rad Kim’s mother recently found Jesus, which is nice but a little bit of a problem for him. “I don’t know how to tell my mom, like, ‘I don’t think I can ever get religious, as long as I’m on the internet. It’s kind of the anti-Bible. You learn everything terrible about human beings.’”
Kim has been what the Twitter set calls “terminally online” for almost a decade now, ever since he graduated from NYU with a journalism degree in 2009 — arguably the worst moment in living memory to graduate from NYU with a journalism degree. With few options and a long-nurtured interest in memes, he took an unpaid internship doing research for a new web series called Know Your Meme, produced by the daily vlog channel Rocketboom.
Hosted by various combinations of Joanne Colan, Kenyatta Cheese, Jamie Wilkinson, and Elspeth Rountree — “meme experts” in white lab coats — the series explained one meme per episode: its origin, its spread, and its context in an online culture that wasn’t broadly understood at the time. The show eventually launched an online meme database, also called Know Your Meme, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.
For the last nine years, Kim has spearheaded and edited the site, now the most comprehensive history of internet culture in existence, a document that can elicit both awe and nausea. When the site launched in 2008, the primary source for information about memes was Encyclopedia Dramatica, an unwieldy wiki of internet culture affiliated most closely with the internet’s biggest cesspool, 4chan. The people who contributed to it were protective of what was, at the time, a niche subculture, and Kim says much of the information there was just jokes intertwined with some facts and filtered back through a joke.
Know Your Meme set itself apart by approaching memes with journalistic integrity and rigor long before most people thought they deserved such treatment — or even knew what they were. The website has since become the go-to encyclopedia for internet culture, an ever-expanding library of memes and other internet phenomena that gets cited by publications like The Atlantic and The Washington Post, and receives fact-checking calls from The New York Times. Though much of the content it’s called upon to explain is silly, heinous, or both, it has built a reputation as one of the very few reputable sources on the machinations of the most important and little-understood invention of our lifetime: the social web. Nobody knows more about lols and GIFs, the mechanics of a viral goof, or the life and times of Pepe the Frog. Nobody has dug deeper into the cesspools of 4chan or the acid-trip wonderland of Tumblr. Nobody has seen this much shit.
Kim says he forgets that not everyone has been desensitized by spelunking down into the muck every day for 10 years, but argues that meme culture isn’t malevolent so much as it is amoral; it’s a mirror held up to the culture of the internet, which “increasingly does not care about the truth, and cares only about the narrative, the myth.”
A decade deep, Know Your Meme remains an impartial observer of that amorality, one that functions not just as a time capsule, but as a vector for the viral spread of its subjects. The jokes it catalogs leech from platform to platform and get bigger once the site’s editors write about and codify them; sometimes they spiral out of control. Know Your Meme is a huge accomplishment and a public service, but the internet has changed dramatically in the last 10 years — and in the last two years and even in the last week — and this anniversary is as much a chance to look forward at the future of internet culture, queasy and disoriented, as it is to look back.
Know Your Meme’s origin story is as tumultuous and strange as the internet itself, a roller coaster of incredible luck followed by devastating, cinematic mishaps. The project started in 2007, in the tiny Rocketboom office that was “basically a hallway” in Chelsea, Manhattan, co-founder Kenyatta Cheese remembers. He, Rocketboom founder Andrew Baron, and Elspeth Rountree (currently the engagement editor for Vox Creative) spent their days “sitting there and sharing links,” and started to notice that memes were being appropriated by brands and advertisers without acknowledgment that their jokes had been sourced from the internet. They realized they could prove where the jokes were coming from, using tools like TinEye, Google’s reverse-image search, Twitter’s then-open API, Reddit and Tumblr timestamps, and “precision searching.”
When Know Your Meme launched as a web series, the writers used philosophical frameworks from philosophers like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze to riddle out the origin and spread of each meme. Then they scrubbed the academic language and filled in the spaces with funny cat pictures. In 2008, developer Jamie Wilkinson (now head of product at Kickstarter), built an online companion database in one weekend and then quit. That’s Know Your Meme as we know it today. The content was initially generated by a crop of interns (including Kim) and hundreds of anonymous contributors who were eventually organized and edited by a team of volunteer moderators and a tiny editorial staff. The site became massively popular, and by 2010, it was far more wide-reaching and beloved than the original web series.
Kim’s interest in memes and viral culture began before those words had entered the mainstream. He grew up in Korea and moved around a lot, often finding that a new school meant new slang and new dialects that he didn’t quite understand. He couldn’t participate in the conversation without knowing the in-jokes. “These things these kids were saying to each other didn’t make any sense. I thought, ‘Who is commissioning this? Who is issuing these and making these happen?’” he remembers. “Yeah, that’s meme culture.” Later, he participated in online gaming, where memes were mostly catchphrases like “No girls on the internet” and “Tits or gtfo.” He doesn’t really know how to talk about that now and just laughs a tiny stare-at-the-floor laugh. “Ooh, uh, that was a different time on the internet.”
It was and it wasn’t — it was a less examined time for sure.
As for how researching memes became a full-time job, well, “I really liked doing it because for me, it was kind of like not doing work.” On his first day at Know Your Meme, the staff sent Kim to Chinatown to find a plush toy version of Mudkips, a lesser pokémon that was part of a popular in-joke on 4chan. He failed, he says, but he loved it.
When Know Your Meme first started hunting for metadata and explaining memes with linear timelines that people outside the subculture could understand, the reaction was hostile — the knee-jerk reaction of a somewhat seedy community that resisted increased visibility on its more distasteful content. Kim says the site suffered DDoS attacks constantly and that the offices would often receive deliveries of empty pizza boxes — a vague and kind of silly threat, but a threat all the same. They’d also receive sweet, pleading emails from Reddit kids who wanted to pull off a benign hoax or a longform joke without having their cover blown. Like everything else that has ever existed online, it’s been a mixed bag.
Cheese says the most valuable thing about the Know Your Meme project in its early days was that even as blogs like Urlesque and The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed became interested in meme culture, they didn’t have the same passion for tracing the way they move, what makes someone pull a meme out of one community and post it in another. “We can build these giant brands and giant amplifiers of culture on top of [the internet], but in the end, it’s still this giant peer-to-peer network,” he says. That’s why he got so into bodybuilding forums in the early Know Your Meme days: they were a weirdly reliable early predictor of things that would eventually become huge memes, which seems strange and unexplainable on the surface, but speaks to the oft-forgotten fact that even in a topic-specific forum, “there’s a lot of culture happening there because these are people. Right?”
Discussing the mainstream media’s broad failure to appropriately engage with or analyze internet culture, Cheese explains that there’s no such thing as a “viral video.” Videos are videos; it’s networks that are viral. “The internet doesn’t actually love cats,” he says. “But there is this very dense, highly connected internet cat industrial complex — people who really love cats who are super well-connected to each other across several platforms, such that if you put just the right cat video in front of somebody, they can get it out to so many cat lovers that all of a sudden you’ll see it replicated 10 times in your Facebook feed.” The assumption that something that’s popular is good, and that something with a lot of views is valuable, has been programmed into us by 100 years of mass media, he argues. And it’s something we need to unlearn “if we’re going to understand memes and if we’re going to understand influence.”
In January 2011, the whole thing blew up “spectacularly,” as Cheese puts it. He and Rountree describe the company culture at the time as an atmosphere of paranoia and competing egos, which they attribute to Baron. “Fucking crazy is an understatement,” Rountree says. “[The] atmosphere wasn’t fun anymore. Things were falling apart, and he was the reason.” Rountree and Cheese moved on, Rocketboom dissolved, and what was left of the company was acquired by Cheezburger in March 2011. Mike Rugnetta, a newer Know Your Meme host who stayed on after Cheese and Rountree’s departure, says Baron offered him the job of CEO for no apparent reason. He and his friend Patrick Davidson quit the next day. Rountree says she and Cheese only heard about the pending acquisition through the industry rumor mill, with the news passed to them through BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti and confirmed by their friend Ben Huh (then-CEO of Cheezburger).
Baron tells it differently, saying Cheese organized the mass exodus of top employees out of personal “vengeance,” and that Cheese was the one who was “egocentric and hostile.” He also claims that Cheese interfered with the sale of Rocketboom after he left the company, which Huh refutes, saying “That is not accurate at all. The only person who threatened the deal was Andrew Baron.” Huh says Baron misrepresented the assets included in the sale — which was ultimately worth less than a million dollars — and Cheezburger had to threaten him with a lawsuit. “He’s quite a character,” he added. “I acquired more than a dozen websites [at Cheezburger]. It was by the far the worst interaction I’ve had with a seller.” He also remembers confirming Rountree and Cheese’s diagnoses of the work environment with the employees who remained after the sale.
Kim refers to the transitional period between October 2010 and April 2011 as his time in the “100-dollar club, the worst club on Earth.” Meaning, he was working full time and getting paid 100 dollars per month, which he says was a result of Rocketboom’s crippling financial problems. (One of the terms of the acquisition was that Baron would have to give back-pay to all of the employees.) “It was jarring to see a company get, not just dissolved financially, but fall apart as a creative energy… Yeah, Kenyatta and Ellie’s sentiments reflect what I observed there at the time.”
But amid all the turmoil, Kim and fellow intern Don Caldwell were kept on. They met with copyright lawyers and protected the work they’d already done; they went from interns to editors, and the Know Your Meme database went from a fun side project to what felt more like a valuable commodity. Cheezburger saved the site and paid them salaries. The purview of Know Your Meme expanded to popular culture and broader internet phenomena — including politics. “They tried to make it a little more commercial, which is totally fine, you know, it has to be a sustainable business,” says Rountree. Still, she wishes “that there was some way the original co-founders could buy it back and resurrect it.”
Today, Know Your Meme has traffic goals and business-end accountability, but Cheezburger is based in Seattle, and the office for Know Your Meme has always been in New York. Editorially, says Kim, they’re left alone. When Cheezburger was acquired by Literally Media in April 2016, not a lot changed. The daily process is what it always has been: a group email thread, a few hours sweeping the radar of subforums and websites, a soft deadline of 11AM or noon to decide on the day’s write-ups and updates. The life cycle of a meme has gotten shorter, so they spend more time on “flash-in-the-pan, 72-hour memes.”
The site operates out of a large room in a co-working space on the waterfront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in a place with far less personality than you’d expect. There are vague editorial plans written in dry erase marker on the windows, a few bags of parmesan crackers, some cans of lentil soup. A bulk box of American Spirits, a coffee maker. An “I Love to Fart” mug and one potted plant. Nothing about the environment suggests that the people who work here do anything interesting with their days, and the team of five editors is a reserved bunch who sometimes struggle to articulate just why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Caldwell, now managing editor, says Know Your Meme will become “increasingly important,” and that it has “a very, very, important role to play.” Asked what, exactly, that means, he never quite explains.
Everybody who currently works at Know Your Meme ended up there pretty much the same way: by accident, or because they had nothing better to do. Briana Milman — currently the site’s sole female editor — was unemployed and unhappy, spending her days posting memes to Facebook, when she met Kim at a birthday party and added him as a friend. “I guess my unemployed shitposting on Facebook told him I might be right for a job opening at Know Your Meme. My coping mechanism became how I got a job, and possibly a career,” she says. “I never really thought my dumb posts would tell somebody that I had a skill or talent… In a weird, cheesy way, memes saved my life.”
Being the only woman at Know Your Meme doesn’t really bother Milman, who calls herself the “most crass and disgusting” member of the team. Her favorite meme right now is the satirical claim that “pee is stored in the balls,” and when I call her, she jokes that she thought about yelling “PEE IS STORED IN THE BALLS ” into the phone and hanging up. But it’s notable that she’s only the fourth woman to work for the site since Tumblr’s Amanda Brennan started there as an intern in the summer of 2010. And though all of the Know Your Meme editors come off as deeply decent people with the best intentions, it’s not ideal that the editorial team reporting to Kim is all white and almost all male. “Having a female voice on the staff is very rare,” says Brennan. “And the stuff they cover is still very male-centric, even as internet culture has changed. It kinda sucks.”
Like her former co-workers, Brennan has a hard time articulating what Know Your Meme’s mission statement should be. Her background was in information science, and she sees the site as a library. “We were documenting the local culture, and… filtering it through a very historical lens: Here is the beginning, here is what happened, here’s why it happened.” Then she pauses, starts, and stops a few times. “It’s been five years since I worked at Know Your Meme, and I would never tell them how to run the site… but the question of what to cover and how to cover it I think is now more important than ever, in the face of how meme culture has changed in the last few years.”
Memes and pop culture go hand-in-hand now. They don’t sit in subforums and subreddits; they crop up in group chats and on your local diner’s Instagram account. We’ve come a long way from local news stations explaining “all your base are belong to us” as a new sensation sweeping the web, and because the pace of existence online has increased exponentially, we’ve even come a long way from Hillary Clinton feeling obliged to explainPepe. Things are changing — 4chan isn’t indexed on Google anymore, hoaxes and conspiracies aren’t quite so funny, and we’re in something of a moral panic about the state of almost all of our social platforms.
There is fun to be had with “late-stage internet,” sure — the “deep-fried memes” aesthetic, for one, in which a meme is screenshotted from Instagram and reposted so many times that it turns into a pixelated mess — but there’s also a simmering cynicism at its core. Shitposting — a style of blogging that deliberately layers in-joke on top of in-joke until the meaning of the post is “encrypted” to outsiders, appearing outwardly as a bunch of dumb nonsense — was the second-most-popular meme tag on Tumblr in 2017.
Brandon Wink, the moderator of Reddit’s fake meme stock market, says we’ve entered a second generation of meme culture: “Websites of old have either died or faded to obscurity. New memers need [Know Your Meme] as [a] resource to know what rage comics were, how lol-speak and image macros came to be.”
When the current staff talks about their favorite memes, they’re mostly internet culture salves, unexpected moments of grace or pure stupidity. “If you give me a meme that your aunt or uncle shares that’s not racist or something, I’m probably going to like it,” Schimkowitz says. “If it’s about drinking coffee, like a Garfield meme, that I would love.” When I met Caldwell, he was having a great day reading up about how Rob Sheridan — once the web guru and graphic designer for Nine Inch Nails — claimed to have kicked off the dancing baby meme with a Geocities page back in 1998.
Milman prefers stupid-funny Instagram memes; Downer likes artful Tumblr creations that “spread naturally and have nothing to do with anything,” especially the Les Miserablesiteration on the “Steamed Hams” meme. Kim loves wholesome memes, which have taken over Tumblr and bloomed in a huge subreddit in the last few years. He calls them chicken soup for the soul, and says, “I need my daily dose of wholesome memes to balance out all the cynicism.” They succeed because they’re moments of blazing sincerity and goodwill amid the streams of irony, sarcasm, and bad faith, sweet reprieves that are popular among young people who grew up on the internet asking, “How many layers of irony are you on?” They gasp out a little optimism even while demonstrating an advanced literacy of irony.
It’s the same winning contrast that propelled the popularity of LOLcats, a style of image macro that became popular on 4chan long before your mom started sharing cat pics on Facebook. “The whole humor value of LOLcats came from [the fact that] you had this endless feed of terrible things, and then you see a cat,” Kim says. And that’s the bummer, the slide whistle that accompanies any discussion of online culture in 2018. Most good things on the internet are hard to evaluate on their own terms: is this only good because everything else is so bad? Can it be good if it needs the bad things to make sense?
The elephant in the room during every conversation about meme culture in 2018 is, of course, the 2016 election — when the grossest monsters of 4chan and Reddit came out from under the bed and baffled the public — and Gamergate, the 2014 harassment campaign that preceded it. Major platforms have spent the last several years trying to figure out how to battle neo-Nazi political action, which is something that sounds surreal no matter how many times you write it down.
Associate editor Matt Schimkowitz remembers hunting down the origins of a recent memethat shows a car veering off an exit ramp on three wheels, a seemingly innocuous image that blew up quickly because you can caption it with basically anything. Turns out, it started on a white nationalist website as an anti-immigration joke. It’s hard to know how to feel about that, or about the reverse — say, white supremacists, co-opting a harmless memeand terrorizing the country with it for over a year.
This unstable game of hot potato, in which memes get thrown back and forth between subcultures and the broader public and back to niche communities and back out — often changing their meaning along the way — isn’t new, Kim argues. “The whole cycle of subculture getting absorbed into mainstream and then subverting the mainstream, that cycle has always been there, way before internet memes.”
But meme culture is uniquely scary in some contexts. “One marker that sets [it] apart is its functionality in shaping public opinion,” Kim admits. He compares memes to postmodernist art, a movement with the underlying mission to critique society and politics. “But the art world is also an established institution, whereas meme culture brings zero accountability — or near-zero accountability.” In some ways, that’s good; people can share their political commentary in a format that is likely to spread without the help of political institutions and without tying itself to any broader agenda.
But we have, now, what Kim calls “a meme president,” who is such a prime example of “troll bait” that he can’t pass up even one opportunity to spout insanity or spar with the media. “So, that turns into this weird industrial complex.” His supporters don’t defend him with logic, they’re just “building a meme castle with Donald Trump at the top.”
“We don’t want to fucking cover any more Trump shit,” associate editor Adam Downer says. “The users hate it. We hate doing it, but we have to do it.”
That’s the job now! When Trump’s Twitter typo “covfefe” blew up in May 2017, it became a type of shorthand in meme culture — an in-joke about the state of memes. They’re mainstream now; they’re about Trump way more often than anyone would like, but no one can stop it. Often, the ones that take off are truly not even a little bit funny (Downer cites Tide Pods and Cash Me Outside as other examples), and who knows why that’s happening either?
Kim readily admits that Know Your Meme can facilitate the amorality of meme culture, and the spread of ideas that he might not personally want to see flourish. Where, a decade ago, you would have had to comb 4chan yourself to find some seedy new meme (and probably would not have bothered), now, you can find it in a clean, searchable database and understand it within minutes — and perpetuate it, too, if you want.
Schimkowitz, who eventually wants to devote his career to combating racism and sexism on the internet and helping the public understand the real-world consequences of letting these environments stew, defends the approach of the site. “We try to share when people take offense to a meme. We try to make sure that’s also noted in the entry. Reactions to memes are a big part of what makes them popular or controversial. So ignoring them would be disingenuous.” Or, in the case of the recent explosion of Tide Pod memes, while Know Your Meme won’t come out and tell teenagers not to eat poisonous laundry detergent, they’ll quote Tide saying “don’t eat poisonous laundry detergent.”
“We are doing a type of public good to help people understand the language of the internet, as it exists, at any given time,” he adds firmly.
Okay, sure. Is that enough? Does laying out the history of a meme in a linear timeline actually help people understand why a meme happened? The theme Kim comes back to over and over is the objectivity of journalism, but even the most pedantically disciplined journalists have to make choices about the facts they select and the context in which they present them — sticky questions to contend with in a media environment where traffic drives coverage, and the moral or cultural impact of everything from execution to framing to promotion often comes second. In excavating the online alt-right last year, for example, the media often fell into a trap of making the vicious fringe look cool, edgy, weird, and alluring.
I don’t want to write a bleak history of Know Your Meme or of the last 10 years on the internet. Spectacular things have happened here! People live here. Kids are taking care of each other and putting hexes on the president. They’re making art and paying nothing to do it and pulling off elaborate jokes that don’t have to hurt anyone’s feelings to land. I mean, almost any Vine compilation makes me cry. “Meme culture is a creative process with the creator’s ego taken out of the equation,” Kim says. “It’s a thing where it’s the work first, and the artist is metadata.” That is beautiful, in a way.
In trying to be a largely impartial reflection of meme culture, Know Your Meme has avoided accountability for as long as the rest of the internet has: until now. Their goal for the next year is to use their massive database — and the metadata behind it, the page views and overlapping tags that have accrued over a decade — and use it to do “cultural analytics, so to speak.” Kim recognizes that their project needs to go further, and that “explaining things at face value doesn’t cut it anymore.”
Kim says that the staff also plans to do more blogging and reporting with opinion and analysis that can give readers more in-depth context on memes. “Our main focus this year is to elevate our work to meme journalism, so to speak,” he says. Eventually, he wants to leave Know Your Meme and go into activism full-time, inspired by the way the 2017 Women’s March succeeded in rallying people via pre-existing internet communities.
Watching those organizers try to appeal to a “meme-friendly audience,” he says, was a tipping point. “This ridiculous miscellaneous collection of memes I learned about [can] actually contribute to society on a real level” — they provide brightly colored containers for love and hate, facts and myth, each as readily as the other.
Memes are great; they can serve as an emergency response system that distributes quick laughs when it feels like everything’s falling apart. Memes are terrible; they facilitate the spread of information torn from its source and relieved of its obligation to even seemcredible. Know Your Meme is a crucial living document that we absolutely need, and the story it tells us about the internet is endlessly self-conflicting. To stay relevant, the editors at Know Your Meme can’t continue to just reflect the internet back at itself if they want to believe they’re helping. Luckily, they know it.
“What a meme is, is a people-approved idea,” Kim says. “I think for society, and also for my own mental health, I’d feel satisfied if I could actually make some real contributions.”