After the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, “The Bells,” left the show’s fans divided, the Reddit forum r/freefolk reacted with a turn best understood by the extremely online: They briefly rebranded, in equal parts sarcasm and earnestness, to become a Lord of the Rings subreddit. Understanding their sudden rejection of the show that brought them together requires a backlog of knowledge around the deep history of both obvious and esoteric jokes that run throughout fantasy fandom, an appreciation of Sean Bean (who acted in both franchises), and a baseline literacy in how displeased fans behave. Like every forum for memes, r/freefolk represents the living spirit of its users, and it has a language of its own.
Memes are a highly democratized art form — the makers own the means of production, and the reproduction applications are endless. But a meme isn’t simply an image shared electronically. It’s also a signal boost toward its own niche. While some meme templates grow to have tremendous audience potential, they’re typically born on the quieter edges of the internet, made to communicate a very specific joke for an insular group of people to understand. The most popular templates pass from the wilds of message boards and image forums into mainstream social media channels, where they become instantly recognizable, and arguably less funny.
One of the older examples of this is ’60s Spider-Man, consisting of text over stills from the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon. The meme began as a joke that adult viewers rediscovering the show would share with one another on message boards, where it eventually became shorthand for narrative incongruity. With every new variation, it’s lost a little bit of the TV show’s original intention and became even more the property of its audience.
Memes are fun for those who make and distribute them not simply because of their humor, but also because of the feeling of recognition they provide. Nowhere is this more apparent than in smaller communities, where they are appropriated to signify a shared interest, belief, or burden. The Facebook page Dank Recovery Memes trades in the kind of dark, self-deprecating humor one might find in a real-life AA meeting.
One post in the group makes memorable use of the Distracted Boyfriend meme, labeling the boyfriend as “Me” and various distracting women as drugs and alcohol. (Warning: That post also jokingly expresses suicidal ideation.) This particular template was apparently born when a member of a Turkish Facebook group put labels on a stock photo. It then became a private joke in a small community, then moved to the sphere of mass consumption via Twitter, then was remade into another private joke for a different Facebook community with a host of unspoken understandings of its own. Dolly Parton even did her own version of the meme with the context of the lyrics of her hit song “Jolene.” Meme forums are galleries of both static creation and real-time reactions, language factories for the kinds of specific emotions that are only needed for a moment or two.
The case of one newer meme template, Angry Hulk vs. Civil Hulk (one of several made based off of Avengers: Endgame), shows how a memed image embodies different meanings depending on who’s providing its context. One image on the Reddit forum r/dankchristianmemes characterizes “Angry Hulk” as atheists (or “heathens”) in conversation with each other and “Civil Hulk” as atheists in conversation with Christians. (The same forum bans porn as well as Satan, which rules out a lot of typical meme fodder.) Epic Christian Memes, an Instagram account that serves a similar audience, is run by a pair of pastors looking to blow off steam. The account seems to have a particular soft spot for memes about SpongeBob and the Avengers, couching them in captions about worship and youth groups. These pages take the highly specific language of their respective subcultures and apply them to images whose meanings have already been deformed by their reuse.
Meme creation is somewhat unique, in that the masters of this art are often younger than its general audience. Teens are the ones orchestrating the maelstrom of the meme economy, adding layer after layer of context to the images that they make. One recent viral story centered on a high school English teacher who encouraged her students to make memes about their academic year. The images they produced were highly esoteric, but also relatable to nearly anyone who has studied literature in an American high school, capturing the irreverence, curiosity, and deadpan observation style young people use to talk to each other. Long after these students have graduated, their memes will live on, preserved like a teenager’s brain in a jar.
Of course, nothing’s funnier to a community of enthusiasts than a misunderstanding of a meme’s purpose. Remember when Good Morning America referred to Kermit the Frog sipping tea as “Tea Lizard”? Such moments offer a glimpse of how these communities appear to the public at large, and can be the richest form of meme material out there. In this way, the people behind the memes share one thing in common, no matter their subculture: They’re making meaning out of the world using a format that’s not meant to be understood widely, despite their infinitely shareable way of doing so. The external purpose of a meme may be to elicit a laugh, but the deeper social fabric that underwrites them can be beautiful. The memes are dank, and deserve more than we could ever give them.