Internet memes are mostly frivolous and meaningless, but their global reach gives them a unique cultural significance. The speed at which they arrive and depart bestows them with powerful associations with particular weeks or months. They almost become digital timestamps that mark the development of online culture. Here are ten of the most prominent memes from 2019, all of which joined the world together (albeit temporarily) either in ridicule, disgust or joyful appreciation. Simple ideas, catching the imagination and then snowballing – often beyond their creators’ wildest dreams.
Storm Area 51
For all kinds of reasons, a top-secret United States Air Force facility in the Nevada desert isn’t the best place for a party. The idea of initiating a gathering there was a joke started by Californian student Matty Roberts, who set up a Facebook event over the summer and pinpointed the date of September 20. “We will all meet up at the Area 51 Alien Centre tourist attraction and co-ordinate our entry,” read the event description. For three days, barely anyone noticed it. But by July 22, the event had 1.8 million RSVPs. “Hello US government,” added Roberts, “this is a joke, and I do not actually intend to go ahead with this plan.” But the area surrounding the facility ended up hosting two music festivals over that weekend, and 10,000 people showed up.
The creature has taken over the internet. People are losing their minds over what we think are the most adorable memes to exist. The new, itsy-bitsy, big-eyed Star Wars character is a combination of cuteness and innocence. Memes tend to be written as if from the perspective of a child or teenager, captioned with Baby Yoda's broken speech. He has also been superimposed on to existing memes, such as Woman Yelling at Cat – instead of a cat, it's Baby Yoda. One online comment reads: "Strong in the cuteness, I am!" We couldn't agree more.
Chinese video-sharing platform TikTok exploded in popularity in 2019, making stars of the unlikeliest people doing the unlikeliest things. All Brittany Broski, 22, had to do to achieve fame was film herself drinking a can of the fermented tea known as Kombucha. Her facial expression, oscillating between delighted to disgusted, caused a sensation. Ultimately, TikTok would reveal Broski to be a sensational actress and a brilliant mimic. As one person put it online: “I wanna be friends with her so badly.” Millions of others would agree.
30-50 Feral Hogs
Back in August, an internet’s worth of ridicule landed squarely on one person’s shoulders. In response to a tweet by singer-songwriter Jason Isbell advocating gun control in the US, a man from Arkansas named Willie McNabb tweeted: “How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?” The inherent absurdity of the tweet came in for widespread mockery, and “30-50 feral hogs” became shorthand for any kind of ludicrous exaggeration. Yes, feral hogs do exist in large numbers in the US. Do they justify owning an assault weapon? Not really.
Yee Haw Challenge
Rapper Lil Nas X could never have predicted how his year would pan out. His song, Old Town Road, was released independently at the end of 2018. But in March, it rose to prominence via TikTok, where users filmed themselves miming to the song and suddenly cut to a new shot of them wearing a cowboy outfit when the beat kicked in … Why? Who knows. But its impact was huge. A remix of the song featuring Billy Ray Cyrus was released a month later, and by July, it had broken the record for the most consecutive weeks at No 1 on the US Billboard chart.
Bird Box Challenge
The film Bird Box premiered on Netflix in December 2018, its plot centring on a family making their way through a forest blindfolded. What followed was a prime example of people copying what they see on TV and filming themselves doing it. It began with everyday tasks being performed blindfolded, but, perhaps predictably, things got out of control. On January 7, a driver in Utah crashed into another car while blindfolded, and Netflix felt compelled to issue a statement urging people not to be stupid. "Just one wish for 2019, that you not end up in hospital due to memes," read the tweet.
Does It Spark Joy?
Japanese author Marie Kondo found herself with a hit TV show when her series, Tidying Up With … was broadcast on January 1. But it was the translation of the Japanese word tokimeku into the English phrase "spark joy" that would end up defining her brand. Does this object spark joy? No? Then get rid of it. It does? Then keep it. This simple delineation between good and bad, coupled with the memorable phrase, was like catnip to meme creators. Images would show Kondo as the ultimate arbiter of whether things either did or did not "spark joy", whether it was restaurant dishes or government policies.
World Record Egg
Socialite Kylie Jenner once held the world record for the most liked photograph on Instagram, a picture announcing the birth of her daughter Stormi. Her record was beaten 12 months later by a photograph of a brown egg. It was posted on January 4, with the caption, “Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram”, and within a month, it had reached its target. It eventually racked up more than three times Jenner’s like count, and in doing so, it became by far the most popular egg on the internet. Its potential was quickly noted by one online marketeer: “Being the first brand to crack out of the egg is worth at least $10 million.”
Someone Like You
The premise of this TikTok meme was simple: take a live version of Adele's song Someone Like You, film a single object while Adele is singing, then cut to several objects when Adele gets the crowd to join in. The original, featuring gummy bears, racked up 2.2 million likes on TikTok. Other versions feature shoes and iPhones, and for some reason, they're all strangely heart-warming.
Housewife versus cat
What happens when you combine a Real Housewife with a nonplussed cat? Viral gold.
This meme, which countless people have been adding their own text to, shows a woman screaming at a bemused cat sitting at a table behind a dinner plate.
The meme, which went viral this year after it was posted on Twitter, features former The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Taylor Armstrong during a meltdown in the second season, pointing and crying, while Kyle Richards hugs her. The cat was later identified as Smudge the Cat.