4 min read

No Canon for Old Memes

No Canon for Old Memes

The Internet culture of the Aughts revolved around lo-fi images and videos. Will they be remembered by coming generations, and does this portend something about the future of culture?

Every time my mother picked me up in the used Volvo station wagon, she always had the radio tuned to Pensacola’s Oldies station. I spent thirty minutes to an hour, five days each week, listening to classic songs from the Fifties and Sixties. And as a result, I learned almost all the hits of her teenage years: Motown, girl groups, The Association, and also odd gems like Lou Christie’s “Lightning Strikes” and Friend & Lover’s “Reach Out of the Darkness.” And this doesn't include all the Tom Lehrer and Simon & Garfunkel played during road trips.

Even without such parental intervention, any kid watching television in the late 1980s/early 1990s would hear a lot of Boomer music: in commercials for Freedom Rock, on The Monkees reruns, as incidental music on The Wonder Years. TV shows and documentaries about the Vietnam War always set the mood with either Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” or Jimmy Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

Traditions only persist in repetition, and Baby Boomer pop music prospered long past its initial creation date thanks its constant replay across radio, TV, and films in the ensuing decades. As a teenager I preferred to listen to alternative music, yet the mass media forced me to also passively absorb knowledge about past tunes. As I wrote about in my book Status and Culture, artistic canons arise when gatekeepers designate certain materials from previous eras as “must-know,” and this triggers their repetition for new and old audiences. The reason that James Dean transcends his peers Bobby Rydell and Fabian is because consumer culture has long found new ways to revive his image to sell products.

The culture market underwent a grand veneration of Baby Boomer culture two decades after Beatlemania, so now in 2024, is internet culture of the early Aughts looking primed for a similar revival? I remember the world wide web of the 2000s relatively well. I never lurked on Something Awful or 4chan, but I blogged, I read Boing Boing, I was moderately extremely online. In 2008, I probably got 90% of the references in Weezer’s 2008 ultra-cringe “Pork and Beans" meme video. I may have not known why exactly the gray cat was asking, “I can has cheezburger?” but I was aware that cats on the internet spoke in broken grammar.

I wager today that a vast majority of this Aughts culture has decayed into pure relic: These crummy videos and gifs are not used, spread, or venerated, but are simply perceived as a signifier for that era. There are few mechanisms to force exposure to Aughts memes upon younger generations the way that TV indoctrinated my generation to be familiar with their parents’ favorite tunes. A few memes of that era are quite successful: The kids know Rick Rolling and maybe Nyan Cat. Doge seems to still be a thing. And many old images still work as fresh meme templates. Perhaps the comparison to music is a bit unfair: Memes are more like slang words than songs. Once memes fall out of usage, they just die and get filed away into the historical pages at Know Your Meme. This Just Internet did an education video on old memes, but there is no broad organic system that pops up things like "dramatic chipmunk" in 2020s culture.

I don't think we can say that culture is worse because memes have such a short shelf life. But this does demonstrate how the 21st century will play out differently than the 20th. Youth culture of the 20th century over-focused on music and clothing — formats that are conducive to repeat and revival. Memes are cheap, fast, and disposable. They lose their cultural value instantly.

In the Aughts, before influencers, creators, and YouTubers, memes were the primary medium of internet culture — and so much made in this era has a very low chance of future canonization. Aughts memes turned out to be funny the way inside jokes at summer camp are funny: You had to be there. They make no sense outside of their initial context. And it doesn't help that many were accidental successes, rather than conscious works of art made with craft and care.

So many of these memes were also based on pitiless mockery, which is not a good way to create enduring culture. As we get older, we grow less immature and naïve about the most storied "fails." The “Afro ninja” suffered an actual concussion when he face-planted. “Star Wars Kid” garnered so much unwanted attention from media that his high school asked him to leave. There was never collective aspiration towards Tay Zonday, Rebecca Black, or the wild-haired “Ancient Aliens Guy” — so why will this particular motley crew energize future nostalgia in a way that is infectious to younger audiences?

Of course, meme culture as a broad phenomenon has been extremely successful. Some random person put Impact font on a cat photo in 2004, and this design convention remains in effect twenty years later. Memes should be understood as a medium for expression on contemporary matters. But what is said or celebrated at any moment is only meant for that moment.

In Everything I Need I Get From You, author Kaitlyn Tiffany argues that fangirls have been written out of subcultural theory despite the fact that their entire lifestyle exists "in contradiction to the dominant culture." In the 21st century, fan armies have emerged as one of the most passionate drivers of cultural dialogue. They can be as passionate and weird as Teddy Boys or science fiction nerds. But they struggle for respect for the same reason that memes struggle: Fangirl output doesn't exist in a format that can be canonized for broad audiences. Social media posts, memes, and wacky conspiracy theories are just less conducive for future enjoyment than artistic productions or clothing styles. One Direction's songs will played in public for decades to come; the “Larry” theory that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are romantic partners, as expressed through a body of memes and unhinged tweets, is doomed to be a minor historical footnote.

Memes may not be as conducive for canonization as previous forms of youth culture, and there are no clear systems in place to ensure their organic revival. (Perhaps Google's internal meme board Memegen demonstrates how old memes can persist into the future: as templates for inside jokes within a specific community.) Memes may just be condemned to be a fleeting and ephemeral part of life. So teach your children well about Scumbag Steve and Bad Luck Brian if you want them to live on as something other than NFTs.