“The shorter lifespan has ... been a big challenge in our company,” says Wong.
It’s also almost impossible for sellers to monetize entire swaths of memes featuring trademarked characters like SpongeBob or Kermit the Frog.
On top of everything, the nature of what constitutes a meme itself is shifting. While early memes followed standardized formats, like white block font plastered on top of a funny photo, today’s memes are more esoteric.
Edward Stockwell who has managed meme-based social-media accounts for sites like theCHIVE and Rooster Teeth says that memes today relative to a few years ago are wildly different, and that makes them more difficult to commoditize.
“A lot of memes today are much more niche and rely on specific reference points to understand, so they’re less marketable to a wider audience,” he says. “Not that long ago there were maybe a handful of memes that everyone knew: Grumpy Cat, Scumbag Steve, etc. They were characters that stuck around.” Today’s memes, he explains, are more nebulous.
Social media and photo-editing apps have also affected the way people interact with memes. “We don’t just look at memes, laugh, and pass them on,” says McKean. “Now we want to incorporate their language into our daily speech, we want to manipulate them for our own meaning on Twitter.”
When most people see the “distracted boyfriend” meme, for instance, their first inclination is not to run out and buy a mug with it. Its humor lies in the endless, real-time, personalized manipulations of the image. Even the photographer who took the photo and Shutterstock, which owns it, weren’t able to make any meaningful revenue off the meme’s virality.
If a meme is niche enough, it can generate some revenue. Lee Ayers, who runs the popular Instagram meme pages @middleclassfancy and @friendofbae, says that he’s been able to successfully sell some meme-themed products with memes that are specific to his page. He has created his own recurring inside jokes such as referring to cold beers as “crispy boys” and summer as “grilling szn,” and has monetized by selling merchandise with those phrases.
While some meme retailers like DankMemeMerch.com have stayed true to their mission, most others have begun to pivot wholly away from memes and into broader novelty merchandise.
Wong says that over the last year Dank Tank has started to sell fewer meme-based products and more generally humorous items. “We’re shifting away from products based on specific memes and focusing on internet culture as a whole,” he says. “Like we sell candles now with phrases like ‘the smell of my bed sheeting when I cry myself to sleep at night.’ It’s not a meme, but sort of just general teen mood and mentality.”
Other sellers have begun hawking the type of humor tees that would look right at home on a New Jersey boardwalk. Reid, a man who runs 15 popular Instagram meme accounts including @shitheadsteve and @drunkpeopledoingthings via his company Steve Media, now sells shirts with phrases like “I’d rather be with my dog” and “I don’t need life, I’m high on drugs.” “I think we see ourselves as being the next Spencer’s, online,” he says. “Novelty products are a good fit for our audience.”