This year, my annual routine of talking myself off the ledge of one year and lowering myself gently onto the next one is experiencing some difficulty. Usually my year-end harvest of stupid-yet-defining memes is rich and redemptive enough to sweeten the sourest reflections and remind us that the Internet is at its most useful when it’s at its most useless.
In 2014, we had the lovably befuddled Shruggie as our meme mascot of the year. In 2015, the blue and black (or was it white and gold?) dress presaged in its tacky way a culture of hyperspeed division that was only just starting to take hold, a trend that was continued into the memes of 2016, for which the long suffering Pepe the Frog seemed the only fitting ambassador. And in 2017, as the nation strained to numbly, dumbly process the chaos that was unfolding within it, only White Guy Blinking could assure us that while so much of what we were seeing was fake, the struggle was real.
But in the same way a single plastic lighter can’t convey the full contents of a sperm whale, a single meme would be overwhelmed to represent the myriad political, cultural, and emotional messes of 2018
In an essay for Medium, Meghan Daum simply suggested the F-word as the year’s most emblematic (if semiotically blunt) instrument, but that seems less like an articulation of the year than a tacit acknowledgment of how impossible this year is to articulate.
Was it a good year or a dreadful one? Are we doing far better or much worse? In a year when fake hair is way easier to spot than fake news, how do we establish our bearings? Are we looking back from above or below? Did that thing just say “yanny” or “laurel”?
Normally I’d say something metaphory like “memes may be superficial and shallow, but like the surface of the ocean, they can be read, the gait of their chop telling us what we need to know about the temperment of the sea below.” Nice, right?
But this year I can’t do that, since every meme seems steeped in darker, danker depths. Yes, there was the typical haul of celebrity animals (Gym Kardashian) and animal celebrities (Knickers the 3,000 lb. cow), and there was a fair share of standard-issue complete nonsense (like the absurdist earworm that was “Zendaya is Meechee”).
But in 2018, a year when tensions were at an all-time high and patience at an all-time low (to give an idea, straws were almost the last straw), our memes did more than their usual silly busywork. They captured slippery subjective slopes, charted the erosion of meaning, and attempted to contain the wildfires of online discourse that keep burning hotter (and that no one seems able to extinguish.)
Some of the year’s top memes dug into our animal instincts. We saw a bit of ourselves in a swarm of moth memes, in which lamps were stand-ins for our deepest desires. The pervasive anime-derived “Is This a Pigeon” meme deftly deconstructed the ways each of us spend our whole lives learning to misunderstand the world around us.
And the national love/hate-affair with the Philadelphia Flyers’ terrifying new mascot Gritty demonstrated that many of us identify most closely with lovable monsters — see also the quiet submerged rage revealed in the“SpongeBob”-spawned Evil Patrick memes — and that a maniacal orange-haired, blank-eyed monster could also lead us out of despair.
Other memes pried open the divides between us. The scourge of “white caller crime” — i.e. panicked white people calling the police on people of color for doing perfectly legal things like grilling in a park, selling bottled water, swimming in a pool, moving into an apartment, sleeping on a common-room couch, and [insert any normal verb associated with human activity here], gave rise to a parade of self-appointed American hall monitors like “BBQ Becky,” “Permit Patty,” and “Pool Patrol Paula,” reminding us all that racism isn’t over and some people desperately need hobbies and or lovin’.
The ubiquitous “American Chopper” memes, which captured a skirmish between father/son reality stars Paul Teutul Sr. and Jr., split across five panels and remixed into infinity to delve into such divisive topics as the gender gap in pay, the complications of globalism, and whether cats deserve wet food.
And the equally-everywhere ASCII cutie known as “U Want This Bunny” popped up all over Twitter to enforce a variety of moralistic quid pro quos. Compromise is key, the bunny tells us. Also that love doesn’t come free. (And also that Bath and Body Works is a trap.)
But even with Gritty wildly waving his arms in the background (and seemingly coming out as Top Meme on many year-end rankings I’ve spotted), you may be as surprised as Surprised Pikachu that my pick for Thing of the Year is more of the silent but deadly type.
This year’s winner represents the nexus of convenience and catastrophe that is our current moment. Like a 3-D-printed asterisk, it references a generational rift between like-starved millennials and loathing-consumed boomers. And more than anything else, it perfectly embodies the roiling blend of the toxic and the irresistible that is the Internet. A symbol of the ways we make our own poisons seem palatable and an icon for a mess that may never be truly cleaned, this year’s Thing of the Year is . . . the Tide Pod.
Here’s to a 2019 that goes down a little easier.