meme magic

Meet the ‘meme scientists’ who tracked this election’s crazy viral phenomena

Elena Scotti/FUSION

The meme business is booming. And so the editors of Know Your Meme—a website that uses Wikipedia-esque software to track memes and viral phenomenon—don’t have time to fuck around. When I visited the site’s tiny office in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in October, a month out from the election, the small staff was already busier than ever.

If 2008 was the “Facebook Election,” defined by people congregating around their political views on the social network; and 2012 was the “Twitter Election,” with users able to directly interact with candidates in entirely new ways; then 2016, for better or for worse, is the “Meme Election.” It’s not defined by any particular network, but the political power of viral, online content that spreads across all of them (and sometimes even makes its way into our physical reality).

The mission of Know Your Meme, founded 7 years ago, is to define and track what new, strange meme is sweeping the internet at any given moment. For example, let’s say you’ve been offline for a few hours; when you sign back on, you see a bunch of your friends sharing a photoshopped image of Hillary Clinton on a Janet Jackson album cover with the word “nasty” splashed across it. You have no idea what it means but you want to be in on the “joke” and maybe even make it yourself. That’s where Know Your Meme comes in; it gives everyone from your mom to your internet-savvy little cousin context for what the internet is going crazy over.

Know Your Meme is led by Editor-in-Chief (aka Le Editor) Brad Kim, who has worked at the site for 7 years. He became obsessed with the internet when he immigrated to the U.S. from Korea at age 14 and could barely speak English. “The internet was a really great resource for getting myself acclimated to pop-culture.”

When I visited, the morning after the first vice presidential debate, the three editors responsible for tracking and defining memes were silently staring at large monitors, navigating back and forth through tabs on tabs on tabs. Their goal for the day, for every day really, was to identify hot new memes on the rise, the ones just starting to bubble up to the mainstream surface from the depths of tiny (and often deranged) pockets of the internet. Using online research skills and the manpower of an extremely “meme-literate” user base, they cobble together a timeline of a meme’s ascent to viral status.

The meme on the rise that morning was “Whip out that Mexican thing,” a quote uttered by Mike Pence that inspired the #ThatMexicanThing hashtag. Don Caldwell, a senior editor referred to as “Meme Daddy,” is on it. On dual monitors, he’s reviewing the vice presidential debate footage and scrolling through tweet after tweet, picking out highlights and embedding a clip of Stephen Colbert mocking the vice presidential candidate.

Left wing-driven memes like #ThatMexicanThing are old hat to Caldwell, who has worked at the website for 6 years and boasts a degree in evolutionary anthropology. “When I first started working here, there would be political memes but they were almost entirely left wing,” he says. But this election is decidedly different: “2016 is the year the right finally learned how to use the internet.”

“2016 is the year the right finally learned how to use the internet.”

Supporters of each candidate have been blasting out memes the entire election cycle, a now-standard part of the democratic process. Memes, a term originally used by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe the way ideas move and mutate across a culture, are the perfect vehicle for the widespread distillation of a joke or a political point-of-view or both (see Trump’s taco bowl or Hillary Clinton’s faint).

In 2016, something has shifted: Politicians themselves weren’t just bystanders to “meme magic,” they were active participants. We’ve seen both Clinton (“Delete your account,” the emoji disaster) and Trump (Pepe, Skittles) create and co-opt memes—and more broadly internet culture—as a tool for their political messaging. The sad truth is that it’s a lot easier to get an easily distracted, information-overwhelmed public to grasp a meme than a policy proposal.

And they weren’t the only ones. Third party candidate Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party spent $30,000 on “internet web memes” dedicated to reaching millennials, according to an FEC filing.

The presidential debate has become a constant, roiling center of meme production, a viral video threatening to explode from every little look or line,” writes Amanda Hess in the New York Times. “These memes are more than just gags; they’re campaign opportunities.”

In this context, Know Your Meme becomes an important resource for the public trying to make sense of this crazy election and all the memes that have come with it. And while the site’s primary function is explanatory and educational, it’s also an exhaustive, crowd-sourced archive of online ephemera—sometimes important political moments—without which there would be no real, comprehensive record.

On a day-to-day basis, Know Your Meme operates a lot like a digital media organization. Each morning, Kim holds a pitch meeting where the group identifies the big memes of the day, as gleaned from Google trends, the “trending section” of every social network, and Google news alerts for phrases like “this Tumblr.” They’ve also developed some proprietary tools to discover what’s about to go viral, the favorite of which is called “Empty Searches.” Because people frequently visit Know Your Meme looking for answers about some strange new online phenomenon they’ve seen, the site’s empty search log can expose memes not yet covered by mainstream media.

There isn’t an exact science to knowing when a meme is worth an entry, just as it’s impossible to define exactly when something “goes viral.” The Know Your Meme editors get submissions from users tipping them to what’s trending or just funny, but a lot of their job relies on intuition. As with any kind of of editorial job, knowing what to cover and when is a skill you spend years cultivating.

This editorial component to Know Your Meme has long been criticized by people on the internet who resent their control over a meme’s narrative. There’s also the problem that they are for-profit, and are monetizing memes they didn’t create via advertising dollars. Is Know Your Meme capitalizing on the work of un-credited meme makers? Does it expose inside internet jokes to “normies” and in doing so ruin them? And isn’t there something inherently wrong with trying to be the final word on a phenomenon that is inherently mutable?

These concerns surrounding Know Your Meme seemed more urgent when it was still new in 2007 and 2008. Back then, it was primarily a web series where hosts in labcoats discussed what was happening on the internet. The show was bolstered by a database of memes that users could submit to, a project Brad Kim would work on as an intern. But this was a different time, long before major corporations would use memes to shill everything from a cell phone to fast food.

“At first, people were annoyed that we were explaining memes to the mainstream and that was ruining their cultural currency,” says Caldwell on how the perception of the site has changed over the past five years. But things are different now: “Memes are mainstream.”

Back then, there weren’t many—and especially not entire media empires—capitalizing on the wealth of free content on the internet. “When we started we were the ones that were breaking memes, we didn’t have that much competition,” Kim says. “Now, in the bigger scheme of the meme-dustry, a lot of mainstream news sites have sections or teams that cover internet things.”

I’d take this a step further. Now, mainstream news organizations don’t just cover memes, they make them. With The Dress, we saw Buzzfeed—a company valued at $1.5 billion—pluck a Tumblr post from relative obscurity and elevate it to the viral website’s most popular post of all time, garnering roughly 37,267,330 views to date. In the days after The Dress, Buzzfeed added additional tech and editorial teams to cover the phenomenon; they sent out a self-congratulatory press release and had a champagne toast at the office. (The person who posted the dress to Tumblr, meanwhile, got nothing).

We’re no longer, as Kim puts it, living in a world where memes are just “hahah funny stuff.” Following the success of viral activist movements like Occupy Wall Street and Kony, presidential candidates started to catch on. In 2012, the Washington Post wrote thatMitt Romney’s ‘binders full of women’ comment during the second presidential debate did more than go viral; it put women’s issues back in the campaign spotlight.” Recognizing memes as a kind of conversation, the Romney campaign responded with one of their own: an empty binder titled “Obama’s second term agenda.”

But during our last political election, memes were still largely “sidelined” and “self-contained,” according to Kim. “The only memes that a candidate or their campaign team would reference were memes that only made sense within the context of the election,” he says. “You could only sling memes against your opponent because that person said something that turned into a meme.”

Now, the gloves are off. Everyone—even Oculus founder Palmer Luckey—seems to understand that insider memes simply aren’t enough. And there’s no easier, cheaper and more effective way to spread a simple (if not dangerously simple) message. In September, the Daily Beast reported that Luckey had funded Nimble America, a nonprofit that was allegedly behind white supremacist memes in support of Donald Trump. Their reasoning? “Shitposting is powerful and meme magic is real.

Most impressive is how the right was able to pull unrelated, apolitical memes into a campaign context to be used as propaganda. Pepe, an innocuous cartoon frog born years ago on 4chan, has long been the internet’s favorite beta male buddy, used to express sadness or happiness or just “feels” more generally. But somehow, over the course of this election, he became a white nationalist symbol in support of Trump, one that the candidate even shared himself on social media.

Next came a post outlining the dangers of Pepe on Hillary Clinton’s official blog and the Anti Defamation League’s decision to make Pepe the second-ever digital hate symbol in its database.

“It’s one of the first times I’ve ever seen a meme get that much reporting in the news,” says Caldwell. It wasn’t just HIllary Clinton that chronicled the demise of Pepe; the media was equally fascinated, and they wouldn’t let it go. Piece after piece after piece explored: Did a targeted operation led by the alt-right turn Pepe into a white nationalist? How could this have happened?

“Dealing with memes in terms of hate symbols is uncharted territory,” says Oren Segal, the director of the Anti Defamation League’s center on extremism.

Why take something as amorphous as a meme and memorialize just one, sinister interpretation? And doesn’t doing so only draw more attention to the hateful version?

“For us, there’s no option but to speak out against hatred, no matter how it shows itself,” says Segal. (The ADL says it has launched a campaign with Pepe creator Matt Furrie to reclaim the frog by spreading positive images of him under the #savepepe hashtag).

The day Pepe went to the dark side was a great day for Know Your Meme as everyone and their mom were googling him looking for answers. Kim isn’t that surprised by what happened to Pepe, as he’s seen it happen hundreds of times. Now in his late twenties, he’s a walking meme encyclopedia, capable of naming one forgotten viral phenomenon after another, of explaining how we all got here—to the Meme Election and to Nazi Pepe.

“Reclaiming a meme by making it perverse and offensive is not a new trick,” he says, shaking his head.

Maybe it’s not that complicated. This is just what happens on the internet, and in America; things trend towards the terrible.