Memes don’t come with rules. They morph and skew and catch fire and die according to no plan or path. This is what makes them a lingua franca of the internet: their anarchic, all-consuming applicability. Whenever we expect one to zig, somebody makes it zag. With every post, a meme obtains new valence and denies its original form, resurrected, but in a totally different manner.
There’s an exception, however. Being so chaotic, the meme universe was always bound to produce closed systems alongside open-ended themes. The most prominent is pegged to a familiar cycle: the Gregorian calendar. You’ve probably noticed there exists an entire class of memes that surface on appointed dates — holidays, anniversaries or occasions of synchronicity with pop culture. On October 3, you’ll see these images from the film Mean Girls, often accompanied by a firm instruction: “Today this is the only day you can post this,” or “You can only retweet this today.” The moment is sacrosanct.
There’s a level on which these tweets function as cheap magnets for nostalgic engagement, yet they also work as orienting points for a medium in which time moves weirdly. Two weeks ago can feel like a year back, and we’re gobsmacked when what we remember as 2016 actually happened in 2011. Like memes themselves, the flow of history seems relative when you’re swept along or becalmed in social media. The archivists who preserve these specific items keep us grounded in the seasons, reminding us how far we’ve made it around the sun and what to anticipate next.
There’s no clearer illustration of this principle than “It’s Gonna Be May,” a “misheard” lyric from ‘NSYNC’s hit single “It’s Gonna Be Me.” It reliably shows up in an image macro of Justin Timberlake every April 30 as we mark the new month. This year, the boy band is actually reuniting to celebrate the meme and unveil their Hollywood Walk of Fame star.
You can also be on the lookout for posts about April 25, the so-called “perfect date,” referring to the Sandra Bullock romcom Miss Congeniality. Then, on April 29, we shall observe the 10th anniversary of that photo in which pre-fame Bruno Mars looks surprised to see Pete Wentz, bassist of Fall Out Boy. Not long after, we’re due for a surge of Star Wars content thanks to May 4, as in “May the 4th be with you.” As I write this, my feeds are chock-full of very specialized content for the stoner holiday 4/20. Even when there’s no warning to abstain from posting this stuff in any other circumstance, there’s usually a nod to the duty or tradition of re-uploading it the instant it becomes appropriate again.
In this way, we craft our own set of high holy days — signposts we pass repeatedly as the internet changes drastically around them.
Naturally, there’s nothing preventing you from sharing 4/20 memes in November, or watching Miss Congeniality on Memorial Day Weekend. A friend might chide you for jumping the gun by posting “It’s Gonna Be May” on April 29, but not seriously. The apparent restrictions are part of the joke — because there’s no authority to enforce them, apart from your own self-discipline. Do you have what it takes to wait all year before sharing a meme at an ideal instant? This is the challenge and the reward. For if we manage to adhere to these customs, a part of memedom will forever stay arranged in this celestial dance, sure and true, undisturbed by passing viral fads and formulations. Where so much of what brings us joy on the web is ephemeral and quickly lost, these are permanently etched in memories, possessing the past and future alike.
Meanwhile, there’s no reason we can’t keep adding to this calendar. Plenty of days are wide open. July 10, shouldn’t that be something? What about the 28th of September? We could definitely relive the Great Llama Chase of 2015 each February, and the IKEA Monkey Incident between Thanksgiving and Christmas. After Trump’s pee tape finally drops, we’ll commemorate the hallowed date for decades to come. Whatever matters to you in this big dumb digitized world, it’s your job to keep it alive. Plant your flag and make it stick, and then we may find we’ve made a record of what it was like online.