Can you believe that it was only this summer when Baby Gronk rizzed up Livvy Dunne? Sometimes, the internet’s most viral memes may seem entirely incomprehensible (like when Baby Gronk rizzed up Livvy Dunne), but the things that captivate our attention online matter. We saw a submarine of billionaires disappear before our very eyes, refreshed our X (not Twitter!?) feeds waiting to see the first ever presidential mugshot and probably got fooled into thinking some AI-generated images were legit. These trends give us a sneak peek into what we can expect in the future: We must joke our way through unprecedented political events, triple-check everything we see in case it’s an AI hoax and, sometimes, just take a moment to laugh at how bad a 10-minute ukulele video is. Behold: your year in memes.
AI image generator Midjourney opened access to the Midjourney 5 model in March, and almost immediately, its hyper-realistic outputs went viral. One Redditor named Pablo Xavier decided to see what it would look like if Pope Francis II was a Balenciaga model, and sure enough, the Pope looked amazing. The internet loved it. Even Chrissy Teigen thought it was real.
Things quickly got more serious. Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, created a series of believable images that showed Donald Trump resisting arrest and sprinting away from a squad of police officers. His initial posts in a Twitter thread made it clear that these images were not real, but because this is the internet, the images eventually started spreading without any context, and of course, some people believed they were real.
There weren’t really serious consequences from that brief bout of misinformation (aside from the consequence inherent in misinformation, always), but the incident is a harbinger of what’s to come.
When generative AI single-handedly causes the biggest election scandal since Hillary’s emails, we will look back at 2023 and remember how innocent we were. The Pope had drip.
Trump might not have gotten himself into a foot race across Manhattan with an armed guard, as some AI-generated images may have suggested, but he did get himself a mugshot. The former president’s fourth indictment was different from the previous three, and not just because Trump now had enough indictments that if they were people, they could play a rousing match of doubles tennis. The state election racketeering charge required Trump and his confidants like Rudy Giuliani to be processed at Georgia’s Fulton County Jail, just like anyone else. So, for the first time in history, we got a presidential mugshot.
And let’s thank our lucky stars that this historic moment happened to a president who lives in the age of the internet. Online, it felt like everyone was waiting with bated breath for Trump’s mugshot to hit the wire, and before the official image was published, there were loads of fakes circulating the web. But the real mugshot is so strangely lit that it almost looks yassified.
“I can pretty well guarantee that whatever camera they have to take mugshots was probably purchased at like, a Radio Shack circa 2007,” TikToker Kirby Alice said in a video, days before Trump turned himself in. “It might be in the back of a closet suffering heat damage in Georgia right now, and it is about to take one of the most important images in American history.”
What was weird about Trump’s mugshot, though, is that it seemed to be a universally galvanizing moment for both sides of the aisle. Democrats paraded the photo around as proof of their party’s moral high ground; meanwhile, Trump’s own campaign started selling merch with the mugshot to fundraise. Trump tweeted for the first time since his permaban (and then unceremonious ban reversal, under Elon Musk), just to promote his mugshot merch. What a day that was.
While we’re on the topic of politicians copying the content creator playbook… We have to talk about George Santos. If you haven’t been following along, let’s just say that the recently expelled congressman’s Wikipedia page has a “False biographical statements” section. It is more than 9,000 words long. And he’s also been charged with 23 felonies.
By the end of 2023, Santos has become — as my colleague Morgan Sung put it — “a certified grifter and unlikely gay icon.” He started making videos on Cameo, where he currently charges $500 a pop. He agreed to an interview with Ziwe, a YouTuber known for her funny, yet probing interviews. For what it’s worth, he did say that he could beat any member of Congress in a lip sync battle, and that his song of choice would be Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” and honestly, I don’t totally disagree with him there.
Slate’s Scott Nover explains the phenomenon perfectly: “You might be thinking, Oh brother. What a grift! Classic Santos. But you’d be wrong. This is quite possibly the only griftless exploit of Santos’ storied career. This is just how internet fame works now. The erstwhile congressman is just cashing in while he still can.”
All aboard the toxic gossip train! After perhaps the most disastrous internet moment of the year, we can never look at a ukulele the same way again.
Over the summer, fans came forward with allegations that Colleen Ballinger, the YouTuber behind Miranda Sings, had groomed them when they were minors. More fans continued to come forward with similar stories, and after remaining silent for weeks, Ballinger finally responded with a 10-minute YouTube apology. In song. She plays ukulele and sings a song about the “toxic gossip train” for 10 whole minutes.
“My team has strongly advised me not to say what I want to say,” Ballinger says while strumming the ukulele. “But I recently realized that they never said I couldn’t sing what I want to say.”
Obviously, this did not go over well. YouTube apologies almost never work as planned, but this apology was so unbelievable that even people who never saw a Miranda Sings video were following along with the drama.
To Ballinger’s own detriment, the song is very catchy. She is a good musician and singer, which is why she amassed over 10 million YouTube subscribers on the Miranda Sings channel in the first place. But because it’s so catchy, this song has continued to live rent free in many of our heads for the last five months. We can’t forget about it, even if we want to.
As good as the ukulele memes were, the takeaway from this moment isn’t that you should never apologize for anything while playing a ukulele. It’s another piece of evidence that cancel culture is kind of a myth. Ballinger is back at her vlogging again, people are watching it and she’s possibly making about five figures per month in YouTube ad revenue, based on estimates from Viewstats and Social Blade. Go figure.
In a policy change that definitely has caused no issues with misinformation, Elon Musk killed off Twitter’s legacy blue check marks. While these symbols once denoted that someone was a notable figure, therefore preventing easy impersonation, now they signal that you paid $8 a month to Twitter. Musk originally said this change would take effect on April 1, or April Fools’ Day, but the real joke, I guess, was that he waited until 4/20.
Twitter launched its verification system in 2009 to shield public figures from impersonation. One user pretended to be former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who then sued the three-year-old company. Thus, the blue check was born. And 14 years later, after the blue check expanded as a universal symbol on other platforms like Instagram, the blue check died.
Things kind of came full circle. The blue check was created because celebrities were being impersonated, but after Musk changed the rules, celebrities didn’t want to pay up. It wasn’t about the $8 for them, but the principle. A range of public figures like LeBron James, Jason Alexander, Monica Lewinsky and William Shatner all weighed in to say they wouldn’t be buying a blue check. Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback, wrote about paying for the blue check: “Can’t bro i got kids…” Mahomes makes more than $50 million each year.
For particularly large accounts, Twitter started doling out blue checks anyway, but this made some celebrities come out and declare that they would not stoop so low as to pay Elon Musk $8. Lil Nas X wrote, “on my soul i didn’t pay for twitter blue, u will feel my wrath tesla man!”
Now, Twitter (or X) remains a wild west, where some people are even using scripts that block any blue check on demand. This is fine!
Henry Kissinger death memes
Every time a beloved celebrity dies, you’ll probably see someone post a meme of Death playing a crane game, and Death says, “Is Henry Kissinger even in here?”
The former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger died at age 100 in November, and it was kind of like a holiday on certain corners of the internet. It’s hard to quantify the amount of devastation in the world that Kissinger is at least somewhat responsible for, but Yale history professor Greg Grandin estimates that Kissinger’s actions led to at least 3 million deaths across countries like Laos, Cambodia, East Timor, Argentina, Chile, Bangladesh and more. As food journalist Anthony Bourdain famously wrote, “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.”
While there are many vile characters in history, Gen Z and millennial internet folks became hyper-fixated on the impending death of Henry Kissinger. There was an X account called “Is Henry Kissinger Dead Yet?”, which would just tweet every so often with messages like “no,” “nope,” not yet” and “nah.” Finally, whoever runs the account got to post, “YES,” which of course became a viral post with over 22 million views.
After Kissinger’s passing, the owner of the X account turned over ownership — and its 41,000 followers — to Legacies of War, a group that raises awareness about the impact of the U.S.’s Vietnam-era bombings in Southeast Asia. These bombings were led by Kissinger under President Nixon’s administration. Legacies of War says it is raising money to fund the removal of unexploded ordinances (UXOs), or undetonated land mines, which is part of a significant, decades-long effort spearheaded by numerous NGOs in the region. It’s estimated that there are still 80 million UXOs in Laos alone, a relic of Kissinger-era bombings.
While the resolution of that particular meme page’s story is quite touching, other online reactions were more absurd than anything.
People also congregated in the comments of a YouTube video from five years ago called “Crab Rave.” It’s an electronic song with a bunch of 3D animations of crabs dancing, and I don’t know who made the rules, but thousands of people knew that this was the hottest club on the internet to acknowledge Kissinger’s passing. Just look at the top comments. Why are they all about Kissinger? I truly couldn’t tell you.
Thankfully, the journalist Mark Yarm has at least some answers for us. In a piece he wrote for The Washington Post, Yarm interviewed Tulane PhD candidate and meme researcher Alex Turvy about why young people cared so much about a political figure who was out of power by the time they were born.
“Kissinger’s firm refusal to die represents something bigger to people, like that there are evil forces bigger than you that you don’t have power over,” said Turvy. “And the memes are a way of sort of releasing some of that pent-up energy.”
Also, never forget: Henry Kissinger invested in Theranos.
OceanGate (and MrBeast)
There’s really no intelligent takeaway here. I just think we need to acknowledge when five rich guys went on a submersible “mission” to see the ruins of the Titanic, and then the submersible imploded, and not only was that whole story kind of insane, but then somehow — like everything on the internet — MrBeast made it more extreme. The YouTuber posted on X saying, “I was invited earlier this month to ride the titanic submarine, I said no. Kind of scary that I could have been on it.” The post was accompanied by a screenshot of a text inviting MrBeast along, but for some reason, the text was a blue iMessage, which means he himself sent it? When people asked about this, he said it was a screenshot someone sent him or something, but I just… what?