Michael Jordan isn’t particularly memey otherwise, and although he was one of the biggest celebrities in the world in the ’90s, he hasn’t been in the spotlight this decade. Perhaps his role in the movie
Space Jam has lent him some level of internet irony that makes the meme so satisfying. Jordan has said through a spokesperson that he doesn’t mind the popularity of the meme, so long as it’s not used for commercial purposes. However, his former teammate and friend Charles Oakley did tell TMZ that Jordan actually isn’t amused. That feeling Jordan may have — a moment of vulnerable emotion being plastered all over the internet for laughs — of course would be best depicted by, well, the Crying Jordan meme. —K.N.
SpongeBob Nickelodeon / dearnville.tumblr.com
Did anything result in as many memes in the 2010s as SpongeBob? The show, which started in 1999 and is still going 20 years later, is so deeply entrenched in pop culture it would be hard to count how many memes have come out of it. But let’s try: There’s been caveman SpongeBob, mocking SpongeBob, tired naked SpongeBob, “ight Imma head out” SpongeBob, traveling SpongeBob, Krusty Krabs vs. Chum Bucket, evil Patrick, blurry Mr. Krabs, sleeping Squidward, and so many more.
The meme’s staying power can be attributed to a few things. It was an enormously popular show with a nearly universal sense of nostalgia for millennials and Gen Z’ers, who are the most prolific of meme creators. The simple art and animation style also beget some of the most instantly understandable reaction memes. May SpongeBob memes continue to prosper until [SpongeBob narrator voice] one eternity later. —J.R.