Article Thumbnail

What Makes a Good Meme, According to the Editor of ‘Know Your Meme’

The man who chronicles how the internet laughs on Wojak, Quandale Dingle, Baneposting, and of course, r/Place

Don Caldwell has seen a lot of memes. Like, literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions of memes. To date, he’s edited and updated the descriptions for more than 50,000 individual memes during his decade-long tenure at Know Your Meme, and has uploaded over 30,000 memes to the site himself. He’s also the host of countless videos investigating the history, culture and meaning behind some of the internet’s most beloved trends.

For the past two years, Caldwell has manned the massive internet memes and viral phenomena archive as Know Your Meme’s editor-in-chief. He recently took some time to talk with me about his favorite memes over the years, the evolution of shitposting into an “internet sport” and, of course, the recent viral sensation that was Reddit’s r/Place

In your 12-plus years of contributing to Know Your Meme, has your criteria for what makes a “good meme” changed? 

We were much more restrictive on what was considered a “meme” in the earlier days of Know Your Meme. I definitely pushed to make the site operate on a wider definition of the term that encompasses more of viral internet culture. To that end, we’ve expanded coverage areas over the years and have entries on people, sites, events, subcultures and communities that have a significant online presence. People still tend to think of memes as just captioned images, which I sometimes find annoying.

One of our favorite realms of internet culture at MEL is shitposting. Hell, we have an entire newsletter dedicated to it. What’s your take on the shitpost situation? 

I’m personally a fan of shitpost memes and just dumb memes in general — shitposting is much more prevalent now and has evolved into a type of internet sport. In fact, people tend to see it as endearing, and it’s now an accepted part of the online culture.

I just really like intellectually profound stuff like “pee is stored in the balls.” They may seem low effort and immature, but that’s what I like about them. Right now, my favorite shitpost is probably Quandale Dingle, which is a meme that’s spread entirely because a screenshot was posted to Twitter showing this guy’s funny name on a login screen. That’s it. 

As an internet historian/anthropologist, what did you think of this year’s r/Place blow up on Reddit

r/Place is awesome, and I was thrilled they brought it back this year. The sheer number of communities that were able to band together to defend their pixel art sections of the canvas was actually kind of inspiring. 

Meme courtesy Know Your Meme
Meme courtesy Know Your Meme

This year’s r/Place definitely seemed to be way more centered around livestream and Discord communities. It exposed a desire for a centralized location for these groups to interact on, which I think Twitter serves as that location to some degree. But I’m also frequently told that my interest in Twitter is outsized since I work in media. 

Meme courtesy Know Your Meme

I’m personally interested in seeing what happens when VR gets better and has more adoption, because I honestly think town squares on platforms like VRChat might actually become a central hub for people to interact.

Meme courtesy Know Your Meme

Do you have a personal favorite, all-time meme you think is funny and good no matter how old or played out it is? 

I’m definitely impressed by how resilient Wojak has been. It’s absolutely incredible how long the character has been around and the number of forms it has morphed into. It became this lasting symbol for humanity in general. You could write an entire dissertation on the relationship between Pepe and Wojak, and they’ve cemented themselves as two of the most enduring memes in internet history.

I still think Baneposting is a great meme. It’s amazing to me that one dumb trailer from 2012 spawned so many memes that continue to circulate today. Loss is another that just won’t die — I still find clever hidden Loss references in memes to this day.

Oh, and I also like any memes with Nic Cage