We get it. We’re living in confusing times. Reality manipulation and fake news are rampant. And at times you might be so discombobulated that the only way you can express your nebulous sense of disorientation is with a screencap of a male anime character pointing confusedly to a butterfly, inexplicably asking, “Is this a pigeon?”
If this describes you, then you’re not alone: “Is This a Pigeon?” (alternately dubbed the Anime Butterfly meme, Confused Anime Dude, Oblivious Anime Guy, or ... look, you get the idea) has emerged as the meme of the moment thanks to a mix of social media drift and an odd cultural zeitgeist. In fact, this meme has been making the rounds for years, in various iterations — but it’s surfaced over the past month or so in a specific form, as part of a specific contemporary trend in meme-making.
The meme’s point is simple and easy to parse: An oblivious dude comically mistakes one thing for another thing. For instance, here it is being used with a literal replacement — Columbus mistaking North America for India.
From this basic concept, it’s easy to leap to total textual replacements of the idea:
is this meme dead already or is this still acceptable pic.twitter.com/kXYJQashnn— kris (@NlGHTMVRES) May 10, 2018
So far, this seems like pretty standard meme fare, right? But don’t assume this is all just part of the randomness of the internet. Take a closer look and you’ll find some interesting observations about the evolution of meme culture, social media interconnectivity, and the general mood of 2018.
How did we get here?
Confused anime dude is actually supposed to be confused — because he’s an android whose programming isn’t quite right. His name is Katori Yutaro, and he’s the hero of the 1991 anime Taiyou no Yuusha Fighbird (Brave of the Sun Fighbird). In the scene that spawned the meme, as a newly emerged android, he’s making comically incorrect statements and misidentifying various things around him.
This scene began to surface as a meme in 2011, specifically the moment when he misidentifies the butterfly, though the moment when he misidentifies some tulips is also used. Originally, it was just used in the form of the original screencap of the anime itself, complete with “Is this a pigeon?” caption. It was a straightforward reaction image without any alteration — a way of calling attention to moments of strangeness or confusion on the internet.
In March 2018, however, this viral tweet repurposed the meme by replacing its elements.
This tweet brought back the meme in a major way and launched its current form, in which it no longer functions as a simple reaction but carries a host of layered new meanings.
Why do people like this meme so much?
Like other recent text-replace memes, this one is both durable and easy to recreate. That means it’s given rise to a lot of slightly varied functions.
For example, here it is being used as a crossover and an iteration of another meme, the “Is this your king?” line famously uttered by Black Panther’s popular villain Killmonger.
And here it is being used more metaphorically:
Now we stray into social satire:
And the more overtly political:
Finally, we arrive at the point where the meme’s original meaning is completely altered. In this next version, everything has been replaced, including the original idea of the subject accidentally mistaking one thing for something else. By satirizing the idea of image-based captchas being used as a way to ward off bots, the meme-maker is pointing out that the way we create meaning from images can sometimes veer into absurdism. Now, the whole meaning of the meme itself is being commented on.
Like other memes, this one works because it’s relatively simple and easy to understand — but it’s also pliable and able to function on many levels. That’s fitting as a reflection of the cultural moment, in which reality itself often seems to be operating on multiple levels of irony.
The current sociocultural moment is rife with uncertainty, ideological polarization, and large-scale tools of deceit. This is precisely the kind of climate in which a meme format like the American Chopper meme is uniquely positioned to stand out, because it allows meme creators to present both sides of a debate.
But “Is it a pigeon?” and its cousins may be serving as a counter to the American Chopper meme because they allow the meme creator to frame an issue completely through the static image they’re presenting. And, crucially, the “misunderstanding” at the center of this meme can be deliberate, accidental, disingenuous, or ironic. That allows us to comment on all manner of social trends and flaws within ourselves and others.
The meme also builds on a long line of similar memes in ways you may not immediately recognize.
You can thank Tumblr for bringing you this meme — as usual
If you’ve contributed to the recent meme-ing of “Is this a pigeon?” then congratulations: You’ve helped fuel the ongoing trend of underground memes that originally appeared years ago on Tumblr but have only recently found their way into the mainstream, mainly through a resurgence on Twitter.
Other recent examples of this phenomenon include the “If you can’t handle me at X / you don’t deserve me at Y” meme, which originated on Tumblr around 2009 before recently blowing up on Twitter. Then there was last year’s viral idea for a Lupita Nyong’o/Rihanna heist movie that actually became a reality. That meme started on Tumblr three years earlier.
Tumblr has also had a crucial but less direct hand in bringing you this latest meme. “Is this a pigeon?” is the most recent in a long line of recent text- or image-based replacement memes — also called “object labeling.” The most well-known of these is the Distracted Boyfriend meme, though Trumpet Boy has been a noisy recent contender. Another recently popular one is the “Things that are expensive” meme, which popped up last year. Like “Is this a pigeon?” it, too, started its life on Tumblr, and it, too, started out initially being used as a straightforward form of reaction before rapidly evolving into use as a text-replace meme.
Since many of these replacement memes seem to have originated on Tumblr, they probably grew out of a long line of idea-replacement memes that have existed on the platform for years. Since around 2013, Tumblr fandom culture has traded in reaction GIFs that have their replacement ideas embedded directly within them — like these:
This style of GIF always features the replacement label superimposed directly on top of the thing it’s replacing. These earlier GIFs are in effect a more sophisticated version of the static image memes that are now proliferating in the culture.
So why are we suddenly seeing so many of these recent mainstream meme trends that tie back to outdated Tumblr memes? For one thing, social media drift and osmosis is more common — the spread of memes from one platform to another is much more easily accomplished today than it was in the mid-2010s. Back then, Tumblr was even more underground than it is today, and most social media platforms were still in their adolescence and more segregated from one another.
Another consideration is that perhaps the common language of idea transference that makes these memes work so well took time to evolve across platforms. Because early Twitter humor was largely defined by Weird Twitter, it has taken the platform a significantly longer time than most other social media networks to evolve a common meme language as its user base has grown more mainstream. Proliferating memes that originated on Tumblr, Vine, Instagram, and Reddit has allowed Twitter to essentially grow more meme-literate and sophisticated — which may, in turn, be enabling its users to go back in time, rediscover, and repurpose old memes for a new era.