Social media algorithms and top-down trend cycles have ruined memes as we know it, but perhaps we’re approaching a new posting epoch
I saw the best posters of my generation destroyed by madness. Group chats have fallen silent, Discord servers abandoned. Meme admins Zucked and pushed to the depths of the timeline, rotting in a pile of digital debris. “I’m normal and can be trusted with community guidelines,” reads a meme depicting Red Mist Squidward. His bloodshot eyes possess the same manic stare as the most seasoned schizoposter. I pause to think: is the golden age of posting over – or is it simply in its flop era?
By now, it’s clear there’s been a shift in the way we consume content online. As social media giants tighten their grip on censorship, even the most personal content takes on a shiny, search-engine-optimised sheen indistinguishable from advertising, and memes have lost their critical edge. From Oceangate to Donald Trump’s mugshot, meme cycles grow shorter and shorter, replaced by UI-optimised ice creams and gang gangs, while the algorithm guides our behaviour like an invisible cursor. Strawberry girl, vanilla girl, tomato girl, clean girl: top-down micro-trends flood our feeds. This isn’t the organic, user-driven subculturism that informed TikTok reels across the pandemic – what Big Tech later coined the Creator Economy. It’s consumer-driven, engineered for clicks and likes, with big profit incentives.
Whether we intended to or not, the pandemic made us all content creators. It was a necessity at a time when the real world wasn’t an option. Memes and social media feeds replaced IRL encounters in physical spaces, and online communities flourished as everything became about the internet. We saw this with Dimes Square and the popularity of post-internet fashion and video games, while internet-born music genres like hyperpop and Drain went mainstream. Their influence could be felt across pop culture, from catwalks to luxury fashion collabs and Spotify streaming ‘hits’.
The past year has seen the dwindling of memes across social media. While this can be attributed to people literally going outside and touching grass, there’s more to the story than logging off. Platforms like Instagram have tweaked their algorithms, shadowbanning and deprioritising accounts that don’t meet the Terms And Conditions. Previously shitposting served as a system seizure, a way of disrupting the search-engine-optimised chain of glossy advertorials that clog up our feeds through sheer perseverance (AKA posting a shit tonne). Nowadays, running a meme account feels like a spy movie where the protagonist has to dodge red laser beams to avoid censors. As for the memes that do succeed, like NPC influencers, there’s nothing to anchor it to any intention other than virality.
This is partially down to the lack of political potential on the horizon. To make a successful shitpost, there has to be a reason, whether that’s political or simply a collective need to air out frustration. There’s no urgency, so online political movements such as Theorygram fade out, while progressive spaces, once abuzz with quick-fire discourse, dissolve into hubs for entertainment, or vibe curation. It’s worm-brained stuff, boring ahh. The kind that distracts you while you doomscroll (besides, we’re most monetisable that way), because to question it will only make things worse.
But back to the brands. If the pandemic forced us to all become digitally fluent, the same goes for corporations. We’re becoming more collectively aware of how online humour is being weaponised to sway public opinion, like Burger King calling us ‘bestie’ on main. Nation states and militaries are posting memes on official accounts, co-opting the language of younger generations to recruit in a similar method to how brands sell us goods. The CIA is integrating them into its recruitment strategy, even the UK police are at it. It solidifies what we already knew, which is that memes are no longer by and for the people. Plus, it’s Extremely Cringe – and mid.
As we tread into ‘It’s So Fucking Over’ territory, let’s consider the potential future we will inhabit. With every new chapter comes the potential for new beginnings, and while it’s true that posting as we know it has lost its spark, there’s about to be a whole lot more tools at our disposal. As AI grows more advanced, the potential for weird and psychedelic content will expand, while Gen Alpha, for whom video game engine fluency comes naturally, will create new modes of sharing content. Before we raise a glass for the fallen soldiers of the Platform Wars, remember this: The Golden Age of posting as we know it might be over, but perhaps we’re entering a new epoch.
Want to find out more? Listen to Logged On episode four ‘Is the Golden Age of posting over?’ with guests POSTPOSTPOST here