The third narrative that competed to own the meme—centering on the potential culpability of zoo officials—failed to gain any traction. It soon became clear that the zoo officials were no more culpable than zoo officials anywhere: the episode was simply an unfortunate accident.
While every party with a legitimate interest in the original episode lost the plot within a few weeks, what was remarkable was that nobody gained control of it. The Harambe episode was too edgy for marketers to co-opt, and too dank for memesters looking to provoke predictable sentiments. But a flood of memes emerged anyway: the late Muhammad Ali towering over a knocked-out Harambe, an oddly lewd one featuring actor Danny Trejo, and one featuring Harambe in a version of the trolley problem. Harambe memes have spanned the gamut from darkly humorous to poignant, from logical to surreal. There is, it appears, no limit to range of non-sequiturs that can ride the Harambe meme.
During its summer peak, merely dropping the word “Harambe” into an online conversation was sufficient to manufacture a surreal moment.
Harambe, in other words, is the perfect meme. In a reversal of Marshall McLuhan’s classic dictum, Harambe is the message that became a medium, capable of carrying any signal, without becoming identified with any of them. A meme in the original sense intended by Richard Dawkins: a cultural signifier that spreads simply because it is good at spreading. It is neither worth spreading the way a TED talk aspires to be, nor particularly worth resisting. It spreads because it can.
Harambe marks the emergence of something akin to a true stock market for culture, where price movements cannot always, or even often, be narrativized, either locally or globally. To be outraged by a Harambe meme—as those focused on the original conversation around animal rights and parenting continue to be—is to confuse Harambe the meme, a stock in a memetic marketplace, with Harambe the gorilla who died a tragic and pointless death.
It is perhaps the sheer meaninglessness of the original episode that made it an ideal candidate for memetic perfection. There is no object lesson in the Harambe story. No greater moral or meaning. No nascent Clint Eastwood movie. Yet the powerful video of a small child being dragged along by a large gorilla demanded a response and emotional resolution. When that resolution could not be found within the limited original context, Harambe broke out into the broader cultural marketplace, seeking, if not narrative interpretation, at least emotional resolution.
The memes that situate Harambe within the wider tapestry of 2016 events offer some validation for this theory: Muhammad Ali and Harambe. Harambe in a pantheon image alongside Ali, Prince, David Bowie, and other recently deceased celebrities. Harambe and Trump in seemingly limitless combinations. The Harambe meme became the carrier not just for the unresolved emotions surrounding the death of a gorilla, but for a larger pool of emotions seeking resolution in the zeitgeist. Seemingly weird and anomalous events, it appears, become easier to process in juxtaposition with Harambe.