Amelia Tait
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times