The Meta 10 Year Challenge
Comparing Image Macros to Today’s Meme Culture
Hot out of the gate, the #10YearChallenge meme gained significant traction, arguably establishing itself as the first big meme of 2019.
Originating as an age comparison, the 10 Year Challenge grew into a widely adopted format allowing participants to juxtapose two versions of themselves over a decade’s span. With the 10 Year Challenge, what started with appearances quickly evolved into observations of larger subjects such as the change in lifestyles and abstract concepts — some light-hearted, some serious.
With its notable energy and rapid spread, the 10 Year Challenge offers another subject worthy of analysis: how this particular meme encapsulates many of the key components of mainstream memes today. By using image macro memes as a baseline comparison, we can observe how meme culture has evolved over time. Let’s unpack these elements to see how far we’ve come.
First is participation. While all memes intrinsically denote participation and remix, one’s personal involvement has come quite a way. With image macros, participation meant simply editing text. Today, memes invite more significant action such as sourcing materials or friends, or even documenting oneself engaging with the meme. Here, rather than just transmitting an image, one inserts themselves in the content before sharing, blending our physical worlds with those online. Examples like The Ice Bucket, Mannequin, and Condom Drop Challenge, incorporate props or require others to assist in its completion. With the 10 Year Challenge, although the format doesn’t demand physical props, one still provides multiple photos — often of themselves, ultimately allowing the uploader to substantially participate and embody the meme.
Another key element of today’s popular memes is format flexibility. With image macros, the template and character were critical components to the resulting statement. But the replacement of text simply built off of the established joke: Brian is always down on his luck, or Steve is always a scumbag. Despite amendments, iterations remain near identical to previous versions due to the rigidity of the structure. However, today’s formats leave room for more considerable control as many adopt the labeling format: Distracted Boyfriend and Trumpet Boy, or more intricate multi-plane exploitable comics: American Chopper Argument or Expanding Brain. These vacant templates invite exponentially more potential statements and creative ability. Considering the 10 Year Challenge format, with minimal and mild guidelines, the quantity and types of expression are magnitudes larger than days’ past.
So with this increased freedom of expression, the barriers have lowered — with those once on the outside of meme culture, now joining more easily and frequently. With image macros, both the participant and audience had to first understand the context and nuances of each particular character: The Freshman is cluelessly cocky, but The Senior is carelessly cocky. This prevented many in the mainstream from participating. However, many of today’s formats need no introduction. Krusty Krab vs. Chum Bucket labeling or Gritty are more universal concepts, requiring substantially less education before engaging. The 10 Year Challenge doesn’t even demand a caption it’s so universal. The photo comparison speaks for itself, and because of this, allows politicians, brands and even government agencies to participate.
The last element of the 10 Year Challenge which represents today’s state of meme culture is its grave nature. While not all iterations of the 10 Year Challenge were heavy, a notable percentage was. Some of the most widely covered posts of the 10 Year Challenge addressed our environment. By comparing the state of our glaciers, deforestation and coral reefs, this meme ushered in commentary about quite serious matters. While image macros were more narrow-sighted, focusing on just landing a joke, today’s memes are more frequently remarking on deep human issues such as mental health or climate change. Even more so, they are being used for anti-social matters such as spreading hate or misinformation. The evolution of today’s memes, from levity to gravity, illustrates how culture has adopted meme formats as another tool to push cultural agendas.
We can look back and wince at how we’ve taken passive silliness like up-voting an image to engaging in dangerous activities like accidentally crashing cars in the BirdBox Challenge.
However, optimism should remain when considering the fact that the elements of today’s memes can be assembled for significant good. When we blend today’s elements: participation, flexibility, inclusion, and seriousness, we can begin to envision outcomes like many coming together to take action upon pressing issues plaguing society. The most remarkable part? We’re already beginning to witness this next evolution. With marches, protests, and walkouts occurring around the world, internet memes have become an invitation for change. Meme culture has matured quite unbelievably over the last 10 years, leading us to believe it only more ways to go with its impact on society.