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I RECENTLY achieved a personal milestone.
A Twitter thread I wrote was included in an article published by Know Your Meme, an online encyclopedia that has used wiki software to track the etymology of internet trends and memes since 2008.
I spend most of my day trying to keep up with said internet trends. So, Know Your Meme — with more than 25,000 meme entries and an active community of 2 million users — is one of my most-visited sites (that is, after ESPN and Guy Fieri’s online recipe book).
I’m not the only person who finds Know Your Meme useful: The site gets more than 20 million visits a month, while Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen calls it “the most important website in the world in 2022.”
Today, Know Your Meme primarily makes money through ads (web, video) and a research arm called Know Your Meme Insights. The next business opportunity is turning its large meme database and research expertise into a B2B SAAS tool, which launched under the KYM Insights brand a few months ago.
“Internet culture is becoming more important every year,” says Don Caldwell, Know Your Meme’s editor-in-chief. “KYM Insights provides meme literacy and helps brands inform their social media strategy.”
Caldwell explained to me the practical applications of meme literacy for brands or companies (other than making funny image macros):
• Life cycle: Memes and internet trends can burn out quickly. If you’re too early, no one will know about it. If you’re too late, your brand looks out of touch. Real-time analysis of social chatter can help provide the right entry point to join the conversation.
• Brand safety: When it comes to brands jumping on viral trends, caveat emptor! A meme’s originator or popular meaning could be antithetical to a brand’s identity (like Chick-fil-A — which previously courted controversy by donating to anti-LGBTQ groups — inadvertently engaging with the meme of a homophobic white dachshund).
If you want a tangible example of what happens when you misread meme culture, Caldwell points to Sony’s 2022 film Morbius. The comic movie starring Jared Leto was released in April and flopped at the box office. But the internet lit up with Morbius memes and Sony re-released the film in June.
“Virality doesn’t always translate into success,” says Caldwell. “The Morbius memes were about how bad the film was and how no one liked it.”
Sure enough, Morbius made a ludicrously bad $85,000 across 1,000 screens (yes, that’s $85 per screen) on the second go-round.
Meme literacy is only going to grow more important.
When Caldwell started with Know Your Meme in 2010, Facebook had about 600 million users. Now six social networks (Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, WeChat, and TikTok) have at least 1 billion users.
With so many online users, the speed of internet culture is lightning fast. And memes — whether a photoshopped image, funny video, or dance challenge — are the native unit of transmission: One Instagram study found that memes get shared seven times more than non-meme content.
Researching memes is a very fluid task, with different platforms claiming prominence in different years, per Caldwell: 2010 (4Chan), 2011 (YouTube), 2012 (Reddit), 2013 (Twitter), 2014 (Vine), 2015 (Tumblr), 2016 (Facebook Groups), 2017 (Instagram), and 2019 (TikTok).
Thanks to its extensive database and encyclopedic approach, Know Your Meme’s work has been included in the Library of Congress and is frequently cited by web researchers.
As a for-profit, Know Your Meme has a different structure than the world’s most famous online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, which is hosted by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation.
However, Caldwell maintains that “impartiality is super-important” for the brand.
“We cite sources for every factual claim,” Caldwell says of the Know Your Meme team, which has 17 full-time staff and dozens of volunteer moderators. “And we’re different from other wikis because you can’t edit entries without permission from moderators.”
In another use case for its impartial research prowess, Know Your Meme helped to verify the sale of non-fungible tokens for famous memes. The Insights team also put together a comprehensive report on the information warfare that took place early in the Ukraine-Russia conflict (from the perspective of memes, of course), tracking the origin and trajectory of “Monkey Putin,” “St. Javelin,” and “Stepan the Cat.”
Caldwell, who has a background in anthropology, wants people to still be using Know Your Meme a hundred years from now as a way to understand our current internet culture.
Are there drawbacks to this ambition? Last year, Ben Pettis from the University of Wisconsin-Madison argued that “overreliance on KYM as an authority on memes and their history can contribute to the homogenization of Web histories,” potentially obscuring or downplaying a given meme’s connections to harmful ideologies, for instance.
There are other places that host a library of memes (Imgflp, Me.Me, 9Gag, Giphy, Imgur, etc.) but without the deep historical analysis. The need for more meme literacy likely means more meme documentarians are required.
And it just so happens that I have another perfect tweet that requires an encyclopedic treatment:
“We’re called Kan Opnr, a smart hardware company disrupting the $10 trillion global food industry.” pic.twitter.com/bVbN4rHZtj
— Trung Phan (@TrungTPhan) April 27, 2021