The memes that defined the 2010s – Vox.com

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Part of the Decade Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.


Perhaps no single cultural artifact did more heavy lifting in the 2010s than the meme. This was the decade the meme became far more than a fun piece of internet humor: Memes evolved to encompass everything from hashtags to viral videos, becoming their own language with their own communities.

The rapid rise of mobile internet use and the increasing domination of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social platforms helped shift the overall nature of memes from edgy and esoteric to warm and wholesome. On niche forums from 4chan to closed Facebook groups, memes peddling subversive or insular humor — e.g. “dank memes” — were standard. But the memes with humor fit for the whole family, or at least for people who weren’t that active online but checked their feeds once in a while, were the ones that really filtered into the mainstream through social media.

With increasing frequency, memes stood in for political arguments and ideological positions. They became right-wing recruitment tools, weapons of harassment, and tools of offline political resistance movements from Washington, DC, to Hong Kong. This was the decade some online memes became tangible offline disruptors, and the decade some were taken so seriously that they ceased being online fantasies and morphed into narrowly averted tragedies. Through it all, memes became for many of us a common language, one of the few we all still could parse as we searched for meaning and commonality in an increasingly polarized era.

Below, Vox presents a list of 10 memes that captured the zeitgeist, from those that summed up entire ideological positions to others that seem, on the surface, inane — but reveal a lot more than you expect about the decade’s cultural journey.


2010

Double Rainbow

If you were online in 2010, there was a chance you described something not-that-intense as “so intense.” That came from the now-classic “Double Rainbow,” a video recorded just a few days into the decade, on January 8, 2010. YouTube user Paul “YosemiteBear62” Vasquez filmed and streamed the genuinely impressive sight of a full double-rainbow crowning the mountaintop beyond his front yard.

Vasquez’s half-tearful, half-euphoric commentary alongside the footage made “Double Rainbow” instant, hilarious kitsch when the video abruptly took off in July of that year. The meme later got a boost from the “Double Rainbow Song,” one of the first viral examples of the Gregory Brothers’ popular Autotune the News musical series, which launched a whole YouTube autotune subgenre and birthed the most-watched video of 2010, the “Bed Intruder Song.”

At first, however, the public greeted “Double Rainbow” with a mix of bafflement, amusement, and mockery. Looking back now, it’s easy to see it as an early progenitor of the wholesome meme, which would, in the latter half of the decade, become one of the things that saved many from despair and burnout over increasingly dire climate disaster and geopolitics. Thinking about the mocking cultural reception of “Double Rainbow” then, versus what its reception would have been in the era of Wholesomeness, gives us a picture of how the internet progressed over the decade as the sociopolitical climate worsened.

And it’s hard not to feel a sense of sadness, too: We didn’t realize that rainbow really was that intense, all along. “Look into the mirror, look into your soul!” Mr. Vasquez told his YouTube audience. We’d spend the rest of the decade doing just that.


2011

“Friday” by Rebecca Black

Arguably another viral video that would be slotted into the “weird but wholesome” category, 2011’s “Friday” was a laughably mundane song and music video introducing the world to a gawky-but-sincere 13-year-old named Rebecca Black, and to YouTube’s utterly baffling video production wormhole. Vanity songwriting had been around for years, and so had amateur YouTube performances. But never had the two converged quite like this.

“Friday,” with its hypnotically bizarre music video of regular teenager Black and friends “partying, partying, yeah!” was a bouncy trainwreck. But as badly as it was made, “Friday” and its bargain-basement production studio, Ark Factory, contained the kernels of algorithmic virality throughout the decade: The entire company was about manufacturing influencers. As we all learned shortly after the baffling video became famous, Ark Factory put out scores of these prewritten, keyword-friendly songs and manufactured videos, all engineered to provide normal kids a simulation of celebrity at a low, low cost. (“Friday” took about $2,000 to make and produce, paid for by Rebecca Black’s family.)

Additionally, the company hoped to identify teens who had the talent or charisma to become social media successes, if not actual pop stars. The scheme sounds sketchy, but this was more or less the approach major companies took to viral marketing, and the influencer industry continued to take through the 2010s, seeking out low-level social media personalities and offering them money and exposure in exchange for endorsements.

“Friday” also typified the strange experience of the non-celebrity going viral overnight. By the end of the decade, we’d see this happen frequently, from Ken Bone, to Gary from Chicago, to Plane Bae. Like many of them, Black hadn’t been looking for viral fame or mainstream success of any kind; she wasn’t even a vlogger. Her overnight fame brought some success but cost her friendships, a year of school, and, for a long time, her dignity. That she survived, grew up into someone pretty cool, and now makes music that’s actually good is a testament to how much Rebecca Black still had to learn, and how much time she had to grow, when the internet found her — and perhaps a sign that social media had yet to learn how to weaponize its cruelty.


2012

Kony 2012

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea”
An image from the “Kony 2012” ad campaign by the human rights group Invisible Children.

The myriad problems with “Kony 2012,” a 20-minute-long YouTube documentary produced by a California-based activist group called Invisible Children, should have been apparent from the outset. While the video’s outrage over the plight of abducted Ugandan children was contagious, its goal was nebulous.

Invisible Children urged the public, through donations and viral noise, to somehow invoke the wrath of the US government upon the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the militant extremist group responsible for the abductions — especially its leader, Joseph Kony. The video racked up nearly 30 million views within days of its March release, and for a while, the #stopKony and #Kony2012 hashtags were everywhere.

Except Kony wasn’t actually in Uganda, and hadn’t been for years; he’s rumored to move around a lot, and to lie low throughout South Sudan. Plus, the entire glossy production seemed designed to funnel funds to, and essentially glorify, the three young white men whose films about Kony comprised much of Invisible Children’s efforts.

The project was widely criticized as being a prime example of colonialist white savior rhetoric, designed to commercially appeal to Westerners who would then go buy the organization’s branded T-shirts, and not actually aid or facilitate action from Ugandans. (Amid the backlash, video creator Jason Russell had a full-frontal nude meltdown in the streets, prompting one deadpan TMZ reporter to observe, “Rebecca Black didn’t do that.”) Ultimately, although Invisible Children did generate ongoing aid to Central African communities impacted by violence, it also nearly went bankrupt — and while the US government got involved with the hunt for Kony, it ended fruitlessly in 2017.

Kony 2012 highlighted the pitfalls of viral charity, as well as problems with Western media coverage that characterized a decade of reporting on issues like detention camps and the Syrian refugee crisis. It also predicted similar online mass social movements, from the obsession with “raiding” Area 51 to the Ice Bucket Challenge. Most importantly, Kony 2012 gave other movements a template for what not to do. When the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag appeared in support of locating abducted Nigerian children two years later, the emphasis was where it should have been along: on supporting and sustaining developing nations and their already extant social justice movements.


2013

Doge

Image of doge meme saying “wow,” “very fluff,” “such doge,” and “so meme”

It’s no secret that the internet used to belong to cats but now belongs to dogs. During the Aughts, i.e. the LOLCat years, most memes were formed from captioned images. The sharpest humor relied on childlike linguistic permutations — like spelling “the” as “teh” and declaring “I can has cheezburger?” in the original lolcat meme — and upon twisting the familiar into something quirky and unexpected, like the “lolcat” concept itself. Cats as cultural phenoms flourished during a weirder, less homogenized, and less mainstream period of internet culture — the time before social media became our dominant way of interacting and spreading ideas, and “internet culture” increasingly just became “culture.”

Thus, the insular, sarcasm-infused internet humor represented by cats and lolcat speak evolved into more universalized, easily accessible humor, represented by dogs and “doggo lingo,” i.e. “a language of love.” And the moment this paradigm shift occurred was roughly around 2013, when a sweet Shiba Inu named Kabosu, a rescued shelter puppy, became the adorable face of “Doge,” an image macro-turned-linguistic meme whose effects were manifold.

Popularized on Tumblr, “Doge” took the cat memes to new, absurdist heights, an early hallmark of neo-Dadaist millennial humor. The doge meme brought dogs into internet fashion and made “doge-speak” into its own standalone thing. This gave us a few years of “such adjective, very noun” language as a result. As “doge” endured, this quirky language became associated with dogs at large, just as it already is IRL; after all, we tend to use very simplified speech with our pets.

So “doge” is weird, but comfy and cozy; it tipped the realm of edgy memes toward the new era of the wholesome meme, before this divide had really become cultural. Doge appeared two years before the We Rate Dogs Twitter made “good doggos” into a thing in 2015, but without “doge,” it’s likely we would have had neither. Such accomplish! Very wow.


2014

Slender Man

The original Slender Man image. The faux caption: “We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time …”
Erick Knudsen via Something Awful

The images were instantly terrifying, yet felt as if they’d always been among us: The impossible height, the disproportionate gangliness, the not-quite-there face, the nebulous number of arms, and the grim expressions on the faces of children — allegedly forever lost in the arms of the Slender Man.

Slender Man was an instant urban legend but one with a definitive origin. In 2009, a guy named Eric Knudsen wrote an eight-sentence story on the internet cultural hub Something Awful under the name “Victor Surge.” Knudsen posted his piece to a thread for photoshopped versions of “creepypasta,” short, scary stories meant to be easily passed around forums, blogs, and other social networks as urban internet legends.

Slender Man spawned a following unique among creepypasta villains: he was one of the most popular memes of the decade, routinely topping most-searched-for terms on meme and creepypasta websites. The “Slender Man Mythos” burgeoned into an internet subculture of fans dedicated to remixing and expanding the original story.

Slendy’s popularity spawned the rise of home-grown internet folklore over the decade. The webseries Marble Hornets dramatized Slender Man to great success, while users of the subreddit No Sleep filled the board with thousands of other first-person horror stories attempting to deliver similarly viral dread. SyFy’s Channel Zero dramatized several “classic” examples of creepypasta; one No Sleep story, “The Spire in the Woods,” is currently being developed into a feature film by Steven Spielberg. And the Slender Man story itself inspired everything from video games to fanart to a bizarrely late 2018 horror film.

But there was also an uglier, offline side to the online horror stories. In 2014, the story of Slender Man inspired two preteen girls to attempt to murder a third friend as a “sacrifice” to the creature, whom they believed to be real. The victim survived a brutal stabbing — and Slender Man became part of the disturbing trend of online memes inspiring serious real-world action, particularly internet urban legends. Slender Man preceded the Blue Whale challenge in 2017, which led to several actual deaths before it thankfully faded, and the “Momo” challenge from earlier this year, which didn’t lead to real-life self-harm, but understandably scared people into fearing it might.

There’s an eerie commonality between the online cult of Slender Man and the wave of internet conspiracies that grew and flourished during the 2010s — from strange fandom shipping conspiracies to Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory that began as an ironic 4chan meme before it circulated as “fake news” and cultivated true believers. In 2014, it was hard to believe that two 12-year-olds could fall so heavily into this alternate reality that they’d take their obsession offline. By the time Pizzagate had provoked one zealot to terrorize a DC pizza joint two years later, the delusion fostered by 12-year-olds seemed to be just another part of a larger, internet-fueled alternate universe.


2014

This is fine

“This is fine” comic K.C. Green

This meme originated in 2013 as part of a six-panel installment of cartoonist K.C. Green’s webcomic Gunshow. In the comic, a dog sits and drink his coffee during a house fire, insisting that everything is fine as he slowly melts away. The comic was originally titled “On Fire,” but after a truncated two-panel version started to spread through Reddit a year later, it became known as “This Is Fine,” in honor of the dog’s ironic final line — and the perfect way to describe everything being the opposite of fine.

In its various comic and animated incarnations, “This Is Fine” became the epitome of our reaction to the increasingly distorted, disaster-laden world. To the growing ideological divide, the worsening geopolitical climate; the rise of Gamergate, the alt-right, and their even more extreme brethren; the fact of social media and tech culture unwittingly undermining democracy; school shootings and mass gun violence with no end in sight; and, of course, to climate change, when things are frequently literally on fire, the millennial generation murmured, “This is fine.”

The meme works if you want to articulate your own inability to process how overwhelming all of this change is. And it also works if you want to sardonically call out someone else’s perceived indifference to an urgent issue, whether tiny or huge.

The peaceable irony of “This Is Fine” was the spiritual opposite of the much more noxious “Pepe the Frog” meme. Both memes were based on webcomics, and both emerged as politically charged icons roughly around the same time. Pepe was an amphibian stoner, originally created in 2005 as a webcomic character by artist Matt Furie. Since the Aughts, he had been a dank meme and mascot used by online troll types; in the mid 2010s, however, the frog became an alt-right symbol, used as an enormous dog whistle for white supremacy. It wasn’t until the 2019 Hong Kong protests that Pepe received his political reclamation at the hands of democratic student protesters.

But where Pepe (a crude cartoon frog) gained a very specific contextual use that got even more specific and localized over time, “This Is Fine” (a crude cartoon dog) was much more easily universalized, applicable to nearly everything, and increasingly relevant to more and more people as it grew in popularity. If this cute little hound couldn’t figure things out, clearly the rest of us were all screwed.


2014

“On fleek” (and hundreds of other Vine slogans)

Still image from “on fleek” vine video
Kayla Lewis

The phrase “on fleek” — a saucy shorthand for aesthetic excellence — was invented in 2014 by a 16-year-old Vine user named Kayla Lewis, a.k.a. “Peaches Monroee,” to describe her perfectly waxed eyebrows. In the six-second loop that was standard for all Vine videos, she prepped for a night out with a litany of slang catchphrases, all well-known except for that soon-to-be-immortal one.

“On fleek” could be seen as just one of the decade’s many classic Vines, like “why you always lying,” “oh my god, they were roommates,” “it’s Wednesday, my dudes,” “vroom vroom,” “back at it again at Krispy Kreme,” and of course, “do it for the Vine,” et cetera, into infinity. Like all of the above, “on fleek” was instantly viral across all social media, and the video showcased both the hilarity of the Vine platform and the way catchphrases born from its six-second clips could easily find their way into collective cultural jargon.

But on another level, the trajectory of the phrase, which immediately traveled across the internet to be capitalized upon elsewhere by pop stars, major brands, and assorted corporations, captured a pivotal undercurrent of pop culture in the 2010s: a growing awareness of cultural appropriation.

Vine, which shut down in 2016, was a rich hub of black internet culture, and its memes were constantly finding their way onto other internet platforms and into common usage, often divorced from their original context. Vine was thus a microcosmic example of the way, throughout the decade, black culture was spread and watered down as it reached the mainstream.

The birth of “on fleek” was frequently ignored as it mutated into a contextless slogan, and critiques of its cultural erasure gained traction. Soon, the internet became more aware of the damage done by majority cultures borrowing elements of minority cultures, brands exploiting marginalized consumers, and even more lighthearted forms of making jokes out of cultural difference. And Lewis was frequently cited as one of the touchstone examples of this trend, perhaps because she was vocal about how quickly her words had been appropriated from her.

By drawing attention to the way her words were being lifted and repurposed without her consent, insisting on credit while allowing the meme to flourish, Lewis set the tone for years of discussion, and embodied the spirit of being “on fleek” herself.


2015

I came out to have a good time and I’m honestly feeling so attacked

Tumblr screenshot, reading: “Me: I’m having a virgin Mai Tai. Friend: isn’t that just pineapple and orange juice. Me: [blank space] Me: *sips drink* Me: [blank space] Me: I came out tonight to have a fun time and honestly I am feeling so attacked right now.” Tumblr

Few memes more hilariously summed up and parodied a whole decade of social media overreaction as this 2015 Tumblr post about, as it says on the tin, feeling attacked for no apparent reason. Originally made by a user named chardonnaymami who subsequently deleted their account, the post brilliantly combined internet humor with the flavor of gin-soaked reality TV drama. In fact, the public fascination with melodramatically feeling very attacked arose nearly simultaneously thanks to a heated moment from Drag Race.

The post spawned numerous imitators, and the language of feeling “attacked” has entered common parlance. That means that this meme is still pretty much everywhere to this day — hell, by this point most people have probably forgotten this idea even started out as a meme at all. You can be “attacked” for everything from feeling hilariously called out, like so:

Or for having deep passionate feelings about things at unexpected moments, like so:

All this is classic Tumblr humor in its purest form. When you say, “I feel so attacked,” you’re using intentionally hyperbolic language to express ironic enjoyment of your own dramatic emotions. Tumblr users led the rest of the internet in the expression of wry hyperbolic passion, in everything from “feels” and “I can’t even” to “I am trash” and “I love this garbage [thing].”

Although the “so attacked” meme neatly encapsulates the wit and humor of Tumblr, it instantly spread to other platforms, and subsequently was rarely correctly attributed to the Tumblr user who first wrote it. And that fact all by itself sums up the cultural underestimation of Tumblr’s vital role in internet culture throughout the decade.

Tumblr has always punched far above its cultural weight, whether through its symbiotic relationship with 2010s media outlets like Mic and BuzzFeed, or its magical ability to have all its memes rediscovered and recycled by Twitter users five to seven years after they were de rigueur on the much looser blogging platform.

After all the quality content it gave us, Tumblr still was perpetually written off by mainstream culture as a silly teen site, though it continues to thrive even as the rest of the world continues to assume the blue hellsite (that’s the internet’s nickname for Tumblr) is perpetually stumbling toward obsolescence. Really, guys? We Tumblr users just came out to have a good time, and honestly.


2015

“Harold they’re lesbians”

Screenshot of Tumblr post, reading:“I really don’t know what crowd I expected to be in the theater for carol at 1:20 in the afternoon on a friday but it was probably 85% old people, old het couples and halfway through the movie this old lady in front of me turned to the old dude next to her and just said “harold they’re lesbians””

The best queer memes of the decade (be gay, do crimes, the gay babadook, lesbian boba fett, etc.) all play into the traditional association of “gay” with “whimsy,” and this one is perhaps the most whimsical of all. They also abide by the classic cultural association of queerness with deviance and subversion — and what could be more subversive than springing an illicit, passionate 1950s love affair between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara upon an unsuspecting old couple?

For all its saucy impudence, “They’re lesbians, Harold” also manages to be somehow wholesome. The 2015 Tumblr post that spawned it was originally about Carol, one of the most beloved movies of the decade. But the phrase more generally captures those priceless moments when straight culture abruptly comes face to face with queer culture. The best queer culture is celebratory, open, and, well, proud, and “They’re lesbians, Harold” works because of what’s on the other side of the meme: queer identity, existing and thriving throughout history, despite the best efforts of straight culture to whitewash it or pretend it doesn’t exist.

“They’re lesbians, Harold” also falls within the realm of another kind of meme that emerged in the latter half of the decade, the variant of meme that mocks a hilariously out-of-touch older person — especially a straight white person — who’s trying to figure out what’s going on with kids these days. Perhaps they’re voicing their indignation at an aspect of progressive or diverse culture they don’t understand. Perhaps, like the baffled elderly couple in this meme, they’re merely startled.

Even though “Harold” originally referred to a specific Harold, we’ve understood certain names as codes for universalized archetypes ever since Beyoncé brought us “Becky with the good hair” with 2016’s Lemonade. As part of that code, you’ll often see basic Anglican names universalized to represent the defensiveness that many white people deploy when faced with performative expressions of queer identity or other marginalized identities. (Sorry if that gets your hackles up, Tammy.)

“They’re lesbians, Harold” predicted later memes like 2017’s mocking Spongebob and 2019’s “OK boomer,” while still embracing impudence and sassy irreverence for your scandalized straight feelings. Crucially, though, we never know if the initial recognition of the women’s sexuality sparks horror or outrage in the original couple; they’re forever on the brink of either rejection or acceptance, which makes the meme itself forever hopeful: mocking, yes — but with plenty of affection and optimism in the mix.


2016

Harambe

So much has been said already about Harambe — including by Vox — that we may admittedly feel exhausted by the thought of saying it again. But that exhaustion was built into the meme all the way back in 2016, and it’s part of what made Harambe such a weird and bizarre phenomenon, unique among memes even three years later.

The Harambe meme erupted across the internet after the 2016 killing of a Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, a beloved zoo resident who’d just celebrated his 17th birthday the day before. Harambe died after he approached a small boy who had climbed into his pen. While many onlookers believed the gorilla was trying to protect the boy, he was deemed to be dangerous and was immediately shot by zoo officials.

The public outcry over Harambe’s death was massive, one of the bigger controversies of 2016 — which, you might recall, had plenty of human controversies. The uproar was politically and racially charged, particularly directed at the boy’s mother, and lasted for months. The meme largely fueled the conversation, in which Harambe was both sincerely mourned and sarcastically milked for all his worth to become a weird spectacle of grief, bizarreness, and outrage.

The Harambe meme was basically an intense online wake for a gorilla that exemplified the way dank meme culture can borrow weirdness and spawn more of it. Plenty of people seemed to be sincerely grieving Harambe, while others were just deeply committed to the gag, as a way of ironically expressing their bafflement over the whole scandal. Either way, the meme kept the emotions high for ages; it simply did not quit.

The outrage over Harambe’s death summoned debate about everything from animal cruelty to gun violence to race and sexism. It was a deeply layered meme, serving a range of different ideological ends. That might explain why Harambe is still never far from the internet’s collective mind.


2019

Baby Yoda

It’s very recent, but it’s hard to deny that Baby Yoda — the adorable puppet character who steals the show in the Disney+ streaming Star Wars series The Mandalorian — is one of the last great memes of the decade.

In the latter half of the 2010s, in inverse proportion to all the aforementioned calamity, we’ve attained an era of peak wholesome culture, from hygge to hopepunk — all spurred on by the rise of the wholesome meme, with its emphasis on cute, cuddly, and healing aesthetics. And clearly, with this cute, cuddly lifelike baby puppet, the wholesome meme trend is sending us off on a high note.

And if Baby Yoda turns out to be evil — well, it will still be right in keeping with the thwarted hopes, disrupted belief systems, and unexpected chaos of the 2010s.

Here’s to the 2020s, and may the Force be with us all. We’ll need it.


Aja Romano is an internet culture reporter for Vox. They last wrote about Cats and the rise of Andrew Lloyd Webber for the Highlight.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the United States’ involvement in the hunt for Kony.

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