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How memes helped us cope with the shitshow that was 2016

More Googled than God, this year memes provided humour, community and a necessary refuge from a world that increasingly felt like a bad dream

If you had told me at the start of 2016 that, come October, I’d be gathering several of my female friends into a meme-focussed Whatsapp group, I wouldn’t have believed you. And yet, there I was one Saturday night, birthing “Meme Girls” – and promptly crying tears of laughter at a meme about being over your ex while following them around disguised as a swan. Two months later, it’s a thousand image strong archive, a group therapy space, and, above all, a sisterhood of dank memes. We’ve shared, we’ve #relateable’d, and most importantly we’ve laughed.

And my God, have we needed to. For me, the Meme Girls, and for hundreds of thousands of others with addictions to their iPhones (and, if we’re being honest, propensities for procrastination and introspection), memes have played an increasingly important role in this shitshow of a year. Not just a tool for expressing our collective internet culture psyche, they’ve also been a means of expressing ourselves, forming communities, opening up about mental health, proving how out of date corporations and political candidates are and much, much more. As one Meme Girl succinctly put it: “They’re a funny and stress relieving way to comment on common modern realities.” 2016 may well have been a regressive year of torment, trauma and the triumph of white fear, but out of the darkness, came light. No, not that kind of light. “For the first time ever, ‘memes’ was looked up on Google Search more frequently than Jesus and God,” wrote Know Your Meme editor Brad in his annual review. Make no mistake: 2016 was the year of the meme. Here’s why.

THE EVOLUTION OF MEME

We all know what memes are, but this year it felt like they were lifted from the ‘coloured background, stock photo, white Impact font’ associations of the r/AdviceAnimals subreddit to morph into something else: more collaged images, more simple black text, more Instagram-friendly square crops. Fundamentally, memes got meta: there were self-contained memes (dat boi) memes about memes, and memes about looking at memes. There were memes about being a meme page admin, and memes about dating people with bad taste in memes (true story: this summer I actually found my attraction to someone dwindling when they kept sending me terrible memes). Memes came to express our shared experiences – no longer a guilty or somewhat juvenile pleasure, they put a voice to our deepest thoughts (via a hooded Kermit), translated our rage through the clenched fist of an animated aardvark.

“Memes came to express our shared experiences – no longer a guilty or somewhat juvenile pleasure, they put a voice to our deepest thoughts (via a hooded Kermit), translated our rage through the clenched fist of an animated aardvark”

“Say what you will about the current state of the memescape, but 2016 will soon be remembered as the year when memes broke through another great barrier and stepped into a new realm where no memes have gone before,” wrote Brad. He was talking about Washington DC – and how this election cycle, the meme was incorporated into the campaign mechanisms of both sides of the race. Unfortunately for collectors of his rarest forms, it was poor Pepe the frog who would fall victim to this. Trump posted the Pepes, Clinton blogged about them, leading, bizarrely, to the beloved bipolar amphibian joining the Swastika on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of hate symbols. “Why is there a frog standing directly behind Trump?” a piece on Clinton’s website asked of one meme. “That’s Pepe. He’s a symbol associated with white supremacy,” was the response. Jeeeeesus Christ.

But it wasn’t just politicians who proved how clueless they are about digital culture. This year, companies from McDonald’s to Nintendo and Yahoo continued in attempts to pilfer the meme, using it as a marketing tool that, unsurprisingly, missed the mark. There’s even a term for it, seemingly coined in this skin-crawlingly embarrassing Business News Daily article: memejacking (key quote: “marketers and advertisers are constantly looking for ways to interest young people, and memes are a great way to do just that.”) Part of the reason dead Cincinnati Zoo gorilla meme Harambe was so enduringly popular lay in its explicit and bewildering nature, meaning companies didn’t dare to get involved. “It’s a meme that will never be co-opted by internet-literate corporate Twitter accounts or deployed by some hapless news anchor hoping for a viral moment,” wrote NY Mag’s Brian Feldman. “‘Harambe’ is still a funny punch line because brands will never touch it.”

IT’S NOT EASY BEING MEME

But amongst the id-representing Kermits telling you to overreact without cause (and, for that matter, the cloaked Miss Piggys encouraging promiscuity and pizza consumption), 2016 saw a rise in the memes that got real – and funny – about mental health. Of course, depressing memes have been around for a while (see: Nihilist Memes and Texts From Your Existentialist), but these were something different. After all, getting your dick out for Harambe is all well and good, but sometimes, we all just want to wallow in how destructive and anxious we are. The relentless pace of the digital world may be a driving force behind the 21st century freak outs of young people, but it’s also trying to remedy them. Memes do that collectively, and with self-aware humour. We can be the punchline of our own jokes: reducing the ephemera of our identities into ‘starter packs’, relating to napping puppies when we have sickening amounts of work to do, and referring to our collection of mental health conditions as the “squad”.

With 1.5 million followers, a popular Instagram account spearheading this psych meme genre is My Therapist Says (a recent highlight – “This whole waking up every morning thing is getting a bit excessive” clocking in at 42,000 likes). Its co-founders are two 23-year-old women from LA and Toronto, who think of themselves as unqualified therapists for their viewers. “Our account makes reference to therapy because we feel that laughter is the best medicine,” they share. “As cliché as that may sound, we think memes can be a distraction for those with anxiety, a glimmer of happiness for those with depression and a sense of unity for those that are feeling alone in such a divided world.”

To Emily Reynolds, a journalist and author of the forthcoming “A Beginner's Guide to Losing Your Mind: Survival techniques for staying sane” (out in February, but available to pre-order!), memes have challenged the stories we usually hear about mental health. “Popular narratives can often be quite alienating in that they’re either overwhelmingly negative or they’re sugar-coated success stories where people are sort of ‘cured’ of their depression or anxiety through something like running or swimming or mindfulness or a particular diet. I don’t think either of those adequately reflect what it’s like to genuinely live with mental illness,” she says. Memes offer another option. “People might think they’re facile or superficial, but I think that lots of mental illness memes do a much better job of expressing how it feels to struggle day to day. To be able to laugh at some of the horrible things you’re going through when you feel hopeless or isolated can be a really positive coping mechanism.”

Crucially, we’re not only laughing, but laughing together. After all, the original definition of the meme (cc its atheist bro creator) centres around its capacity to spread from person to person, making it a fundamentally social or collective endeavour rather than a solo one. Memes thrive through communication, and it’s the sense of shared experience that helps them to spread. “I think the very nature of sharing common ground is empowering because it removes taboo around experience and brings people together,” explains one Meme Girl. Another agrees: “Seeing memes with several thousand people commenting and tagging other friends reminds you that what you're feeling isn't in isolation, be it depression, anxiety, or existential ennui.” She also notes a rise in meme consumption amongst those who are both successful and intelligent, yet struggle with self-worth. “We're guilty of assuming anyone accomplished is infallible – swapping depressive memes illustrated with Kim Kardashian or a desiccant Spongebob is a reminder we all struggle.”

FROM DARKNESS TO DANKNESS

Ultimately, 2016 was a year so absurd and so terrible that even Pepe became a symbol with ties to neo-Fascism. But out of this, memes grew to become the existential expression of an emotionally intelligent, outwardly privileged generation who have inherited a world that doesn’t quite look like we thought it would. Many of us are tens of thousands of pounds in debt for the privilege of knowing who Roland Barthes is, we give up half our paychecks for shitty housing in overcrowded cities, we will probably never own our own homes and we are forced to suffer the political consequences of old voters who grew up in a world that was more sexist and racist than today – and who actually long to recapture that.

“The meme community is thriving and necessary. Memes are a light amidst the strange, unbelievable issues that are taking place right now” – My Therapist Says admins

For us, it felt okay to take refuge in dank memes – somehow, this didn’t seem indulgent or escapist but a necessary reaction to reality. “I think now particularly, memes are absolutely a coping mechanism for people to escape the issues millennials are dealing with – whether it be the job market, student debt or distaste with the current political state,” argue the My Therapist Says admins. “We address issues, we aren't ignorant to them, but we do so humorously. That's why the meme community is thriving and necessary. Memes are a light amidst the strange, unbelievable issues that are taking place right now.”

We are a generation raised online, who grew up communicating freely, relating to and empathising with people around the globe. The internet made the world smaller, and so to us, the borders which divide countries and cultures really never seemed real – we all spoke the same language. This year, memes ordered and aestheticised the chaos around us, defining our relationship to an increasingly volatile political and social landscape: one where countries can divorce their neighbours, self-admitted vagina grabbers can be elected President, and yes, where gorillas can be shot when children climb into their pens. But whatever 2016 threw at us, memes proved one thing: we were all in it together.