London 2012: The Games of the Memes

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Imma let you finish, Twitter ... but these Games belonged just as much to the *other* social media.

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Sorry, guys! McKayla is still not impressed. (mckaylaisnotimpressed)

The London Olympics were supposed to be the "social media Olympics." They were supposed to be the Olympics when viewers around the world, enabled by Twitter and Facebook and other free communications services, could come together to discuss the competition and pageantry playing out on their television sets. Or, if they were lucky enough, on their computer screens.

And these Olympics were, to an extent, exactly that: Facebook saw soaring numbers for the Facebook fan bases of Olympic athletes. Twitter, not to be outdone, logged over 150 million Olympic-related tweets over the past 16 days. But these Olympics ended up being something else, too. The drama playing out in London ended up bringing people together through a very particular kind of social media: memes. Visual memes, ridiculous memes, memes that took the imagery of the Games and augmented it. 

London 2012 was McKayla Maroney's scowl, all the way down. 

And that makes sense: These were the first Olympics that took place after meme-driven sites like Reddit and Buzzfeed had gone (more) mainstream. They were the first that took place after animated GIFs had seen a glorious resurgence. They were the first that took place after memes themselves -- often generated by easy meme-generating tools like MemeGenerator and ZipMeme -- had become a standard means of spreading messages and delight throughout the Internet.

So the world took these Games and, essentially, gamified them. It took the raw material of the Olympics and turned it into something that's wonderfully true to the spirit of the Games themselves: something audacious, something inspiring, something meant to be shared.

There was, first of all, the Queen. Imperial:

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... and imperious:

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There was "Dangle Boris," poking fun at London mayor Boris Johnson after his zip wire malfunctioned during a celebration of Britain's first gold medal:

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There was swimmer Ryan Lochte, channeling that other lady-loving Ryan -- with self-sacrifice:

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... and confidence:

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... and, uh, even more confidence:

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There were, horrifically and hilariously, the "Divers on the Toilet":

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There were the tributes to steely-stared Russian gymnast Aliya Mustafina:

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thatlonesomesong via Buzzfeed
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bluenoir via Buzzfeed

And then, of course, there was the most show-stealing meme of them all: McKayla Is Not Impressed. (Yep: Dot Tumblr Dot Com.) After the American gymnast fell during the vault final last week, the sulk she wore while settling for silver became the face of the Games.

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Well done, Internet. Well done. 

It's worth noting, just by way of obvious caveat, that these memes, viral as they became, were still not the way most people experienced the Olympics this year. Most people -- most people in the U.S., at any rate -- experienced the Olympics in the same basic way they've been experiencing the Olympics for years: through their TVs, on their couches, during prime time. Despite the furor of the #nbcfail hashtag -- despite the tech community's anger that NBC chose traditional broadcasting of the Games over more flexible streaming -- television still ruled. Everything else, all our digital capabilities notwithstanding, was a side note. 

And yet these silly little images -- McKayla on the moon! Lochte on the prowl! -- offer a suggestion of the kind of remixed consumption we viewers can keep expecting when it comes to big, massively viewed events. Angelina's leg post-Oscars (and the Jolie'ing jokes that came with it). Imma Let You Finish post-Grammys. Tebowing

These Olympics were an extended version of all that. The remixed images gave us yet another avenue -- beyond our TVs, beyond our tweets -- for experiencing culture communally. They made the divisions of time zone and consumption platform effectively irrelevant. They made these Games, featuring those otherworldly athletes, inviting and participatory. Maybe even enough to impress McKayla.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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