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How SpongeBob memes came to rule internet culture

20 years into SpongeBob SquarePants, SpongeBob memes are a quirky bridge between “dank” and “wholesome.”

Patrick, Squidward, and SpongeBob.
SpongeBob SquarePants celebrates its 20th anniversary.
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.

On the 20th anniversary of SpongeBob SquarePants, the unlikely Nickelodeon cartoon that became a cultural phenomenon is still going strong — on your TV screen and on the internet, where it has spawned a thriving meme culture. In fact, SpongeBob memes have become so iconic that to commemorate the show’s 20th anniversary, Nickelodeon recently announced that it’s releasing an entire lineup of SpongeBob meme toys.

Wrap your head around that: A kid’s cartoon about a talking sea sponge and his underwater pals has given rise to multiple internet memes that are so well-known, the franchise is turning the memes into toys, for profit. The Mocking SpongeBob, Imagination SpongeBob, Surprised Patrick, SpongeGar, and Handsome Squidward memes have become so recognizable to at least some portion of the general public that Nickelodeon is selling them as figurines for about $22 each.

CaPiTaLiSm iS dEsTrOyInG yOuR cHiLdHoOd!

How did we get here? In honor of two decades years of a show whose cultural cachet only seems to be growing, let’s take a look at the history, charm, and appeal of the best SpongeBob memes on the internet.

SpongeBob memes have become an internet subculture unto themselves

It’s hard to overstate just how popular SpongeBob SquarePants memes are. On Reddit, r/BikiniBottomTwitter — which exists mainly so that people can screencap the memes from Twitter and share them on Reddit — has more than 1.7 million subscribers, making it one of the site’s most popular meme subreddits. (By comparison, the more general r/Spongebob subreddit only has 74,000 subscribers.) And SpongeBob memes don’t just appear and then die; as Digg’s editors noted in the site’s 2018 SpongeBob retrospective, the biggest SpongeBob memes “are all pretty much meme superhits. There are no deep cuts here.”

What exactly is it about SpongeBob memes that make them so enduring and enjoyable? For one thing, the elasticity of the show’s characters make them endlessly memeable. The fact that they’re animated sea creatures means that they can be pleasantly visually weird, in a way that matches the whimsical, absurdist, and occasionally dark humor of the internet.

Nickelodeon via Know Your Meme

Moreover, since SpongeBob SquarePants is first and foremost a kid’s cartoon, the show’s artistry can frequently get surreal and fantastical without offending its target audience. For instance, this is a show that takes place entirely underwater, yet features an awful lot of fire. It doesn’t ever bother to explain why or how its main character has arms and legs and wears (square) pants. These are just the way things work in the town of Bikini Bottom, where SpongeBob, his best friend Patrick the starfish, and the rest of the show’s characters all live.

The people creating much of today’s internet culture are people who grew up with SpongeBob SquarePants

SpongeBob memes existed in some form for most of the 21st century, probably because many millennial and Gen Z meme-makers grew up with SpongeBob and naturally incorporated it into their meme-speak right from the jump, as they got their start in the “field.” (In a strange generational overlap, You’re the Man Now Dawg, which is one of the internet’s oldest foundational meme sites, also spawned one of the first viral SpongeBob meme moments: the 2006 YTMND meme “CHOCOLATE!!!!!!!!!”)

Several early SpongeBob memes first circulated more or less as internet in-jokes, like the frequent forum habit of replying, “No, this is Patrick!” or the fun YouTube quirk of setting dramatically spinning Handsome Squidward (a typically average squid who the TV show once memorably bestowed with a temporary physical upgrade) to a wide range of music, a trend that peaked around 2013 but has stuck with us — as Handsome Squidward’s shiny new toy figurine can attest.

Another reason SpongeBob memes have proved to have such massive cultural staying power is that they don’t need a lot of tweaking to apply to just about any situation. Take, for example, one of the most popular SpongeBob memes, which came more or less directly from the show itself, via this fun song appropriately called the “F.U.N. Song”:

The simplicity and wholesomeness of this song — “F is for Friends who do stuff together!” is immediately undermined in the song itself when Sheldon (a villainous plankton who owns one of Bikini Bottom’s two rival fast-food establishments, the Chum Bucket) immediately subverts it by changing “F is for Friends” to “F is for Fire that burns the whole town!” and so on. The process by which the song becomes a meme is embedded in the song itself. It’s practically daring the internet to go even further.

Outside of forums and recurrent YouTube riffs, it took a while for SpongeBob memes to fully saturate broader social media and trigger our collective awareness. The rise of “the SpongeBob meme” as its own unique thing within the cultural consciousness really seems to have taken off on Twitter and other social media platforms within the last four years or so — right around the time that Tumblr users began using the show as a prop for wry, self-aware commentary about Tumblr culture’s propensity to turn everything into a heated academic debate. The aforementioned BikiniBottomTwitter subreddit, for example, was only created in 2016, and Digg’s timeline of recent memes picks 2015 as its starting point.

Still, SpongeBob memes have traveled far and wide, and now have clearly taken on a cultural meaning of their own.

Spongebob memes have miraculously retained their edgy, “dank meme” cred while becoming more and more wholesome and mainstream

Given how easily SpongeBob’s characters and storylines seem to assimilate into internet culture, it’s truly remarkable that SpongeBob memes have also remained essentially wholesome. In contrast to the unfortunate fate of Pepe the Frog, SpongeBob and friends have yet to have a meme essentially fall into the wrong hands and be used to promote extremist ideologies online. SpongeBob’s audience has, for the most part, fully absorbed the kind, compassionate values of the show and its late creator, marine biologist-turned-animator Stephen Hillenburg.

That’s not to say that SpongeBob memes have never been politicized, however. Some have even become a staple at progressive protests in the Trump era:

The Mocking Spongebob meme in particular, which is arguably the best-known meme the show has spawned, has been frequently used on social media ever since its appearance in 2017 as a tool for calling out political absurdities. Based on a screenshot taken from the season nine episode of SpongeBob SquarePants titled “Little Yellow Book,” the Mocking SpongeBob meme turned the normally banal character of SpongeBob into an angry lecturing figure (imitating a chicken, no less) who appeared to be scolding and/or mocking something unseen. That something unseen swiftly became whatever the internet wanted it to be — but it was very frequently charged with political commentary.

Aided by the magic touch of a heinously annoying aLtErNaTiNg case text, meant to represent a mocking voice jeeringly repeating back everything you say, but more scornfully, the meme became a huge viral phenomenon.

Today it’s often presented without any of the original meme signifiers attached except for the typing style. It’s now taken for granted that when you write a phrase in alternating lowercase/uppercase type, you’re referencing this meme and mocking an idea/thing/person. There’s even a mOcKiNg SpOnGeBoB app that lets you type like that automatically, because geez is it annoying to do manually!

Notably, as the rise of the wholesome meme continues, SpongeBob SquarePants seems poised to play an interesting role in the future of internet culture. Spongebob memes generally arose from the internet’s edgier, more niche meme-making corners, but many of the most popular SpongeBob memes, especially in recent years, are definitively soft-edged and fun rather than nihilistic or heavily absurdist. Tired SpongeBob is a perfect example — the joke is on the surface and ready to chuckle at:

Even the intentionally “dark” SpongeBob memes, like Savage Patrick, are hilarious because they’re mischievous, an ordinary everyday level of “evil”:

That’s not to say that there aren’t still edgier iterations of SpongeBob memes to be found on the regular. This week, in fact, the “#1 dank meme” on r/dankmemes is a highly irreverent joke about the Notre Dame Cathedral fire that riffs on the “F is for Fire” verse of “The F.U.N. song.” But as far as memes go, let’s face it: Things could be so much worse. Instead of spawning a toxic fandom whose memes fuel even more toxicity, SpongeBob SquarePants has instead given rise to something both entertaining and fascinating: an entire internet subculture that’s mainly — dare we say it? — F.U.N.

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