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.

Flickr: M.o.B 68 / New Statesman
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“I begged him to come home”: Breaking the taboo around texting the dead

Many people text dead loved ones to cope with their grief – but trouble arises when they get an unexpected reply. 

A month after Haley Silvestri’s dad died from a heart attack, she texted him begging him to come home. In the middle of the night Silvestri’s 14-year-old sister had found their father, with his lips and mouth blue, lying on the kitchen floor. “There was nothing there anymore, just a dead body,” Silvestri says. “My father had his first heart attack months before and seemed to be doing OK. Then, this happened.”

In the very first episode of CSI Miami’s seventh season, the protagonist – Horatio Caine – fakes his death. For the first 15 minutes of the episode, the viewer believes the character is truly dead, as the camera lingers on Horatio’s body face down on the tarmac.

Silvestri and her father used to enjoy watching the show together. After he had passed and she realised she would never see her “best friend” again, she picked up her phone. “I texted my dad begging him to come home,” she says. “I begged my dad to please be ‘pulling a Horatio’.”

"My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over" 

In texting her father after he had died, Silvestri is by no means unusual. No official figures exist for the number of people who use technology to message their deceased loved ones, but Sara Lindsay, a professional counsellor, clinical supervisor, and trainer, says it is “more common than we think”.

“I see it as a modern and contemporary part of the grieving process,” she says. “I think in a way it's very similar to visiting a graveside, in that the bereaved are reaching out, particularly in the early days, because it takes a long time for people to process the reality that this person has now gone.”

Karlie Jensen, 18, texted her friend immediately after she found out she had died in a car accident. “I texted her as soon as I woke up to the news from my mom that she had passed. My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over waiting for a text saying it wasn't her, that my mom didn't know all the facts, and maybe she was just hurt.” Jensen also called her friend and begged her to respond. “I did it because I couldn't let go and couldn't accept she was gone from my life forever,” she says. Karlie continued to text her friend while also calling her voicemail in order to hear the sound of her speaking again. 

Karlie (right) and her friend

After her first text to her deceased father, Silversti also began texting him once a week. She fell into depression, and on her worst days messaged the number. “I think it helped initially because it felt like I was personally writing a note to him, that I knew he only was gonna see,” she says. “I did it because it was my attempt at pretending he was still here and could text me back.”

Lindsay, who has over a decade’s experience of bereavement counselling, emphasises that this behaviour is in no way unhealthy. “I think on the whole it's a very healthy part of grieving, particularly in the first year where the bereaved faces agonising days without their loved ones,” she says. “There is just so much loss and change in their life that’s out of their control, I see this aspect of texting as a small way of being able to reach out and alleviate that pain. That person is suddenly now not there but how they feel about that person hasn't changed.”

"I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text"

Despite being normal, however, using technology to talk to the dead is a behaviour we rarely – if ever – hear anything about. If the words “texting the dead” make it into the media, they are usually followed by a far more sensationalist “and then they text back!!!!”. Yet although messaging the deceased is popularly seen as the stuff of horror movies and trashy headlines, in reality it is simply a new, modern way to grieve.

Via Mirror.co.uk

“The first time I texted him I was on my bus on the way to school,” says now-20-year-old Dylan Campbell about his cousin Josh, who passed away from leukaemia. “I didn't have many friends so I had no one to talk to. I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text and someone would reply or I would get something out of it.”

Campbell continued to send his cousin texts for a few weeks, “kind of like a diary”. He says he did so because he regretted not seeing Josh more up until his death, and “had a lot of things to say” that he’d never had the chance to. Linsday says texting in this way is a very healthy way of completing unfinished business. “There might have been something they've never said to their loved one that they want to be able to say and texting is a very normal place to do that.”

"Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return"

Nonetheless, Lindsay notes that texting the dead can become unhealthy if grief becomes “stuck”, and the texting replaces normal communication or becomes a long term compulsion. Unlike Silvestri and Campbell, Jensen continued to text her friend in the hopes she would text back. She admits now that she was in denial about her death. “Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return” she says. “I don't know if it helped trying to contact her or hurt worse because I knew I'd never get a reply. I wanted a reply.”

Quite frequently, however, this reply does come. After a few months – but sometimes in as little as 30 days – phone companies will reallocate a deceased person’s phone number. If someone is texting this number to “talk” to their dead loved one, this can be difficult for everyone involved.

“This story doesn't have a happy ending,” says Campbell. “After a few months someone from that number called me and yelled at me to stop bothering them – it was really heart breaking.” When Silvestri texted her father to wish him a happy birthday (“Saying I hoped he was having a great party up in heaven”) someone replied telling her to never text the number again. “I was pissed off,” she says. “Just block my number if it was that serious. This was a form of therapy I needed and it got taken away because someone couldn’t understand my hurt.”

Indeed, behind the sensationalist tabloid headlines of "texting back" is a more mundane - and cruel - reality of pranksters pretending to be the dead relatives come back to life.

"Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality"

Silvestri, Jensen, and Campbell have never spoken to anyone else about the fact they texted their dead loved ones. Lindsay says that a fear of seeming “mad” combined with cultural phenomena – like the British stiff upper lip – might make people reluctant to speak about it. There is also a stigma around the way much of our modern technology is used in daily life, let alone in death.

This stigma often arises because of the newness of technology, but Christopher Moreman, a philosophy professor and expert on death and dying, emphasises that texting the dead is simply a modern iteration of many historical grieving practices – such as writing letters to the dead or talking to them at their graves. “I don't think the process of grieving is much changed, even if new modes of grieving come about due to new technologies,” he says. In fact, if anything, the differences between old and new ways of grieving can be positive.

“One important difference is in the sense of proximity,” explains Moreman. “I can text a loved one from anywhere in the world, but I can only visit their grave in one specific location. In another way, texting has the same structure whether I am texting someone who is alive or dead, so a sense of proximity also exists in the experience itself.

“Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality. Some people may complain that new technologies allow us to ignore the reality of death, but there isn't any evidence that one way of grieving is more or less healthy than another.”

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

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