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Memes—typically images juxtaposed with other images, words, or phrases—have taken over the internet. They’re on Twitter and Facebook, inspiring national media coverage and inciting major political movements. Memes have, in many circles, become an entirely new language, introducing words like “yaaaaas” and “on fleek” into our lexicon. Kenyatta Cheese, a Masthead member, is one of the world’s leading experts in meme culture. His website, Know Your Meme, the first and largest online meme database, receives over 14.7 million unique visitors each month. I talked to Cheese about the importance of memes, and how they’ve come to define a generation.

Memes Are a Map to Internet Culture

When Kenyatta Cheese started Know Your Meme in 2008, most people had no idea what a meme was. He spent the early days sitting in a dark, ten-by-sixteen-foot room in New York’s Flatiron Building, his two co-founders illuminated by the glow of their laptop screens. “We would lurk in as many places on the internet as we could,” he told me, “trying to understand what people were talking about—what was catching people’s attention, and what wasn’t.” Cheese, a 44-year-old from the South Bronx, told his family that he was a “professional internet enthusiast.” They didn’t ask too many questions.

In the early days of the modern internet, memes were created and passed around on a small handful of websites like 4Chan and LiveJournal. They were inside jokes, known only to the individuals who frequented the internet communities where they originated. To make the content more accessible, Know Your Meme deployed a small army of volunteers to recover memes from every corner of the internet and catalogue them in a searchable database.

The website has let a lot of people in on the joke, providing essential context for the current fascination with guys checking out girls and cats sitting on laptops. It’s influenced politics, too. Last fall, I wrote about Know Your Meme for The Masthead. I interviewed an internet subculture expert who credited the website—and meme culture in general—with galvanizing the alt-right. Cheese didn’t disagree, but argued that memes, and his website, serve a much larger purpose.

“The internet is architecturally so different than any media form that came before it—TV, radio, newspapers,” Cheese said. “In all of those examples, information flowed one way. The ideas that were shared among the masses were determined by small editorial boards or owners—by some type of ruling class. But it’s the crowd that decides to pull a meme further out.” A database of popular memes, Cheese told me, offers a roadmap to what people actually find interesting—or funny, or disturbing, or delightful. He sees Know Your Meme as a kind of time capsule. If future generations can see what went viral in 2018—which memes stirred up enough emotion to compel us to share them—they’ll have a better sense of who we were.

Memes, Cheese says, offer particularly deep insight into human behavior. By the time a meme reaches a broad audience, it’s often gone through hundreds of iterations—users will have added slightly different taglines to the original image, just like a stand-up comedian refines a joke. The versions that go viral reveal what exactly strikes a chord with us. “I may see a joke several times before I see the one that makes me go, ‘Oh, okay, yes’—or several hundred before I say, ‘This is the one I want to share out. This is the one that actually connects with me.’"

At the end of my conversation with Cheese, I told him that, just a few months ago, after speaking publicly about my reporting on the alt-right, anonymous internet users made a picture of me into an offensive meme. Female journalists, in particular, experience this a lot. “It’s become commonplace to have some portion of you commodified and replicated in a lot of different ways,” Cheese said. He empathized with my situation—as far as he knows, he’s never been made into a meme, and hopes he never will be—but, in the internet age, he thinks meme-ification is probably something we all have to get used to.

“I’ll be interested to see what happens when we don’t fear becoming a meme—when we don’t fear that something we’ve done will spread, but come to see that as something that just happens, or could happen because your actions existed in public.” To Cheese, that process could be a great equalizer, giving regular people on the internet the power to hold “the ruling class” accountable. “We need a sensor network that makes it possible for us to get a signal out there, even if it is ignored.”

Over the last eighteen months, the alt-right has used meme culture to create a political signal. One meme in particular—Pepe the Frog, a cartoon frog often paired with racist words and symbols, now widely considered the mascot of the alt-right—has been repurposed hundreds of thousands of times, helping to connect many threads of a once-disparate movement. When President Trump, as a candidate, tweeted a picture of Pepe, it was a unifying moment for the alt-right, allowing them to feel like their beliefs had influenced politics at the highest level. Cheese doesn’t support alt-right ideals, but he has no problem with the group using meme culture as a rallying point. “There is such a diverse set of values in the world, such a diverse set of ideas about what justice means. There are going to be people who express their own sense of injustice in ways that maybe don't line up with the rest of us,” Cheese told me. “It’s our job to acknowledge that.”

Today’s Wrap Up

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  • What’s Coming: Tomorrow Karen Yuan explores what it was like to grow up in 1968.

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