Memes are not just internet jokes, but a language we use to cope with the world.
Like good art, good memes communicate with the outside world, and they also communicate a message from the artist behind them. If you want to make a great meme—a meme that resonates on a viral level—there is a lot to take into account: your message, your images, your text, how images interact with your text, syntax, timing. With meme making, all the signifiers need to work together to amount to an incisive punch line.
Obviously, there is no specific formula, but their essence and outcome are identical. A meme is digitally Darwinian, a process of natural selection that can’t be forced into viral consciousness—which explains why meme creation is extremely difficult (and creating bad content is embarrassing).
I tried once, in an isolated moment, to create a good meme after I was inspired by this photo of Nicki Minaj sitting on a bed. Nicki posted this in December, and it made me LOL. (Her posture and mood is ripe for memory.) Some have tried, but I failed. I must have been disappointed in the final product, because I can find no trace of it on my phone. I used to think I had my finger on the pulse of the new new, but I can’t make a good meme to save my life.
Maybe that’s what was missing in my memes: too much attention to craft, muddled (or dishonest) intent. A quality meme is part subversive form of protest, part meticulously crafted digital house of cards. The nature of meme creation is a lot like making good art. (In fact, a good meme is and should be considered an art form.) @KA5SH, the rapper and memer behind the genius “IFW with the vision / let’s link and build” memes is determined to make people see them as such.
His art show “By Any Memes Necessary”—which opened in February at LA’s Junior High art gallery to lines that that curled around the block—explores the ways in which memes help people cope with trauma and how they teach empathy.
The show displayed work by some of your fave high-concept meme makers, like @sensualmemes and @gothshakira, who @KA5SH says are some of the founders and pioneers of the long-form intersectional feminist format. You’ve seen these memes before—smart, stream of consciousness blocks of text and image memes intended to raise awareness and cope with gender double standards, correcting white feminism and broke art fuckbois. Most images below the text are of women-identifying cartoon characters or celebrities. Latinx-identifying @gothshakira has said that she uses Latinx women like Shakira, Selena Gomez, and J-Lo in her memes deliberately, to encourage people from creating content that misrepresents cultures that are not their own.
Memes are often created in iPhone Notes or with third party InstaCollage apps; this rudimentary format has become part of the identifying aesthetic of a meme. But a meme is more than just its visual form. As American text artist Jenny Holzer put it in a 1997 interview in The New York Times, art becomes good when you “rely on the artist's representation” and realize that “he or she would have no reason to lie. A viewer with a combination of sensitivity and knowledge will perceive that something is art and is good. Time also helps.”
Timeliness, according to meme artist @gothshakira, is a critical component: “In order to make a good meme, it has to be relatable and it has to reference real life experience, but it also has to have its finger on the pulse of culture.” It can’t look forced. Following these rules might help elevate your meme making, but there is more to it than that.
I spoke to @KA5SH and @gothshakira, to see if they could take me through their meme-making process. They helped me put together this five-step “how to.” I followed it to try my hand at making (finally) a single meme of quality.
MEME MAKING 101 (with tips from @gothshakira and @KA5SH)
1. “Wait ’til your depression hits,” @KA5SH recommended. “Don’t drink water or leave the house. Cycle between the same three apps for hours without ever leaving your room.”
2. “Consume a lot of content. Like, stay on top of all current events, ever,” says @gothshakira. “Content is so ephemeral, people move on from things really, really fast. ”
3. “Create a fake account where you just post memes for practice.” - @gothshakira
4. “Start shitposting. Since you're on the internet for at least 15 hours a day, you've seen every meme, every reaction picture ever, and now nothing makes you laugh unless it's something absurd. To achieve that, you combine a couple formats and jokes. Maybe make a reference to a TV show only like eight people watched, like Frasier, and post about it for three days until everyone else just adjusts to it and thinks it's funny too.” - @KA5SH
5. “Do it ’cuz you love memes. Don’t do it for a lot of followers. Don’t thirst for internet fame. Honestly, I can tell when someone is forcing a meme. The (memes) I’ve worked really, really hard on never do as well as my spontaneous ones. I don’t know if that’s just me.” - @gothshakira
After spending way too much time on Twitter, I created a second Instagram account for a safe space to shitpost, and decided I’d use the “starter pack” format for my very first one. It seemed to me like a good place to start since they function as fill in then blanks for certain stereotypes. Starter kits have been around since as early as 2011 (here’s one from an animal humor site), but their most recent iterations are thought to have been started by Twitter user @ItsLadinaPlis, when she posted an “I date black guys” starter pack photo set of a woman’s giant top bun, a Monroe piercing, and thin silver hoop earrings.
Starter pack memes are highly shareable because their nuances exist within preconceived notions about people. It’s a bunch of content packed into one meme—the more items in the starter pack, the more specific one can be.
This meme was my very first trial, about people who didn’t watch Moonlight but still wanted it to win the Oscar. It was relatively well-received by my meme mentor @KA5SH: “This moonlight joint is fire as fuck.”
My second attempt at a starter pack, however, was not as impressive. “Trash,” @KA5SH told me. Its fatal flaw is probably obvious to you, the meme consumer. I tried too hard. Like I said, I began this exercise the day after the Oscar madness, right after Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announced the winner of best picture was La La Land and not Moonlight. I was really enjoying one video still of Warren Beatty looking desperately confused. So I decided I was going to meme it. My first mistake was using a screenshot that hadn’t already been circulating as a viral photo, and my second mistake was making a joke that only I would find funny.
@KA5SH dismissed all of them: “These (Oscar) ones are really bad.” Now I know. Unless you have a proven success rate, stick with an image that is already circulating as a meme, like this one of Denzel Washington looking unamused in the audience, and let whatever your message is exist around the known image. @gothshakira says she always starts with the thought, then finds the image.
On my fourth try, I channeled @sensualmemes and @gothshakira with my fave subgenre of meme—the long-form format. This one took a full thirty minutes. @KA5SH’s feedback on my attempt at aping greatness: “Stop using tfw bc that’s ugly and no one uses that. (This) feminist one would be good if you didn’t use tfw.” Who knew tfw was dead? @KA5SH the meme lord did.