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The rise of the wholesome internet meme

Dank no more: internet memes are evolving from edgy to cute.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The past few weeks have possibly comprised one of the most intense news cycles since Donald Trump was elected to the presidency. The spectacle, drama, and emotion of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Palo Alto University professor Christine Blasey Ford testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding Ford’s sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh captured our attention and set off a wave of controversy and debate around difficult topics like sexual misconduct, white male privilege, and rape culture.

If you’re one of many people who’ve subsequently sought distraction from the news, both online and off, you’re not alone. And if you’re the type who finds solace in internet frippery, the memes of the moment are here for you.

From the lighthearted “Zendaya Is Meechee” to an outpouring of delight over the new Philadelphia Flyers mascot, Gritty, the breakout memes of the current news cycle have been notably apolitical, with a concerted emphasis on whimsy — a distinct contrast to the tone of world events. And last week, on the day of Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimony about her alleged sexual assault, meme threads like the one below sprang up as a proposed way to ward off the anxiety over what the hearings might entail:

Increasingly, people appear to be using memes and cute pictures and videos to mitigate anxiety, as a form of wellness and self-care. For many, they offer a way to cope during times of tension and stress.

This trend hasn’t arisen out of nowhere — but there’s a reason it feels new. The mainstreaming of the “wholesome meme” is a specific response to a geopolitical era that is unprecedented in recent memory for its turbulence and polarization. And it represents a shift brought about by the natural evolution of the internet.

Over the past two years, internet memes have become aggressively more wholesome

For as long as the internet has existed, memes have served as a shared form of currency. Historically, the most enduring and popular memes have tended to combine edgy humor, layered in-jokes that require multiple levels of understanding to be effective, and an element of absurdity or surrealism that reflects something about the internet’s randomness at large. Galaxy brains. Dead gorillas. Moths.

But roughly since the 2016 election, many of the memes that have risen to the forefront on social media have abandoned the irony, political satire, and nihilism we’re grown used to seeing. In an era when so many of us have accepted that everything is on fire and anything we love will inevitably become problematic, the memes going viral of late have been, dare I say it? Wholesome. Loving. Even comforting in their simplicity and silliness.

Recent meme trends over the past couple of years have found us praising good dogs and reconciling with our dog-hating enemies. We’ve been celebrating nostalgic songs that make us wanna dance. We’ve created whimsical nonsense songs based on animated kids’ movies. The emerging theme seems to be an emphasis on banality, on the pleasantly comforting and invitingly harmless. These memes are nice, and aggressively no more than that.

Additionally, the rise of “here’s a fun internet thing to help you get through the day” now seems to be a default way to respond to moments of stress. We’re turning to adorable animals and silly memes that are basically the equivalent of internet dad jokes — and sometimes are themselves dad jokes. They’re “Hang in there!” kitten posters for the digital age.

Memes are changing in part because they’re originating from different parts of the web

The changing nature of recent mainstream memes also reflects a shift in where they’re created and who’s creating them. Prior to the dominance of social media (which took hold in the late 2000s), memes that made the leap to mainstream internet culture — think anything that was passed along via email forwards — typically began on cult meme sites like Homestar Runner or YTMND, or on forums like Something Awful, 4chan, or Reddit.

Then in the mid-aughts, meme-specific sites like I Can Haz Cheezburger helped proliferate specific kinds of memes, mainly image macros — the classic “still photo with a caption emblazoned on it”:


The gradual move away from 4chan as the progenitor of most of our memes is partly a natural cultural response to the evolving extremism that has taken over much of that site’s culture. The memes that are generated there today are more likely to appeal to a niche fringe of conspiracists and alt-right frog fans, and the people who once made mainstreamable memes on 4chan have largely departed for other platforms.

During the early rise of social media, between roughly 2005 and 2008, Reddit and Tumblr took over as the primary grounds through which memes were created, sourced, and circulated. It’s taken a while, but as Twitter has come into its own, evolving away from the era of Weird Twitter and its niche memetic rules, we’re seeing more and more memes originate and circulate on the site (though it’s also very common for “new” memes that go viral on Twitter to have already made the rounds on Tumblr).

And many of those memes are of the more wholesome variety.

My friend Amanda Brennan is a noted meme librarian, meaning she researches and catalogs the evolution and taxonomy of internet memes — she’s a curator of Tumblr’s fandom trends and a former contributor to the internet meme database Know Your Meme. She told me in an email that the “wholesome” trend in meme culture began to really pick up steam last year with memes like “My skin is clear, my crops are watered” — a text meme that facetiously pokes fun at the idea of the classic “forward this message/reblog for good luck” directive by presenting an image of something positive and then claiming that the image has cleared your skin, watered your crops, or brought you whatever piece of good fortune you might want in your life.

Indeed, one of the themes of Tumblr’s 2017 Year in Review was “wholesome memes.”

For Brennan, the proliferation of these memes is partly about authenticity — and the decompartmentalization of identity on the internet. “I think people are getting more in touch with presenting their authentic personalities online rather than presenting what they feel like they should be on social media,” she said. “On Tumblr, authentic actions come first. You’re there for whatever thing you love the most — animals, TV shows, musicians, your favorite ship. People are starting to realize that maybe it’s okay to be that authentic version of yourself everywhere on the internet.”

Wholesome memes may also reflect a larger desire for a more wholesome culture

The shift in emphasis toward wholesomeness isn’t just affecting memes. The rise of the concept of the “soft boy in pop culture, like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’s Peter Kavinsky, has served as a counter to centuries of patriarchal depictions of masculinity in part because he is a nonthreatening version of manhood. Nurturing and emotive, the soft boy comes without built-in toxicity, at least ostensibly; though some observers are divided over whether he’s genuine or just another fuckboy in sheep’s clothing, he’s increasingly being framed and embraced as a sincere alternative to the red-pill-variety dude who just wants to use you.

The idea of “cinnamon roll” characters has percolated on Tumblr for the past few years as a testament to our love of characters who are defined mainly by their sweetness rather than their edginess. In sci-fi and fantasy fandoms, the concept of “hopepunk” has sprung up to describe an emerging trend of literature and media in which social systems and humanity itself are portrayed as fixable, if not inherently good.

In essence, these trends are part of a wider cultural reexamination of hurtful narratives, and a celebration of the marginalized people that those narratives have long erased or ignored. They also offer remedies for those narratives, through self-aware depictions of positive and inclusive ideas and social structures.

Memes have a natural role to play in that reevaluation.

“As internet culture widens and deepens along with the news cycle, more people are taking certain issues more seriously,” Brennan told me. “We all seem to seek out humor that’s light and fun for the sake of being fun.”

Sure, you might not believe that rating a dog 14/10 or celebrating this guy and his piano-playing cats registers as any kind of moral victory against countercultural extremism. But these small nods to whimsy, to gentleness, and to more vulnerable emotions are a vital reminder that humanity, despite all current appearances to the contrary, has evolved beyond fearmongering, violence, and hatred of the other.

When you sing “Zendaya Is Meechee,” you’re fostering the idea that humanity’s united appreciation of a silly song can be greater than its penchant for stoking tribalism and division. And at the very least, you’re finding support — along with everyone else who’s exhausted by the current culture wars — in something happy and fun instead of recoiling at the thought of, well, everything else.

And that’s an idea worth memeing.