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.

Photo: Getty/New Statesman
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The mother lode: how mums became the ultimate viral fodder

The internet’s favourite joke used to be "your mum". Now it's "my mum".

“I was like: oh my.”

Terri Squires is describing her reaction to the news that she had gone viral. Last month, more than 213,000 people shared a tweet about Terri – but it wasn’t sent from her account. The 50-year-old Ohioan was propelled to internet stardom by her son, Jeff, who had tweeted about his mother.

“I didn’t really realise what it meant at first until he was like: ‘Mum, you do realise that millions of people have looked at this?’ … When I started seeing those numbers I was like: ‘Oh boy’.”

It’s a funny story – and Terri laughs heartily all she tells it. After coming out of a meeting, she checked her phone and noticed a picture of a missing – white – dog on Facebook. She quickly texted 17-year-old Jeff to check that the family dog, Duey, was safe. “That’s not Duey… Duey’s face is brown,” replied her son. “OK – just checking,” replied Terri.

More than 600,000 people “liked” Terri’s mistake after Jeff shared screenshots of the text message exchange on Twitter. But Terri is just one of hundreds of mums who have gone viral via their sons and daughters. Texts mums send, mistakes they make, things they fail to notice – these have all become the ultimate viral fodder.

In the last three months alone, Gerald’s mum went viral for a microphone mishap, Adam’s mum shot to Twitter fame for failing to understand WhatsApp, Lois’ mum got tricked by her daughter, Harry’s mum was hit in the head with a football, Hanna’s mum misunderstood a hairstyle, and Jake’s mum failed to notice her son had swapped a photo in her home for a portrait of Kim Jong-un.

But how do the mothers behind these viral tweets feel?

“I'm pretty much a mum that everybody wants to talk to these days,” says Terri, with another warm laugh. The mum of three says going viral “is not that big of a deal” to her, but she is happy that her son can enjoy being a “local superstar”. But is she embarrassed at being the punchline of Jeff’s joke?

“Believe me, I have thick skin,” she says. “I kinda look at what it is, and it’s actually him and his fame. I’m just the mum behind it, the butt of the joke, but I don't mind.”

Not all mums feel the same. A handful of similar viral tweets have since been deleted, indicating the mothers featured in them weren’t best pleased. A few people I reach out to haven’t actually told their mums that they’re the subject of viral tweets, and other mums simply don’t want any more attention.

“I think I’ve put my mum through enough with that tweet already,” says Jacko, when I ask if his mum would be willing to be interviewed. In 2014, Jacko tweeted out a picture of his family writing the word “cock” in the air with sparklers. “This is still my favourite ever family photo,” he captioned the tweet, “My mum did the ‘O’. We told her we were going to write ‘Love’.”

“No one ever expects to call home and say ‘Mum, have you heard of something called LADbible? No, you shouldn’t have, it’s just that a quarter of a million of its fans have just liked a photo of you writing the word ‘cock’ with a sparkler’,” Jacko explains.

Although Jacko feels his mum’s been through enough with the tweet, he does say she was “ace” about her new found fame. “She’s probably cooler about it all than I am”. Apart from the odd deletion, then, it seems most mums are happy to become viral Twitter stars.

Yet why are mums so mocked and maligned in this way? Although dads are often the subject of viral tweets, this is usually because of jokes the dads themselves make (here’s the most notable example from this week). Mums, on the other hand, tend to be mocked for doing something “wrong” (though there are obviously a few examples of them going viral for their clever and cunning). On the whole: dads make jokes, mums are the butt of them.

“We all think our mums are so clueless, you know. They don’t know what’s going on. And the fun thing is, one day we come to realise that they knew way more of what was going on than we thought,” says Patricia Wood, a 56-year-old mum from Texas. “People always kind of make fun of their mums, but love them.”

Last year, Patricia went viral when her daughter Christina tweeted out screenshots of her mum’s Facebook posts. In them, Patricia had forgotten the names of Christina’s friends and had candidly written Facebook captions like: “My gorgeous daughter and her date for formal, sorry I forgot his name”. Christina captioned her tweet “I really can't with my mom” and went on to get more than 1,000 likes.

“I felt, like, wow, it was like we’re famous, you know. I thought it was really cool,” says Patricia, of going viral. Her experiences have been largely positive, and as a part-time Uber driver she enjoys telling her customers about the tweet. “But I did have one bad experience,” she explains. A drunken passenger in her car saw the tweet and called Patricia an “asshole”.

Another aspect of viral fame also worried Patricia. She and her daughter were invited on a reality show, TD Jakes, with the production company offering to pay for flights and hotels for the pair. “I have too many skeletons in my closet and I didn't want them to come dancing out,” says Patricia, of her decision not to go. “By the time I got off it, it would be the Jerry Springer show, you know. I’m kind of a strange bird.”

On the whole, then, mothers are often amused by going viral via their offspring – and perhaps this is the real beauty of tweeting about our mums. Since the moment they earn the title, mums can’t afford to be fragile. There is a joy and relatability in “my mum” tweets – because really, the mum in question could be anyone’s. Still, from now on, mums might be more careful about what they tell their sons and daughters.

“When I send Jeff a text now I make sure I’m like: ‘Is my spelling correct? Is what I’m saying grammatically correct?’,” says Terri, “Because who knows where the words are gonna end up?”

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