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Meme accounts, with their blurry videos, screenshots, tweets, and TikTok clips, pioneered the Internet Ugly aesthetic. But now young teenagers and tweens have developed a new, more aesthetically pleasing format: the meme-and-theme account.

At first glance, a meme-and-theme page looks a lot like a general aesthetics account, a type of page dedicated to posting on a single color scheme or theme, like a digital mood board. Themes rotate frequently, but can be something as simple as all color-washed photos, celestial pictures, or any set of images that are visually similar. Administrators find the pictures on the image-sharing service We Heart It or through Google image searches. Many teens follow a set of aesthetics accounts that post photos related to their interest or the season: fall themes to get excited for Halloween, or Christmas themes for the holiday season.

But teenagers also love memes, and meme-and-theme pages merge these two genres into one. While a meme-and-theme page looks like an aesthetics account, below the surface it’s teeming with memes. Like thread accounts, meme-and-theme pages take advantage of Instagram’s photo-carousel feature: Administrators keep their grids looking pretty by uploading on-theme photos as the first post in each carousel. But when a user swipes left, a series of memes is revealed.

Some teenagers prefer these types of accounts to traditional meme pages because they keep feeds looking clean and innocent to prying eyes. If you’re scrolling in public or a parent peers over your shoulder, you can move through posts without swiping over to reveal potentially dicey content. “When you scroll through Insta with friends, you might not want all the memes to pop up. They’re quite random and can be weird,” said Esther, a 16-year-old who runs a meme-and-theme account and, like all the others under 18 in this story, is referred to by her first name only.

Teenagers who create the accounts say the biggest appeal is that meme-and-theme pages allow for more complex self-expression. “It’s like two parts of yourself in one [account],” said Abby, a 16-year-old who runs one such page. Kenzie, a 14-year-old, said she’d initially contemplated starting a traditional meme account, but she didn’t think it would be personal enough. She likes the creative outlet that her meme-and-theme page provides, and thinks it says more about her than a running feed of screenshotted memes would. “When you make a themed meme account, you go through this process of making the theme,” she said. “A meme account is just like, oh, screenshot and post it.”

Meme-and-theme accounts are overwhelmingly run by young girls, teens say. “Most guys my age tend to use Insta like, ‘Here’s what I did on Fortnite today.’ Girls tend to have themes even for their personal accounts,” Kenzie said. High schoolers who run meme-and-theme pages trade theme ideas in group chats and hold one another accountable for posting. Some teenagers said they collect photos for months related to a potential theme, scouring the internet for hours to find the perfect batch of about 15 to 30 images. A dark and moody theme might represent a person going through a hard time. A K-pop theme might just reflect the administrator’s current taste in music.

Behind the aesthetic veneers, many high schoolers use meme-and-theme accounts to post about their daily lives. Many meme-and-theme administrators told me they had graduated to that posting style after previously running niche-meme accounts, which offered clip-art-like summaries of their daily lives on Instagram. “The theme is like the outside of me, then the memes [are] my inside self,” said Esther. “When you have a rough time, you can write about it in your caption.” The pages also function as a place to meet other people their age, connect with friends, and blow off steam or kill time after school. “Themed meme accounts are a place where you can let it all out,” said Kenzie.

Some kids use meme-and-theme accounts to rant on their Instagram Stories or post detailed accounts of what they like and don’t like, or how their day is going. They post recommendations or life hacks that other kids their age might find useful. “hi my exams are next week i want 2 die,” one teen wrote. Another user announced that her friend was ignoring her, and she was sad. “there’s such a long list of people who hate me and i honestly don’t blame them skjsksksjsksks,” she said in another post.

At their core, meme-and-theme pages are simply the newest way teens are transforming Instagram into a sort of public diary. The accounts also highlight the critical role that Instagram plays in most tweens’ social lives. “Instagram is really important to me,” Madison said. “I think there are plenty of places where you can make friends, but Instagram is the No. 1.” Other kids said they would be devastated if anything happened to the accounts they run. Kenzie said that “a lot” of her social life is “centered around Instagram,” and thinking about losing her account causes her great anxiety. For Mary, a 14-year-old, running a meme-and-theme account is ultimately just “a way to get closer to people.”

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