“I AM A GAMER. Not because I don’t have a life. But because I choose to have many,” reads the caption. Below, some erstwhile 14-year-old has photoshopped the protagonists from his favorite video games into a neat row. There is Link from The Legend of Zelda, Commander Shepard from Mass Effect and Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid. The edges have been brutally resized and upscaled countless times in order to fit into the derelict Myspace pages of yore. There are a few ghostly watermarks embossed in the darkness that reveal the amateur nature of the craft, and the artist himself has left his own leetspeak signature, “al3xc0j893,” in the corner — ensuring that all the fossilized reblogs will forever pay respect.
This prehistoric meme from a decade ago likely would’ve been forgotten entirely if not for the hard work of @AncientMemes, a Twitter account that’s dutifully resuscitating thousands of bygone image macros that litter the bedrock of the internet. One by one, the detritus of Tumblr, Reddit and pre-Trump 4Chan are dredged up from the abyss, and injected into our lives once again. As such, “I AM A GAMER” is finally having its day in the sun, earning 17,000 likes and an additional 1,000 retweets, as the greater posting community is again reminded of the way we once were.
To that end, @AncientMemes is a runaway success. The owner, who asks to remain anonymous, says he started it in the first week of January, and since then he’s racked up over 500,000 followers. He specializes in a very specific archetype of web culture — relics sourced from between 2007 and 2013, which radiate with a furtive, dorky earnestness that we’ve long shed in the modern era.
Scroll through the feed, and you’ll see what I mean. Traditional topics include the exoneration of gamers, the badassness of Chuck Norris, the operatic evils of Justin Bieber and the artistic superiority of Slipknot. If @AncientMemes does its job right, you’ll be left with an indescribable melding of gut-wrenching cringe and intense, knee-buckling ennui — like Jack at the airport, delirious, desperately trying to get back to the island.
@AncientMemes isn’t the only one on this corner either. Recently, there’s been a boom of throwback accounts that attempt to breathe fresh life into the various calcified posting norms of yesteryear. No Context 2000s Web combs through the dusty coffers of deserted Flash cartoons, forcing aging thirtysomethings to consider how long ago it was when they first cued up the Hamsterdance on a 56k modem. Heritage Posts is one of the dwindling few Tumblrs left fighting the good fight, and it dutifully regurgitates the winsome Rage Comics and Vampire Diaries GIFs of 2011. We’re living in the midst of a golden age of shitposting — idiot savants like @dril remain at the top of their game — and yet, the culture finds itself gravitating toward the same content that innervated us as scrupulous college kids. Who needs the rough edges of the modern web when we could instead get lost in a warm memory composed of eternal hot dog/sandwich debates?
The origins of this renaissance remain unclear. Maybe nostalgia is a binding enough emotional force that even very recent history — like, say, a “Gangnam Style” meme from 2012 — carries enough resonant pensiveness to warp us all back to a very specific time and place (college dorm room, silver MacBook, three different Gchat tabs open). That doesn’t explain why we’re capable of associating an aura of bygone wistfulness to this ephemera, but I think it has something to do with the unique fulcrum that millennials inherited. Yes, an account like @AncientMemes is an accurate reflection of teen culture in the late 2000s, but it also represents the first moment that the global youth first explored social media’s unfettered frontier. Here was this empty void, just waiting to be filled up with Chuck Norris jokes.
Ryan Broderick, who writes about the internet in his newsletter Garbage Day, tells me that looking at old memes evokes a sensation similar to rummaging through a baby box and staring at the drawings you made in preschool. They’re crude, funny and a little bit cringey, but if you squint, you’ll start to see the throughlines to the person you know yourself to be today.
“I feel like we’ve finally gotten enough distance from the web culture of the early 2010s that we can really appraise it,” says Broderick. “The memes from early Reddit feel really in conversation with what we do now. We’re so far away from them, but also, in a sense, we’re still doing the exact kind of things. Doomer comics are rage comics, political compass memes are advice animals, out-of-touch older people are tweeting out TikToks instead of Vines. We really haven’t evolved very far from where we were 10 years ago.”
Broderick, like me, has a bittersweet relationship with an entity like @AncientMemes. Only a fool would say that the internet was superior, and that the memes were better, in 2011 than they are in 2021. All of the manifold problems with social media were still around in the Digg era, they’ve only been magnified more as the margins expanded. But that’s also kind of the point. These throwback accounts are honoring an epoch where it was actually possible to Log Off — a land before smartphone optimization, and a network of interlocking apps and the ability to log-in to your food delivery service through your Twitter account. Once upon a time, it was possible to outrun the internet.
This point is further illuminated by Brian Feldman, who writes the excellent newsletter BNet. To him, it isn’t so much the composition of these memes that send him on the trip, as much as the way he remembers consuming them. “I was posting links in IRC, embedding the image on a video game bulletin board or sending it to the listserv. A decade ago, aggregators like Reddit and the Cheezburger sites were actually the last place these image macros went before they died,” he says. “A lot of the sharing a decade ago was on dark social, in smaller communities, where there wasn’t any sort of algorithmic or commercial incentive to make a viral post.”
That context, argues Feldman, imbues these obsolete memes with a different spirit compared to what we scroll through today. One of the most fascinating things about @AncientMemes is how all of the rejuvenated content is entirely authorless. They aren’t being plucked from millions-strong Instagram pages, or the warchests of clout-heavy Twitter comedians. No, they’re just nameless image macros hanging in the void, which is exactly what they were always intended to be. There’s purity in crafting a meme with no potential for retweets or hardcover Urban Outfitters books.
Of course, social media has now shaped itself into an endless incentive apparatus. Virality is more trackable and monetizable now, and those peaceful, hustle-free memes have fallen by the wayside. Now, every tweet might be the one. Maybe we were happier when it was a lot harder to become famous online.
“The internet just wasn’t a thing you were tapped into all day,” says Feldman. “So people made image macros like that to be declarative and unironic, or clearly ironic, because it wasn’t really to start a conversation on social media, but rather to make yourself known in succinct terms. You couldn’t follow up an image macro with an additional comment or image, you had to get it all out in one. It’s a different form of posting requiring a different mindset.”
Sometimes I wonder if the internet might endure some massive contraction in the future — a great Log-Offing — as all of us, traumatized by the chronic social surveillance and beleaguered from the indentured posting schedule, decide that we want to recreate a web that we can mostly ignore. We could pick up our cloying Advice Animals once more, and permanently expel the instincts of cringe and cynicism from our bodies. That’s my gut reaction whenever I end up back at @AncientMemes; if they ever develop a brain surgery that makes me laugh my ass off at Long Cat again, I will be first in line.
But Feldman believes that if you look in the right places, the Spirit of 2010 is alive and well. There is no need for a lobotomy, or a suite of nostalgia accounts, to enjoy the fruits of sincere, heartfelt memes. Internet culture has certainly changed, but people have largely remained the same. “To me, using a Rage Comic to express a personal anecdote isn’t far removed from using a TikTok soundbite to do the same,” he says.
Every meme will eventually become outmoded, and be imbued with a misplaced lost innocence by crisis-laden former young people, but some of the core tenets of posting will never, ever change. I don’t know why, but that’s a relief to me. “Everyone’s still sharing the same types of barely interesting shit they’ve always shared on the internet,” finishes Feldman. “There are just more, and more complex, tools for expression.”