The best internet memes make communication an art form. But there is a dark side.

Memes aren’t going anywhere. Therefore we must all learn to recognize their traps — and avoid them.
Image:  Memes are fun, but they also have a trap baked in. Internet memes can turn into the perfect vessel for hate groups to spread caustic humor, bigoted hostility and fetishistic flattening.
The meme trap was first set on 4chan over a decade ago.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images
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By Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner

From Pinterest boards to Snapchat stories to TikTok trends, internet memes are everywhere. This is especially true for teenagers, who “theme and meme” on Instagram, plaster images across Discord and fling jokes at strangers through AirDrop. So quintessential are memes to youth culture that earlier this year, Facebook tried — and failed — to launch an app called “LOL,” meant to appeal to teens by serving up a nonstop feed of funny pictures and zippy GIFs.

Having spent the last 10 years researching internet culture, we get it. Memes are fun. They were fun when we started studying insular, image-heavy social platforms such as 4chan, Reddit and Tumblr a decade ago. They make Twitter tolerable, give YouTube life and are the best part of any group text. They allow people to play, comment and connect with others. They are a critical part of communication online, particularly for young people, who do a whole lot of communicating online.

The things that make them fun make them a perfect vessel for some of the worst aspects of the internet: caustic humor, bigoted hostility and fetishistic flattening.

As fun as they might be, though, internet memes also have a trap baked in. The things that make them fun make them a perfect vessel for some of the worst aspects of the internet: caustic humor, bigoted hostility and fetishistic flattening.

These harms are often obscured by how inconsequential memes feel, as if they were just jokes on just the internet. This is an inherited problem, dating back to the earliest days of internet culture. Given how indispensable memes have become to the social lives of young people, their troublesome history must not be dismissed. Doing so risks walking into the same traps that have allowed memes to become such effective tools for hate, harassment and propaganda.

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The meme trap was first set on 4chan over a decade ago. The slapdash remix, quick quip humor and “Internet Ugly” aesthetic that define the most visible memes today emerged from the site, which was founded by a 15-year-old named Christopher “moot” Poole in 2003. After incubating for a few years, 4chan exploded in popularity, attracting millions of users sharing countless images in a flurry of mashup absurdity.

That 4chan became the internet’s first meme factory is largely an accident of its design. As social scientist danah boyd explains, Poole didn’t have enough server space for all the content being uploaded, so he programmed 4chan to delete older posts as new posts rolled in. Users, frustrated that their favorite images would disappear, reposted frequently, making slight alterations as they did.

Because 4chan’s posts fell off so quickly, sometimes within minutes, users needed to act fast. According to technology writer Nick Douglas, the images that beat the clock tended to be the sloppiest and most outrageously non sequitur. Polished work, “good” work, took too long. As the years wore on and 4chan grew in popularity, people across the internet replicated its aesthetic.

But other norms lurked on 4chan as well. The site was a hotbed of racism, sexism, anger, mockery, exploitation and gore. Its activity was so outrageous, so disruptive and so aggressively transgressive that in 2011, digital media scholar Finn Brunton described 4chan as “the most broadly offensive artifact that has ever been produced in the history of human media.”

Those ghosts haunt the internet still. 4chan’s humor, which became essential to internet culture, wasn’t just laughter. It was lulz, a register of laughter — forged by early internet trolls— that celebrates the distress of others. Lulz divides the us who gets it from the them who are the butt of the joke. Lulz flattens its targets into punchlines and shows no mercy when those targets are hurt as a result. That hurt is the whole point.

Far too often on 4chan, marginalized groups were the ones targeted. The site’s overwhelmingly white and male users reveled in demeaning stereotypes of women and people of color and lashed out against anyone who got in the way of their fun. Bigotry, the most damning legacy of 4chan, is still far too pervasive a part of the memes young people create and share. Consequently, memes are a preferred tool of extremists, who hide behind irony to make their bigotry seem more palatable, as if their attacks really were “just jokes” on “just the internet.”

Even when bigotry isn’t the goal, seemingly innocent memes can still dehumanize others. In our work, we call it fetishization. It’s the tendency during online interactions to fixate on just the content you’re looking at — just the GIF, just the post, just the tweet — instead of the very real people affected by that content. When everything is reduced to pixels on the screen, it’s easy to forget who may have been hurt to get you those pixels, and how your engagement may make that hurt worse.

When everything is reduced to pixels on the screen, it’s easy to forget who may have been hurt to get you those pixels, and how your engagement may make that hurt worse.

This isn’t an inevitable outcome. Race and technology scholar André Brock chronicles how Black Twitter uses laughter, not to dehumanize outsiders, but to solidify an in-group, one that is frequently de-legitimized by broader internet culture.

Likewise, artist and author An Xiao Mina highlights memetic play in China that doesn’t rely on fetishization. When Chinese citizens critique government oppression with protest memes, they are just as slapdash, quippy and Internet Ugly as their American counterparts. The difference is that the punchline is the broader context: the state’s autocratic control, satirized with messages of resilient resistance.

As young people — and indeed, all of us — continue to navigate the internet, memes aren’t going anywhere. They will keep shaping politics and relationships. We must therefore recognize their traps and avoid stepping in them. We must reject the legacy of lulz, bigotry and fetishization that fuel so many memes. It’s not that we shouldn’t have fun. It’s that we should maximize humane, inclusive and empowering play.