UPDATE: I want to clarify the message of this post. What I’m talking about here is not a call for the end of anybody’s good time. I’m simply making mention of an observed cultural shift – a changing trend. The first murmurs of this trend were touched on by some just following ROFLcon, but now Google Insights data corroborates those hunches.
Update 2: Reactions and further qualifications have been posted here.
Looking at the chart below and thinking about what it means makes me tired. In red, we have people Googling “Anonymous” mostly in response to stories about the loose “hacktivist” collective. And in blue, we have people Googling “meme” mostly looking for information about Internet Memes. You know the kinds, usually taking the form of Advice Animals, Rage Comics, LOLcats, all of the stuff that became popular in concert with the rise of Anonymous. Together, it’s all part of what a lot of us came to call “Internet culture,” meme culture, the ROFLsphere, etc.
Well, if there’s one thing that can be ascertained from this chart, it’s that as of February, “memes” have reached a ceiling. At the very least the phase of exponential growth that lasted from 2008 until about last January is over. And if there’s a second thing to be learned, it’s that Anonymous (or at least what we knew as the lulz-driven Anonymous) is effectively dead.
It would be a mistake to speculate about what occurred in January to cause the decrease in interest about Anonymous. It could be that the release of the We Are Legion documentary answered enough questions for the public that there was nothing left to be asked. It could be that the eavesdropping between Anonymous and the FBI got too hot for less serious Anons to handle. It could be that the popular conflation of Anonymous with the Occupy movement meant that as Occupy waned, so did Anonymous.
Exactly why interest in Anonymous fell is less interesting to me than the impact that that has had on interest in meme culture. (My partner Dr. Whitney Phillips has theorized the reasons why in her dissertation.) As searches for Anonymous decreased, searches for memes plateaued. There was never a one-to-one correlation between memes and Anonymous. But the lack of any big Anonymous upswell has coincided with a lack of any growth in meme search interest.
Whether you blame Sabu, Barret Brown, Adbusters, Occupy, or the rest of the media, the idea of Anonymous is just no longer provocative enough to generate the kind of activity it used to. Although Anonymous is far from having a monopoly on meme culture, they were in days past their largest amplifier. So with that bullhorn going largely ignored, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to the idea of “Internet culture” especially concerning the kinds of memes associated with the subculture.
When it comes to Rage Comics, the Troll Face, Y U No, and similar memes, nearly all with names that function as unique identifiers show a decrease in search coinciding roughly with February-March 2012. I tried the same thing with “me gusta” but the phrase is common enough that non-meme results skew the trend.
It should also be noted that not all memes follow this trend. For instance, Good Guy Greg began its decent in December 2011. Scumbag Steve also bucked the trend, due in part to his own live appearances and “Scumbag Thursday” videos announced in May. It should also be noted that neither is currently exhibiting signs of growth.
Furthermore, not all memes inspire the same sort of sustained search volume. Each is unique. For instance, Ridiculously Photogenic Guy (blue), Overly Attached Girlfriend (yellow), and Chuck Testa (red) all experienced sharp immediate peaks (OMG YOU GUISE NEW MEME BLOG IT) and sharp declines, whereas “Derp” (green) is one of the few memes I’ve looked at that is still experiencing a gradual increase as its use becomes more widespread. Linguistic expressions like “derp” tend to do that.
In the end, it’s not that all memes are truly dying. That’s absurd. There will always be memes of some sort, regardless of whether or not we even refer to them as such. But it seems like the average Internet user’s appetite for things that are immediately identifiable as memes, the memes that “look like” memes, are definitely losing their novelty. And there’s a strong chance that it’s directly tied to the overall trajectory of Anonymous. At least there’s correlation.
PS: Regardless of whether you blame 9gag or Reddit or Ebaumsworld or Cheezburger it hasn’t hurt 4chan’s traffic one bit. In fact, the downfall of memes that look like memes might be the best thing ever to happen to the site.