It’s hard to remember a time before memes. How did mankind convey our affections before we could DM a picture of Baby Yoda to our crush? What did we talk to our co-workers about before The Dress? In the early days of the Internet, users traded posts, information and stories on shared-interest forums. Nowadays, though, most users simply write pithy captions atop a familiar image, making it instantly relatable, instantly shareable and potentially viral.
As social networks and sharing platforms like Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and Instagram emerged and solidified themselves, memes emerged as a universal language. You might not understand the captions, but everyone knows what Good Guy Greg stands for. Or at least, they used to. As the Internet continues to expand and consume everything it touches, the shelf-life of memes has gotten shorter and shorter every day, some — like “covfefe” — were beaten to death the day they were born. As a rule of thumb: as soon as a meme is co-opted by a brand, it’s dead in the water. Some brands — like Steakumms, for whatever reason — interrogate this phenomenon on their social media accounts, which then becomes a meme in its own rite.
Memes also became a form of social and literal currency in the 2010s. With the emergence of aggregator accounts like @fuckjerry and @thefatjewish, a select few accounts and personalities earned millions of dollars off of sharing meme content, much of which was pinched from various timelines with no credit or recompense to the original author. These entrepreneurs made beaucoup bucks, establishing themselves as would-be moguls of the new media landscape. It wasn’t until later in the decade that mass movements like #fuckfuckjerry caused unfollowing sprees of accounts that plagiarized meme content. Like everything else, memes became political.
There are millions of memes made every day. Some of them might even be original. There could very well be a decade-winning meme created between the time that this piece was written and the time it is published. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it is definitive. There are millions of memes, but these are the only ones that mattered. These are the Memes That Defined the Decade, in no particular order. Do not @ us.
Bed Intruder/Antoine Dodson
There were plenty of memes and viral image macros that came before Antoine Dodson’s local news interview about a rapist run amok in Lincoln Park, but none were quite as popular, or as influential. There were screenshots, quotables, and AutoTuned remixes. Don’t take my word for it, though; listen to YouTube commenter lil0mike0gkb: “This is historical. This marks the day when the Internet officially became funny.”
Eyebrows on Fleek
“We in this bitch. Finna get crunk. Eyebrows on fleek. Da fuq.” In just six seconds in 2014, Viner Peaches Monroee changed the way modern brands were allowed to talk on the Internet, and she was never paid a dime for work.
The “This Is Fine” Dog
Some memes are hard to explain. This isn’t one of those. It’s a simple crop of a three-panel comic showing a dog calmly sipping from a mug as the room around him is engulfed in flames. “This is Fine,” he says. We’ve all been this dog. As I try to distill ten years of the Internet into a digestible article, I am this dog right now. This is fine.
Dicks Out for Harambe
The killing of Harambe the Gorilla in 2016 was an entire meme unto itself, but Twitter users @sexualjumanji and @brandonwardell created an absurd movement out of saying “Dicks Out for Harambe.” Wardell even wrangled a Vine cosign out of a bemused Danny Trejo. And just in case you thought that was the most 2016 sentence you’d ever read, check this one out: the perceived outrage over the unjust killing of a gorilla reached its cultural zenith when a fake-news story went viral shortly after Donald Trump was elected President, alleging that over 11,000 Americans had voted for Harambe.
While there are plenty of webcomix and cartoons that have birthed memes, including the aforementioned Pepe, no one piece of media has contributed more to the Meme Discourse than the One Who Lives in a Pineapple Under the Sea. To name but a few: Evil Patrick, Caveman Spongebob, Confused Mr. Krabs, Krusty Krab vs. Chum Bucket, “MY LEG,” eVeN tYpInG LiKe ThIs is usually paired with a Spongebob reference. Squidward’s grumpy, doom-and-gloom has made him a mascot for the workingman’s existential ennui — as a generation went to work day after day, many began to feel for Mr. Tentacles. Maybe we were a little harsh on Spongebob’s eight-legged coworker growing up.
Even if you aren’t familiar with the @pixelatedboat tweet, above, you are probably familiar with the phenomenon. Ken Bone, Doja Cat, Chewbacca Mom — all Milkshake Ducks in one way or another. The term was named the 2017 Word of the Year by Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary, even though the term is two words. Go figure.
Small brain: explaining memes
Big brain: showing memes
Exploding brain: using the meme to explain it
Galaxy brain: memes
There was a brief period in 2016 when creepy clown stories kept popping up in the news, instilling a nationwide panic and a spike in reported cases of coulrophobia. As the decade went on, though, eventually people embraced their inner clown-like qualities. Photos of people applying clown makeup, tying their clown shoes, and going out on yet another Tinder Date, for example. Honk, honk.
This isn’t about Keanu Reeves the Actor, per se, it’s more about Keanu Reeves as an Idea. There was Sad Keanu, slumped over and sullenly eating a sandwich, and Happy Keanu. Then there was Conspiracy Keanu and, as memes got weirder as the decade went on, a Mini Keanu. The Keanu Meme reached its peak earlier this year, when Reeves played an exaggerated version of himself in the 2019 Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe.
Pepe the Frog
Pepe the Frog crawled out of the primordial ooze of the Internet in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2015 that Matt Furie’s deadbeat frog character went mainstream in all the wrong ways. Of all the memes on this list, only Pepe has his own Anti-Defamation League factsheet. Pepe became the avatar of anonymous hate and in October 2015, Donald Trump even retweeted a Pepefied version of himself. Alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer was mid-way through explaining the symbolism of the Pepe pin on his lapel when a masked man cold-clocked him in the face. Disturbed by impact his creation had on the political discourse, Furie killed the “blissfully stoned frog-dude” in 2017.