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These AI-generated coronavirus memes are better than human-generated ones

Imgflip’s neural-network meme generator is going viral for its eerie, hilarious coronavirus memes.

A computer created this coronavirus meme, and now we’re all living in the Matrix.
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.

It’s official: The coronavirus quarantine may have well and truly made the concept of a “meme” obsolete. For proof, look no further than “This Meme Does Not Exist,” a meme-creation tool created by meme-template website Imgflip.

At a glance, it looks like your average random assortment of meme templates. But these memes aren’t actually “real.” They’re being created on the spot by a neural network, an artificial intelligence (AI) that predicts what it thinks a meme might look like. You can let the network generate a random meme for you, or you can preselect your meme from one of many popular templates, from Mocking SpongeBob to the Gatsby toast.

The tool is not to be confused with other meme generators, which merely curate existing popular memes. No, this generator uses its data about memes that do exist to conjure up memes that don’t exist. If you’re not familiar with a neural network, it’s basically a computer that uses an algorithmic technique known as deep learning. The computer gorges itself on a lot of data and then teaches itself, through lots of repetition, how to predict what that data should look like. Neural networks have made great strides in recent years, giving us everything from fake movies to fake articles and, of course, fake porn.

Basically, Imgflip’s neural network processed a lot of memes and then tried to predict what memes should look like. The results are often hilarious, and they certainly feel like real memes. For instance, here’s the first thing the AI generated when I asked it to show me an example of the “Is This a Pigeon?” meme:

So meta it hurts.

Not bad, right? They get better. Some of the other memes being generated seem eerily appropriate for the current moment we’re in:

A computer, not a person living through a pandemic, made this.

And take this iteration of the Distracted Boyfriend meme. It’s honestly hard for me to believe that a computer artificially generated this, not a frustrated kid stuck at home with their well-meaning but stifling mother for much longer than nature would normally allow:

Honestly, it’s okay to want a change of company.

In fact, some of the memes — which identify themselves as AI-generated with a tiny watermark at the bottom, in case you get confused — are jaw-droppingly on point:

Okay, now the neural network is just mocking me.

Other memes, however, wildly miss the mark and make little to no sense. But hilariously, that also makes them feel memetic — because after all, many memes draw upon their nigh-nonsensical Dadaist leanings to gain new meaning from their new contexts. So a meme like this one, generated by the neural network, still seems like a real meme:

Who among us can’t relate?

It’s hardly surprising, then, that between the novelty of a fake-meme generator, its eerie ability to capture our moods, and our current collective boredom, the meme generator itself has gone viral. Over the last week, posts collecting some of the funniest AI-generated memes have made the rounds on social media:

The AI generator’s new fans have frequently emphasized the way in which the tool aligns with our persistent feelings of isolation during quarantine, while simultaneously helping us alleviate our anxiety with a lot of humor.

But a big part of the appeal is the aforementioned hilarious randomness whenever the AI skews slightly off-kilter from a “normal” meme.

As with all other attempts to virtually approximate reality, the result of this AI is often an uncanny valley between a real meme and a fake one. But the “truth” is probably somewhere in between — or somewhere on a toilet — and that’s also meaningful in terms of telling us what a “meme” even is.

When most of us have abruptly transferred most of our activities online, our shared thoughts, frustrations, and internet tools we use to connect to one another can also become memetic. So memes in the time of quarantine, to me at least, feel much more nebulous, fluid, and tougher to single out than memes of yore.

Maybe this is because social media spreads ideas, themes, and moods nearly instantaneously. When we’re all using social media to stay connected — for instance, Twitter usage is currently at an all-time high — things can feel memetic before they’ve had time to take shape in a traditional meme format. Even if, for instance, a quarantine joke or a Covid-19 catchphrase doesn’t get passed around in a single repeat iteration with variants — as does a traditional meme — it can still become a memetic part of the zeitgeist. After weeks and weeks of coronavirus memes and quarantine memes, everything has sort of started to feel like a meme.

In an environment where everything is kind of already a meme, we could be primed for a fake meme that uses the framework of memes themselves to bend reality a little.

Of course, there are still some glitches in this new virtual matrix. When you visit the site, it currently informs you that the prefix text feature, which allows users to generate memes using keywords of their choice, is “temporarily disabled due to high volume. Neural networks are extremely expensive to run.” I guess not even an AI can bend reality that far.

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