The Atlantic

A Unified Theory of Meme Death

Why do some memes last longer than others? Are they just funnier? Better?
Source: leolintang / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Memes aren’t built to last. This is an accepted fact of online life. Some of our most beloved cultural objects are not only ephemeral but transmitted around the world at high speed before the close of business. Memes sprout from the ether (or so it seems). They charm and amuse us. They sicken and annoy us. They bore us. They linger for a while on Facebook and then they die—or rather retreat back into the cybernetic ooze unless called upon again.

The constancy of this narrative may be observed in any number of internet memes in recent memory, from the incredibly short-lived (Damn Daniel, Dat Boi, Salt Bae, queer Babadook) to the ones seemingly too perfect to ever perish like Harambe the gorilla and Crying Jordan. The recent “Disloyal Man Walking With His Girlfriend and Looking Amazed at Another Seductive Girl,” the title of the stock image shot by photographer Antonio Guillem, just made the rounds a few months ago.

At a glance—even from a digital native—meme death seems like a much less mysterious phenomenon than meme birth. While tracing the origin of any individual meme requires a separate trip down the rabbit hole, it makes sense to assume that memes die because people get tired of them. Even as a concept such as “average attention span” is to psychologists who study attention (different tasks require different ), there’s a general assumption that this number is shrinking. “Everybody knows” a generation raised on feeds and apps must have focus issues, and that assessment isn’t totally false. Our devices are “engineered to chip away at [our] concentration” in what’s called the “attention economy,” Bianca Bosker in , and apps such as Twitter for the next big thing in news, pop culture, or memes. Our overextended attention leads to an obvious explanation for meme death: We are so overstimulated that what brings us joy cannot even hold our focus for long. But is that really why memes die?

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