Amelia Tait
Show Hide image

Memes of 2016: What this year’s viral images will teach future historians

Damn, Daniel. Back at it again with the most popular memes of the past year revealing a lot about our collective conciousness. 

How does one analyse a historical society? From the diets of its inhabitants, certainly. From their clothes, jobs, homes, and families? Definitely. But, more often than not, the best way to determine what someone or someones were like 100, 500, or 1,000 years ago is to look at their own scribblings.

As today's historians examine the rough carvings on the weathered rock surfaces of a caveman's walls, tomorrow's historians will raise their monocles to our own viral images. With that in mind, here's what this year's most popular online images reveal about 2016. Those who do not study memes, after all, are doomed to repeat them.

January: Be Like Bill, Dog Pants

Before a single celebrity had stared feebly upwards into the eyes of death, the year kicked off with “Be Like Bill” – a stickman meme that inspired internet users to be less annoying while simultaneously being as annoying as possible. Though Bill memes could be used to pass on any message, the crude drawing most commonly told us all to be less offended, shut up about being vegan, and stop taking pictures of our food.

Historical analysis: Bill’s fragile physique certainly demonstrates how unprepared we all were for the crushing blows of 2016. Originating as a man sitting at a computer telling us how to behave, however, Bill undeniably represents the beginnings of the alt-right movement that would come to dominate the closing of the year.

*

Though the question of “If a dog wore pants, how would he wear them?” first rocked the foundations of human knowledge at the end of December 2015, the staggering complexity of the question ensured this was a hit meme throughout January 2016.

Historical analysis: While “Be Like Bill” reveals that fascism took root earlier in the year than many commentators traditionally claim, Dog Pants reveals that the beginning of 2016 was still a burgeoning era for progressive intellectual discussion. Though things would quickly take a turn, the meme reminds us all that there is always light in the darkness.

February: Confused Mr Krabs, Damn, Daniel

“Confused Mr Krabs” is exactly what it sounds like – an image of the crab, Mr Krabs, used to represent confusion, panic, and horror.

Historical analysis: It can hardly be coincidental that Confused Mr. Krabs rose to prominence after the sudden and unexpected deaths of beloved celebrities David Bowie and Alan Rickman, as well as the World Health Organisation’s official announcement of the outbreak of the Zika virus. Krabs was – and is – a coping mechanism, a projection of the internal torment we carry with us, a cry for help into the void.

*

Damn, Daniel. As a video montage of a teenager complimenting another teenager on his shoes, “Damn Daniel” ushered in the era of the abstract meme. Its pointless and inexplicable virality taught us all that we live in a world of carnage and chaos, ruled by nought but the universe’s whims.

Historical analysis: As a child who has just learned to use the toilet might clap its hands with glee, “Damn Daniel” was the meme that congratulated itself despite its inherent worthlessness. Most – if not all – of the ills of 2016 can be traced back to this meme, which proved that, in actuality, we deserved our fates.

March: Puppy or Bagel, Sad Papaw

It’s at this point in our story that you might notice a trend: utter, abject, and howling confusion. “Puppy or bagel”, though ostensibly humorous, was another meme representation of the disorder and chaos of the year.

Historical analysis: If this meme taught us anything, it’s that telling the difference between a puppy and a bagel can sometimes be really hard.

*

Sad Papaw is not just a grandfather sad that none of his grandchildren (bar one) showed up to eat burgers with him, it is a picture of a grandfather sad that none of his grandchildren (bar one) showed up to eat burgers with him. Jesus, Papaw. Keep your sadness to yourself. Haven’t we all suffered enough?

Historical analysis: This viral tweet revealed that the internet was at once loving enough to sympathise with a sad grandfather and simultaneously kind-hearted enough to threaten his absentee grandchildren with death.

April: Dat Boi, RRS Boaty McBoatface

O shit waddup! Here comes Dat Boi!

Historical analysis: While Daniel’s abstract nature damned us all, the inexplicable beauty of Dat Boi proved that the world was destined to be divided. Forget the 48 per cent and the 52 per cent, worry not about the Democrats and the Republicans – the true way to distinguish the sheep from the goats is to look at who understands the power of Dat Boi and who does not.

*

RRS Boaty McBoatface was the public’s desired name for a multimillion pound polar research vessel, which was voted upon in a popular internet poll.

Historical analysis: It is imperative that you read these next words and understand that they hold not a single trace of sarcasm of hyperbole. Boaty McBoatface was a warning that the British public could not be trusted, that they should never be allowed to vote in a referendum, and that the very concept of democracy is not as great as it once seemed.

May: Caveman SpongeBob, Harambe

Never was a meme a truer reflection of reality that with “Caveman SpongeBob”, a screenshot used to represent our most primitive of emotions.

Historical analysis: Though “Caveman Spongebob”, “Primitive Sponge”, or “Spongegar” seemingly chronicle the regression of our society from a forward-thinking, open-minded civilisation to a backwards, Trump-voting cluster of cave people, the meme is inherently more complex than this base analysis allows. What Caveman SpongeBob truly teaches us about this year is that sometimes, our greatest flaws are our greatest strengths.

*

Harambe was the silverback gorilla fatally shot with a rifle after a young child fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. His death caused international outcry via the medium of meme.

Historical analysis: Harambe’s murder and the subsequent reaction reinforced what many of us already knew to be true: gorillas are better than toddlers.

June: Green Screen the Queen

The unprecedented heartbreak caused by the premature death of Harambe meant June was a poor month for memes, with only the trend of green-screening the queen even raising a chuckle from the beleaguered internet masses.

Historical analysis: This is undeniably significant in the timeline of the downfall of the monarchy, though it is not as yet clear how.

July: Dicks out for Harambe

One minute you’re mourning a dead gorilla, the next you are waving your genitals to demand justice for his murder. July, like June, suffered from Harambe’s dominance of the meme world, but the “dicks out” trend provided a refreshing update on what could have become a stale meme.

Historical analysis: “Dicks out for Harambe” was the beginning of the liberal backlash against the forces of evil that began convening half way through the year. The meme represents the underdog’s willingness to fight against the rise of the right and to protest for social justice for all.

August: Arthur's Fist, You vs. the guy she tells you not to worry about

After the horrors of Harambe’s death and the Brexit vote finally sunk in, the internet reacted the only way it knew how: with a cartoon aardvark’s fist.

Historical analysis: Never has a nation’s collective anger been so succinctly summarised than with the Arthur fist. While the tweets and statuses accompanying the image spoke of anger at trivial matters, collectively the memes represented the frustration and distress at the very heart of 2016.

*

“You vs. the guy she tells you not to worry about” was just a bit of fun, wasn’t it everyone? Bit of a laugh. The meme saw people comparing two images of inferior and superior objects and suggesting that one represented you – pathetic, weak, unwanted – and the other represented the man your girlfriend would eventually leave you for.

Historical analysis: The meme revealed that many wrongly believe that modern Pikachu is somehow better than classic Pikachu.

September: Pen Pineapple Apple Pen, Racist Pepe

The viral music video that was and is “Pen Pineapple Apple Pen” landed in late August but became a cultural phenomenon in September. The clip shows a man dancing in front of a white background while singing about a pen, pineapple, apple, and another pen, before combining the aforementioned items into a Pen Pineapple Apple Pen.

Historical analysis: If God exists, he will never forgive us.

*

Meme stalwart Pepe the Frog was classified as a hate symbol this September after his image was hijacked to become a flag of Donald Trump supporters and the white supremacist group known commonly as the alt-right.

Historical analysis: Well, shit. Turns out this is legitimately historically significant. Thanks, 2016. 

October: Ken Bone

Ken Bone is the meme that should never have been, the meme that taught us about man’s fragility. Bone rose to viral fame after wearing a red sweater during the first United States presidential election debate and fell from power after fans discovered he had previously been a bit gross on the internet.

Historical analysis: Bone taught us all about the dangers of following our base urge to memify everything. Not everything or everyone deserves status in the hallowed halls of meme, and Bone in particular demonstrates this with finality.

November: The Mannequin Challenge, Evil Kermit

The Mannequin challenge swept across social media in November and saw everyone from your friends to celebrities standing still in an effort to show how good they were at it.

Historical analysis: It is clear to even the most uneducated among us that the mannequin challenge was a measured backlash to the chaos of the year. After Brexit and the election of Trump, the population reacted to a world that was moving too fast by simply standing still.

*

“Evil Kermit” is a film still of two Kermit the frogs used to represent the battles we all have with our conscience every day. Hooded Kermit whispers to Regular Kermit to misbehave – it is up to the Regular Kermit inside of all of us to fight back.

Historical analysis: Well, it's obvious, isn't it? Evil Kermit could only have arisen after the election win of Donald J Trump. Evil Kermit and Regular Kermit represent the battle we all now face between good and evil, every single day. 

December: Me at the beginning of 2016 vs me at the end of 2016

A simple end to the year, this meme was exactly what it sounded like. Two pictures, contrasting side-by-side the optimism we all felt at the beginning of the year versus the crushing defeat we felt by the end. 

Historical analysis: This meme shows us that no matter how many celebrities die, no matter how many atrocities occur, nor world events set us on an unprecedented path for the future, we will always – but always – be incredibly basic.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

YouTube announces new measures against extremism – but where do they leave the far right?

Videos by alt-right commentators have arguably radicalised many online. Will Google's latest policies do anything to change this?

Within hours of the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park, Tommy Robinson was trending on Twitter. The former leader of the English Defence League accused the Finsbury Park mosque of “creating terrorists” in a series of tweets on his personal account.

More than 17,400 people have now tweeted about the 34-year-old, with many theorising he could have radicalised the attacker who allegedly shouted “I’m going to kill all Muslims” at the scene. At present, there is no evidence that the man arrested by police on suspicion of attempted murder is a fan of Robinson.

“People are saying I’m inciting hate,” said Robinson in a video uploaded to Twitter and YouTube after the attack. “I just tell the facts and the truth and I’m not going to apologise for that…

“If giving you quotes from the Quran that incite murder and war against us is inciting hate, I’m guilty. If telling you all the problematic problems that come from the teachings and scriptures of Islam, I’m guilty. But these are just facts.”

After describing the country as being at “war”, he goes on to say: “Please one person, just one, give me one example of me inciting hate.”

When we talk about radicalisation and terrorism, we are finally to understand that this extends beyond the work of Isis.

Just over a year ago, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist. This morning, Harry Potter author JK Rowling used Twitter to accuse columnist Katie Hopkins of contributing to radicalisation. The New Statesman’s own Media Mole notes how right-wing tabloids incite hate.

In particular, it is now evident how the far right radicalises online. In December 2016, a man fired three shots in a Washington DC pizza parlour that the alt-right (on 4Chan and YouTube) had accused of being at the centre of a paedophile ring.

The internet arguably allowed Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far right white supremacist who killed 77 people in 2011, to cultivate his extreme views. Alexandre Bissonnette, the white nationalist who murdered six men at a Québec City mosque in January, was described by many as an “internet troll”.

Earlier this year, a report by the Commons home affairs committee accused social media giants of not doing enough to tackle terrorism online. In response to this – and following a series of high-profile brands pulling their advertising from YouTube after it was featured on or by terrorism-related videos – Google, which owns the video-sharing site, has now announced four steps it is taking to fight online terror. But do these reflect the reality that there are many forms of extremism?

Google’s new guidelines speak of “terrorism” and “extremism” in broad terms. This means that videos glorifying or inciting terrorism will be treated the same whether they are from the far right, far left, or pro-Isis organisations.

Google’s four steps for tackling such videos include: using machine learning to identify videos glorifying violence, using a team of human flaggers to identify problematic videos, and using a "redirect method" to send potential Isis recruits towards anti-terror videos. Each of these steps is concerned with content that either breaks the law or violates YouTube’s policies.

The fourth step (or rather the third, as it is ordered in Google’s blogpost) is focused on non-illegal, non-policy violating content. For example, this could include videos that don’t directly incite terrorism, but arguably incite hate, such as those denying the Holocaust.

According to Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel, these could also be “videos that contain inflammatory religious or supremacist content”. Rather than being removed like the other offending videos, these will be hidden behind a warning, not have adverts on them (therefore preventing their creators from making money), and will not be eligible for comments. Essentially, as Walker writes, “that means these videos will have less engagement and be harder to find”.

It remains to be seen whether – or how – this will apply to the content of Tommy Robinson. YouTube’s steps will be taken on a video-by-video basis, meaning no far right commentator will be banned outright. Instead, YouTube simply won’t promote any offending videos, meaning they will not appear in their subscribers’ recommended feeds and will be difficult to find on the site.

In this way, Google has remained committed to free speech while doing more to tackle extremism on YouTube. Those like Robinson who claim to just “tell the facts” could arguably now be held to account for their actions. Many on the far right are careful to not explicitly advocate violence. Nevertheless, the loaded language used in their videos could arguably incite hate.

Paul Joseph Watson, a right-wing conspiracy theorist YouTuber with nearly one million subscribers, has never advocated terrorism, but has videos entitled “Islam is NOT a Religion of Peace” and “Chuck Johnson: Muslim Migrants Will Cause Collapse of Europe”.

In the past I have argued that allowing Google and YouTube to censor us in the name of “extremism” and “terrorism” is a troubling trend, but with these new promises, the company has walked the delicate line between the law and free speech. By allowing hateful, but not illegal, content to be hosted on its site and yet restricted from a wider audience, YouTube is taking a stand against extremists of all kinds.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496