The Meme Cycle

More Like a Tornado in 2019


Saroja Manickam, Reporter

The internet is slowly becoming the primary medium for comedy. There are unlimited clips, reaction pictures, comics, and posts (all considered memes) sprinkled through the Instagram explore page that are designed to make audiences laugh. In 1994, Mike Godwin coined the term “meme” when talking about a trend at the time of comparing nearly anything to the Nazis. Godwin described memes as similar to a virus, jumping from brain to brain until it affects the entire social consciousness. But these viruses aren’t spreading the same as they used to.

Memes in the early 2000’s stuck. There were only a few of them, and not everyone knew about them. But there’s an explicit list of memes that were made in the year 2009. Rage comics, crudely drawn characters expressing various relatable emotions. “David After Dentist,” a video of a kid after receiving sedatives at a tooth filling. These simple things would be laughed about and re-posted for months and even years after their creation.

To anyone using the internet today, this sounds absurd. Memes are fleeting in 2019. Nothing epitomizes this more than the app “Tik Tok.” Tik Tok was a re-branding of the app “” that was released in September of 2018. It’s a relatively simple app, you can create your own original videos or use background audio of popular songs, movie clips, etc. But its popularity didn’t come from it’s intuitive design or interface. The app was only popular because people started to make fun of the genuine videos created on it. Videos of girls in cosplay lip syncing a Mia Khalifa diss track or pretending to play video games while saying “I wanna be Tracer!” were publicly ridiculed. But a new genre appeared on the app within weeks of its original popularity: ironic Tik Toks. These videos used the duet function, a button that allows you to split the screen with any other video, to make fun of the content deemed “cringe” in the first Tik Tok wave. This too, was a quick phase. Now Tik Tok hosts all that along with original content, skits and art and comedy without use of someone else’s videos at all. Even within original content, there are meme formats created and discarded every day from drinking “yee-yee juice” and changing into southern clothes to the Madagascar character Moto-Moto.

How can all of this have happened in the past 5 months? It’s a phenomenon known as “meme death.” Meme death occurs for many reasons, but the most common explanation is that whenever a meme becomes more publicly popular it loses that special sauce that made it funny. Let’s take the Tik Tok trend of mocking people through duets. Once it became something anyone could say “Yeah I’ve seen that!” to, it lost the feeling of poking fun of something with a group of friends. This is why many memes that get extremely popular, like those that inspire segments on Ellen or are used in advertisements, suffer a quick and ruthless death. With over 2.9 billion active social media users, memes become “mainstream” much faster than they used to. Therefore, they die much faster than they used to. And the nearly universal use of social media means that more creative people have the opportunity to create memes, so they’re also born much faster than they used to.

Understanding the meme cycle is something really new to those studying culture, the things barely existed until a few years ago. But there’s no doubt that in 200 years, future children will use the textbooks embedded in their third eye to read all about the evolution from “Charlie Bit My Finger” to “I Got The Horses In The Back.”