A meme does more than unite people against a common enemy. It can put a smile on our face even if we don’t agree with it. And they’re hard to forget. Take, for example, the Ecce Homo in the Santuario de la Mercy church in Borja, Spain, a fresco depicting Jesus painted in 1930 and clumsily restored by Cecilia Giménez in 2012. The botched restoration made Jesus look like a monkey, so the internet dubbed him “Ecce Mono” (roughly “Behold the Monkey”), making him Spain’s most famous meme. Or Tomasa Pérez’s eldest son from Córdoba, who converted to Islam after marrying a Muslim and became Yassin, a jihadist who made us laugh when he celebrated us all in a video following the terrorist attack on Barcelona’s Rambla in 2017 threatened with death. A meme is a wondrous artifact that calms us down and connects us to the internet. It has evoked a deep sense of joy and should continue to do so. The success of memes has inspired all manner of activities, from marketing and politics to philosophy, art and science. Everyone wants to be part of the grand essence of a meme.
We’ve been in the “memecene” era – the golden age of memes – for almost two decades. The term comes from a book edited by Álvaro L. Pajares and published in Spain by La Caja Books. When Pajares was teaching Hispanic literature at Indiana University (USA), he started making memes for his friends and posting them on Instagram for free. “It’s very easy to get caught up in the fantasy of internet fame,” he said. Now he’s making money off memes. During the 2021 Madrid elections, he led the Just a Meme campaign. He describes mememakers as “the streamers’ poor cousins”. Scrap collectors in the attention market. Internet fools who vacillate between inspiration and plagiarism because success depends on replicating successful formats.” These days, he only makes memes if someone pays him to do so.
A good meme connects instantly to the online collective consciousness, a sensibility that experts have dubbed digital folklore, and one that we all, like it or not, navigate with grace and ease. “They emerge from fragments of shared cultural references: a TV series, a comic, a historical image, a news item or a film. That’s why we recognize them immediately, even if we don’t agree with their ideas,” said a member of Filles d’Internet, the group that has been organizing Memefest in Barcelona since 2018.
Often anonymous creations shared on private WhatsApp groups and internet forums, memes have a fresh and natural appeal that marketers and politicians find very appealing. Elisa Vergara is Director of Strategy at MeMe, a marketing agency that helps brands transform their advertising campaigns into the language of memes. The marketing departments of the companies are enthusiastic about their achievements. “Everything moves so fast in today’s ever-changing landscape,” she said. “Even fonts can become outdated, and decisions about whether to place text above or below are important now. It’s crucial to have reliable and trustworthy professionals who are well versed in the medium.” The lifespan of memes remains a mystery even to those steeped in internet culture. “The memes about it [Spanish singer, songwriter David] Bisbal’s machines quickly faded while memes from The Office [TV] “The series continues to rise like a phoenix,” Vergara said.
“My theory,” Pajares said, “is that memes are a synthetic solution to the problem created by the immensity of the internet. They’re a consumable product—fast food.” In other words, they’re gobbled up in a matter of seconds , but their digestion is slow. Memes are chewed, swallowed, vomited, and ruminated on. In 2014, Facebook researchers found that a single meme had 121,000 variations shared across 1.14 million accounts. For Filles d’Internet, this is the most interesting thing about long-term memes. “They remain because they are constantly changing. Today they mean one thing and tomorrow they can mean something else entirely. And there’s always someone willing to post a new mutation, which is why it’s so hard for them to die.”
The memecene era timeline in Pajares’ book identifies 2016 as the year of the demise of the ironic meme. Despite being eradicated from the masses, never before in history have so many learned meme-crafters thrived. By 2016, software apps like PicsArt, Canva, and KineMaster had democratized the job of meme makers, a job that averages six hours a day.
After the demise of the ironic meme, there was a shift towards post-irony and anti-irony. Memes about transgressions have been replaced with motivational phrases like “I attract abundance” and “You can if you want.” The pandemic brought with it an onslaught of memes and a widespread sense of boredom. Pajares writes that the relentless search for viral content has exhausted us. Everything feels predictable and endless scrolling leads to nothing but disappointment while we desperately seek novelty.
When TikTok and Instagram’s algorithms started ignoring non-microvideo or reel content, people started shutting down meme accounts in droves – Pajares shut down his account in 2022. The average lifespan of a meme creator is usually less than 18 months. writes Pajares. Next came a wave of memes predicting the death of the genre and proposing a museum to preserve its legacy. This is when hypermemes emerged – an acrobatic survival maneuver. These new memes neither capture the essence of things nor claim to belong to any particular place. They have a neutral background and are loaded with pop references and content from past social networks of the early 2000s. Hypermemes sparkle with flashing lights and neon tones, writes Pajares, who believes their creators are no longer interested in a coherent discourse. It seems that their only goal is to survive the ever-changing algorithm, and that’s no small feat.
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