The advice meme as we knew it (original characters captioned in Impact) is dead. But while the internet cultural vanguard moved on, a newer class of internet user, the well-connected mainstreamer, reinvented it. We live in the age of the post-meme.
So when did this…
become hotter than this?
From meme to post-meme
At their cultural pinnacle, advice memes mostly spread on 4chan and reddit (and some aggregation sites that stole from them). The two forum sites had been the twin towers of meme creation for years, inventing and spreading Rickrolling, LOLcats, and Rage Comics. But whether through an aging userbase, competition from sites like Tumblr and Twitter, or just the inevitably shifting sands of the internet, they haven’t birthed a dominant meme format in years. 4chan’s best memes now comment on their own disappearing relevance; reddit’s /r/adviceanimals is a quiet community that repurposes memes for personal storytelling. The “cool” part of the internet has largely abandoned the advice meme format, and now visual memes can take almost any form.
But over the past few years, the advice meme trickled down to the lower class of the internet: boomers, parents, late adopters, mainstreamers, and possibly the actual lower class. Their sense of style is less influenced by irony or tech design. They like jokes, not anti-jokes. And on Facebook pages like Shut Up I’m Still Talking, Words of Wisdom, Heart Touching Fun, Love This Pic, and Bringing Humor to Your Day With Love, they remake memes in their own image.
By the time it got popular, the traditional advice meme had settled into a standard format: An image, usually square, with two lines of text at top and bottom in the Impact typeface, white text with a black stroke. Older meme images were superimposed on a colored pinwheel backdrop, which eventually disappeared as new memes simply used an entire photo. Outside the occasional watermark, the look was clean. It was easy to recognize an advice meme.
The post-meme, however, is chaotic and creative. Type style, text length and layout vary wildly. Characters aren’t drawn from obscurity but chosen for immediate recognition by a mainstream adult audience. Watermarks are common, and crop jobs are sloppy.
The post-meme transformed the use of characters to represent emotions in memes. In “How Minions Destroyed the Internet,” Awl contributor Brian Feldman explains the difference between advice memes and “Minion memes”:
But Minions are not tied to any central emotion. They occupy an odd middle ground as a specific piece of intellectual property unbound from a specific feeling or worldview. Minions are sarcastic, honest, smarmy, snarky, playful, mean, and downright sour depending on the need… Minions are basically emoji.
Feldman is absolutely right about Minions. And they show up frequently in post-meme collections:
But they’re just one member of a recurring cast: Garfield, Betty Boop, Jeff Dunham’s puppet Walter, the cast of Looney Tunes (especially Tweety, Daffy, and Taz), and an occasional Donald Duck or Goofy. Some generic characters and abstract decoration round things out. These characters aren’t such blank slates as Minions, but they all combine a mild trickster personality with lovability.
This cast can’t be sorted by emotion. It seems almost any character can be used with almost any text. Even the character’s expression might not match the text’s tone. But the medium still has an identifiable range of expression, one even more specific than the traditional advice meme.
The taxonomy of the traditional advice meme lets us easily identify its core audience as young, nerdy middle-class straight white men. The most popular advice memes skew toward this group’s values.
For example, Scumbag Steve, Sheltering Suburban Mom, and Scumbag Stacy all interact with an implied young straight male. Scumbag Steve borrows money from him but doesn’t hit on them. Sheltering Suburban Mom parents him with racist and classist views. Scumbag Stacy withholds sex from him while slutting around with non-nerds. In Successful Black Man, the assumed-white reader is playfully teased for making racist assumptions about black men.
But Foul Bachelor Frog and Socially Awkward Penguin are presented as first-person characters for for the reader to identify with. FBF is decidedly male (he’s constantly told to “blast it with piss”), and SAP frequently “strikes out” with straight women.
Obviously, plenty of women, gay people, trans people, older adults, and children also made and read advice memes. But one viewpoint clearly dominated the format. Privilege denying dude was never as popular as Idiot Nerd Girl. (This sort of bias might be a major reason that the increasingly progressive vanguard of meme culture has abandoned the format.)
We can similarly analyze the post-meme to learn about its audience. But since it can’t be broken down by character, we have to piece out the themes manually.
Some are nearly universal, though with a lack of irony that excludes many “hip” or “alternative” subcultures. For example, declaration of sassy confidence:
Rebuke of enemies and time-wasters:
And pure human condition:
But post-memes also skew toward certain non-universal values, like reactionary politics:
Disappointment in kids today:
Self-deprecating body acceptance:
And invocation of Christ:
So we see a trend: Post-memes seem targeted at parents, Christians, and conservatives. Again, this is just the core audience. But many expressions are unexplored in post-memes. A Minion — or Garfield or Tweety or Snoopy — never means “I’m cooler than you.” It never supports the young against the old. It never seeks to upset the status quo. It is never sexual. And it is never truly weird.
Until it is.
The cool internet strikes back: the post-post-meme
Early image macros often laid a sense of irony and weirdness over pop culture (e.g., turning TV survivalist Bear Grylls into a running gag about drinking his own piss). When the post-meme became a separate pop culture phenomenon, it opened itself up to the very layer of irony it had stripped out.
The Facebook group Laughapalooza parodies a typical post-meme Facebook page, matching the style perfectly:
While some of the parodies are obvious, others (like the Taz and Minions examples above) could conceivably pass for real. The bar is very low for post-memes. The sentiment can be incredibly simple and banal. It can resemble, in fact, a piece of professional merchandise.
Postscript: Why the post-meme is really the pre-meme
So far I’ve treated the post-meme as an evolution of the advice meme. But the distinguishing characteristics — the visual variety, the multiple character emotions, and the mainstream palatability — link it to a pre-internet ancestor: cartoon merch.
The most recognizable is the Garfield poster. Sassier than insipid puppies or motivational bald eagles, Garfield posters strongly resemble post-memes:
When shared (often by tagging the image on Facebook), post-memes also replace greeting cards. Surprisingly, I’ve seen no post-meme use of Hallmark’s crabby old lady, Maxine.
Nor of the highly merchandized Dilbert, the appropriately seditious cubicle decoration:
Some memetic ancestors are more puerile, but still PG-rated, like unlicensed Calvin peeing decals:
Calvin notably resembles a true Dawkins-style meme: It was copied, iterated, and adapted to new meanings. And like advice memes and post-memes, its spread wasn’t overseen by a single authority.
This merch leans hard on the “benign” side of benign violation. The captions make a gesture toward irreverence that wouldn’t be unwelcome at a barbecue or a receptionist’s desk. They were created for people and situations that couldn’t tolerate more sophisticated or rebellious forms of expression. So why did the free-for-all internet adopt them?
Sure, some people just have bad taste. Out of all the options now available, they choose “Oh no, not another Monday!” But remember that the post-meme thrives best on Facebook, a social network that values decorum and common context over controversy and daring artistic statements. This space isn’t a free-for-all, it’s a gathering place for real-world friends, family, and co-workers. You can’t post Successful Black Guy without the risk of confusion, offense, and negative consequences. The banality of post-memes makes them appropriate for mass non-anonymous sharing, while the mild sass keeps the sharer’s soul from entirely shriveling under the judgmental stare of every friend they’ve ever made. Like a Garfield poster, it says, “I am an individual — but in a socially acceptable way.”