Every meme has a lifespan. Sure, you can share any meme you choose at any time you’d like, but I’d guess that if you were to reach into your meme rolodex and pull out a Laughing SpongeBob or Grumpy Cat in 2021 that you’d be flexing some weak, unstudied game.
In the days since president Joe Biden’s inauguration, a photo of Senator Bernie Sanders — sitting alone with tussled hair, wearing a grandfatherly winter coat, blue surgical mask, and mittens knitted by a school teacher from Burlington, Vermont — has streaked across the internet and become social media’s most popular meme. Online, Bernie is everywhere (and you can put him in more places, too, if you’d like) — hanging out with crustaceans, building New York City, in an Edward Hopper painting, palling around with the cast of Sex And The City. But like all memes that came before it, this Bernie meme will eventually sputter and fade away.
Here’s how to know when a meme is on the wane, and how to save yourself the embarrassment of sharing a meme that’s flat out dead.
If you want to contribute to the latest Bernie photo craze before the meme plays itself out — which will probably be sometime around the end of the week — it’s not that hard to cut out Bernie-Sanders-on-a-chair and splice him into whatever image you want. However, to save you...Read more
Most memes aren’t meant to escape the internet
Memes, generally speaking, are inside jokes meant to spark joy among an internet-savvy crowd. When a meme breaks the online threshold and starts cropping up on cable news — or when your parents start dropping them in the family text chain — it’s probably a fair assumption that the meme is dead.
Though the lifespan and relevancy of memes is an inexact field, there’s a certain notion that a meme bursting with life will largely be shared by a group of insiders. How long does a meme maintain its niche appeal? One analysis conducted by Joe Veix for The Outline in 2018 concluded that memes, on average, live for about four mouths.
And given the rapid pace of online conversation, memes have been rising and falling at ever-faster rates as the meme economy grows. This is something that meme aficionados regularly discuss, and even place bets on in a fictional meme stock market where memes are bought and sold in conjunction with their relevance to the online discourse.
All of this is to say, it’s anybody’s guess as to when a meme’s star will fade, but there is one general rule: memes lose their appeal when they’re overused — kind of like a hit song that’s been overplayed.
Urban Dictionary elaborates further:
A Dead Meme does not have to be old; many people still continue to make Shrek jokes despite the many years since original thread.
Often times a Dead Meme can be revived, if only self-referential, or satirical. If not, it can be considered quite annoying for a Dead Meme to be used.
So, basically, if you’re sharing memes that the internet has largely forgotten about, you’ve been left in the dust.
Angel Olson once sang “they made a meme out of my legacy darling,” but I have never found a meme that fully encompassed my lasting effect on the world. Luckily, I can now (easily) make my own bespoke memes, with a little help from template accounts on Instagram.Read more
Some memes do have greater longevity, though
There may yet be hope for Bernie. Some memes, even if they’re not traded back and forth between social platforms on a daily basis en perpetuity, seem to at least remain ingrained in the social fabric even after the joke is past its prime. Drake is one meme star whose place in the meme ecosystem doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Others, like Harambe — the gorilla killed by zookeepers at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens in 2016 after dragging a three-year-old boy — aren’t so much talked about anymore, but they certainly linger. Due to their strong influence on the evolution of memes and how much of the internet they subsume in their primes, they get inducted into a kind of Meme Hall of Fame at the end of their lives.
With that in mind, it’s possible that the Bernie mittens meme becomes a kind of meme emeritus in its later days — something that we can reference with jokes, and perhaps revive if it’s called upon once more. But then again, if its shelf life expires like many memes do, you might draw an eye roll or two for sharing it.