The rise, fall and reinvention of memes

Seven years ago, these internet parodies were declared dead by experts, but today there are advertising agencies and festivals dedicated to them

Karelia Vázquez

A meme does more than unite people against a common enemy. It can bring a smile to our faces, even if we disagree with it. And they’re hard to forget. Take the Ecce Homo in the Sanctuary of Mercy church in Borja, Spain, a fresco depicting Jesus painted in 1930 and clumsily restored in 2012 by Cecilia Giménez. The botched restoration made Jesus look like a monkey, so the internet dubbed it Ecce Mono (roughly Behold the Monkey) and made it Spain’s most famous meme. Or Tomasa Pérez’s oldest son from Córdoba who converted to Islam after her marriage to a Muslim and became Yassin, a jihadist who made us chuckle as he solemnly threatened us all with death in a video after the 2017 Rambla terrorist attack in Barcelona. A meme is a wondrous artifact that soothes and unites us with the internet. It has brought, and should continue to bring, a deep sense of joy. The success of memes has inspired all kinds of pursuits, from marketing and politics to philosophy, art and science. Everyone wants to be a part of the splendid 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 from memes. During the 2021 Madrid elections, he spearheaded the “Just a Meme” campaign. He describes mememakers as “the poor cousins of streamers. Junk collectors in the attention market. Internet jesters who vacillate between inspiration and plagiarism since success depends on replicating successful formats.” Nowadays, he only makes memes if someone pays him.

A good meme instantly connects with the collective online consciousness, a sensitivity that experts have dubbed digital folklore and in which, like it or not, we all move about with grace and ease. “They are born from fragments of common cultural references: a TV series, comic book, historical image, news item or movie. That’s why, even if we don’t agree with their ideas, we immediately recognize them,” said a member of Filles d’Internet, the group that has been organizing Barcelona’s Memefest since 2018.

Often anonymous creations shared in private WhatsApp groups and internet forums, memes possess a fresh and natural allure that marketers and politicians find very attractive. Elisa Vergara is the strategy director at MeMe, a marketing agency that helps brands convert their ad campaigns into the language of memes. Corporate marketing departments are enthusiastic about her services. “In today’s ever-changing landscape, everything moves so fast,” she said. “Even fonts can become dated and decisions about whether to place text above or below are now important. It’s crucial to have reliable and trustworthy professionals who know the medium well.” The lifespan of memes remains a mystery, even for those steeped in internet culture. “The memes about [Spanish singer, songwriter David] Bisbal’s machines faded quickly, while memes from The Office [TV] series continue to rise like a phoenix,” said Vergara.

“My theory,” said Pajares, “is that memes are a synthetic solution to the problem posed by the immensity of the internet. They are a high-speed consumable product – fast food.” In other words, they are devoured in seconds, but their digestion is slow. Memes are chewed, swallowed, regurgitated, and ruminated. 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 what’s most interesting about long-running memes. “They endure because they’re always changing. Today they mean one thing and tomorrow they can mean something very different. 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 ironic meme’s death. While it may have been killed off by the masses, never before in the annals of history have so many erudite practitioners of the meme craft flourished. By 2016, software apps like PicsArt, Canva and KineMaster had democratized the work of mememakers, a job that requires an average of six hours a day.

After the death of the ironic meme, there was a shift towards post-irony and anti-irony. Memes about transgressions were replaced by motivational phrases like “I attract abundance” and “You can if you want to.” The pandemic brought an onslaught of memes along with a widespread feeling of boredom. Pajares writes that the tireless quest for viral content has worn us out. Everything feels predictable, and endless scrolling yields nothing but disappointment as we desperately search for novelty.

When TikTok and Instagram’s algorithms began ignoring content that wasn’t a micro-video or reel, people began to close meme accounts in droves – Pajares shut his account down in 2022. The average lifespan of a meme maker 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 – an acrobatic survival maneuver – emerged. These new memes don’t plumb the essence of things, nor do they claim to belong to any one place. They have neutral backgrounds and are full of pop references and content from the bygone social networks of the early 2000s. Hypermemes sparkle with flashing lights and neon tones, writes Pajares, who thinks their creators are no longer interested in coherent discourse. It appears that their sole aim is to survive the ever-changing algorithm, and that’s no small feat.

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