Reactions can be counterpunches and coping mechanisms. They can also be currency. Fans become quasi-celebrities for how they react to something a celebrity does online. On YouTube, entire careers have blossomed from how well a creator can react on camera. Internet fame is participatory. It is about content, but it’s also about the reactions that content elicits from fans and rivals, and how other people react to those reactions.
Which is all to say that reactions are one of the more significant developments of the Internet in the past decade-plus. Below are, in our perfect opinions, the most important viral reactions since the turn of the millennium.
A note on methodology: We focused on reactions that are primarily important to Internet culture, not to history or current events. (Jeb Bush reacting to an awkward campaign moment by asking his supporters to “please clap” would count, for example. However, it did not make the cut for this list). Also, old media artifacts (e.g., “Simpsons” clips) are in play to the extent they’ve been adapted to Internet language (e.g., GIFs).
Finally, the term “important” is obviously relative. In this case, it means some combination of popular, influential and meaningful — according to our own observations and instincts. If you disagree, fight me in the comments.
1) Michael Jackson eating popcorn (circa 2007)
“Popcorn” has become online shorthand for signifying that something is about to go down online — specifically, someone has kicked the wrong beehive and is about to get swarmed. And while there are many versions of this reaction, the GIF of Michael Jackson eagerly eating popcorn is the most ubiquitous (although in the waning days of 2019, Baby Yoda sipping a beverage has made a play for this throne).
“It manages to be broad enough to be adapted by a wide range of audiences,” says Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who studies online culture, “but specific enough to communicate a clear, yet still rhetorically complex, message.” That message? “Oh, this is gonna be good.”
This anticipation of a coming squall of Internet humiliation has, like many Internet things, become weaponized. Popcorn GIFs are used as the prelude to a rightful verbal beatdown online. But they take on a different meaning when “it’s a Nazi sitting back and waiting for the games to begin,” Phillips said. “But such is the Internet.”
2) “I don’t know her” (2001, circa 2010)
During a 2001 interview, a German journalist asked Mariah Carey to talk about Beyoncé, and Carey had plenty of kind things to say. Then, they asked about Jennifer Lopez. Carey’s response? “I don’t know her,” smiling and shaking her head.
Years later, Carey’s reaction became the go-to GIF for casual dismissal. Vanity Fair dubbed 2016 “The Summer of Not Knowing” as celebrity after celebrity took cues from Carey and publicly declared that they didn’t know other famous people as a way of boosting their own reputations.
Know Your Meme, a website that tracks and researches memes, traces the circulation of this GIF back to at least 2010, when it was popular on LiveJournal. It has since ascended into reaction immortality thanks to stan accounts, which use the GIF to disavow anything that dares to challenge their idols. Stan accounts, dedicated to a particularly obsessive sort of superfandom, are the self-appointed feudal lords of fandom. They wield power by speaking in the celebrity’s name (often without endorsement), growing followings of their own and influencing how fans feel about whatever exhausting drama is playing out in that celebrity’s universe. “I don’t know her” was their perfect weapon.
3) Supa Hot Fire (2011)
Unless you were on YouTube in 2011, Supa Hot Fire, a comedic character in a series of rap battle parodies on YouTube by MrDeshawnRaw, might not mean anything to you, but you’ve probably seen a GIF of him in action. Supa Hot Fire is the GIF that comes after the perfect virtual evisceration of someone who is being wrong/obnoxious online.
If the Michael Jackson popcorn GIF is a reaction to a common Internet feeling (bloodthirsty anticipation), Supa Hot Fire is a reaction to the feeling (gleeful schadenfreude) that made us crave “popcorn” in the first place.
4) Blinking Guy (2017)
Hi Internet! I'm Drew and THIS IS MY FACE.— Drew Scanlon (@drewscanlon) September 19, 2019
If this GIF has ever brought you joy in the past, I humbly ask you to consider making a donation to the National MS Society. It would mean a lot to me and to those I know affected by the disease!
Donate at https://t.co/vf6ItTacgR pic.twitter.com/VaFbgOKrV2
Blinking Guy is the white bread of reaction memes: overused, unavoidable and a little bland. It’s a kind of minimalist double take: a twitch, an involuntary shuttering of the eyelids. Is he alarmed, or amused?
Blinking Guy is Drew Scanlon, who at the time worked for Giant Bomb, a gaming website. He made the face in a 2013 video for Giant Bomb’s YouTube channel. One of the people in the video, playing Starbound, a game that (for some reason) involves farming, joked that he was “farming with my hoe” as he tilled soil. As Scanlon attempted to process the double-entendre, his eyes blinked, his face twitched, and a reaction meme was born — a minor one, at first, but in 2017, Blinking Guy was suddenly everywhere, blinking at crazy news stories, bad tweets and questionable group-chat messages.
5) “Kek” (circa 2005)
The Internet has a way of turning innocuous phrases and gestures into sinister ones. It helped turn the “okay” hand sign into a code for white racial solidarity. It transformed Pepe the Frog from a cartoon slacker into an alt-right mascot.
“Kek,” arguably, is the model of this pattern. It originated, innocently enough, with World of Warcraft, the online fantasy game: “Kek” was the Orcish word for “lol.” So when Horde players typed “lol” in the game’s chat window to players whose characters belong to the rival Alliance faction (which generally doesn’t speak Orcish in the game), the recipient saw “kek” instead.
Born from a translation quirk, “kek” now stands as a dark symbol of the mutability of language and meaning as words — and people — slip from one online community to another.
At first, using “kek” instead of “lol” on image boards like 4chan meant that you were online enough to get the joke. The site evolved “kek” into something of a joking meme mythology that is exhausting and pointless to explain in depth. The important thing to know is that, as 4chan evolved into a more explicitly extremist right-wing space, memes like “kek” came along for the ride. “Kekistan” flags, bearing a resemblance to a version of a Nazi German flag, were carried by some white nationalists in Charlottesville.
6) “This is fine” (2013, 2016)
Fire emerged as the elemental metaphor of the 2016 election cycle and everything that has come after, making fire-themed reaction GIFs a popular genre: Elmo gazing at the gods as fire burns behind him; a clip from the show “Community” where a smiling Donald Glover, carrying a stack of pizza boxes, walks through the door only to find the room engulfed in fiery chaos; and, of course, GIFs of actual dumpster fires. None of them capture that 2016-to-now feeling like the “This is fine” dog. Confining the fire to a dumpster was too optimistic. No, the flames were everywhere.
You’ve seen him: bowler hat, coffee mug, cheerful smile. The image of the dog comes from a two-panel excerpt from “Gunshow,” a webcomic by KC Green. The original strip from 2013 is six panels long and shows the “This is fine” dog slowly being consumed by the fire around him as he continues to believe everything’s going to be okay.
A dumpster fire evokes a nasty smell. Other fire GIFs evoke a shocking conflagration. But “This is fine” correctly places us in the middle of the flames, acting as if everything is normal.
7) Oprah “Yes” (2004)
During a 2004 episode of her show, Oprah Winfrey gave everyone in the audience a car. It was a beautifully engineered moment of television, as the audience ascended into joy and pandemonium when Winfrey revealed the surprise. Cameras flicked around the studio showing an audience of screaming and crying women. Oprah was pumped, jumping onstage and pointing to the crowd.
This scene has been distilled into a few GIFs, the most famous of which shows Winfrey spreading her hands wide and cheering. It has become a go-to reaction GIF, one that has likely appeared in every bachelorette-party group chat in history.
Oprah GIFs, including this one, have also become notable in recent years for prompting conversations about “digital blackface” in reaction GIFs — a conversation that applies to multiple entries on this list, depending on usage.
8) Kombucha Face (2019)
If you’re over 25, Brittany Tomlinson’s incredible reaction to trying kombucha for the first time might very well have been the first TikTok you ever watched. That alone makes it worthy of inclusion on this list, but Tomlinson’s reaction also gets in on the merits. The short video is an operatic journey: disgust, surprise, rejection, reconsideration. The cycle is perfect.
Kombucha Face is meaningful because it’s not just a reaction; it’s many reactions, in rapid succession. It’s a cluster bomb of human emotion that reflects the burden that the modern Internet puts on users as we scroll through content that is often hilarious then horrifying then thought-provoking then enraging then hilarious again. At the beginning of the decade, a viral reaction needed to convey merely one emotion well. Kombucha Face gave us a full set.
9) Double rainbow (2010)
Some reactions are not ours to emulate. We can only watch them and absorb their energy like light from a SAD lamp. At the beginning of the decade, Paul Vasquez blessed us with his filmed reaction to seeing a double rainbow.
“Double rainbow all the way across the sky,” Vasquez says at one point. It sounds like he’s beginning to weep. “What does this mean?” He went on: “It’s so bright. Oh my god. It’s so bright and vivid.”
Uploaded to YouTube in the early days of 2010, it went viral later that year when Jimmy Kimmel tweeted it out. The original video has more than 46 million views. Its impact goes much further, as Double Rainbow was remixed, memed and celebrated in one of the fullest and most joyful meme cycles the Internet has ever seen. It was an example of how viral moments very occasionally reinforce the idea that maybe we can have nice things, after all.
10) First (circa always and forever)
“First” is the alpha and omega of Internet reactions. People were writing “first” in message boards and mailing lists before the dawn of the current century, and they will be leaving it in TikTok comments, and whatever app comes after TikTok, until the end of time.
“First” simply means “I am the first to comment.” It is a way of announcing your presence while also demonstrating that you have nothing to contribute — like yelling “Freebird!” at a concert. It is a plague. In 1999, Fark, a news commentary board, futilely tried to stop its rise by trolling anyone who left it as a comment on the site. Its power only grew. Facebook is covered in “first” comments. YouTube comments are littered with “firsts” of varying degrees of irony.
Someone will comment “first” in the comments of this post. It will not be funny.
11) Crying Jordan (2012)
The Internet is powerful enough to transform a sports legend into an international symbol of failure. Behold Crying Jordan, the meme where you put Michael Jordan’s tear-streaked face onto anything losing or failing, which has become one of the most popular and persistent memes of the decade. Ironically, the image comes from a photograph taken on a day dedicated to Jordan’s lifetime of achievement: his 2009 induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Crying Jordan ascended to the highest reaches of government. In 2016, President Barack Obama gave Jordan the Medal of Freedom. In his speech, Obama joked that Jordan was “more than just an Internet meme.” Naturally, people on the Internet Photoshopped Crying Jordan onto images of Jordan’s face at the ceremony.
12) “And I oop” (2019)
The way in which a 2015 video by a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star became a 2019 meme associated with white teenage girls on TikTok is the perfect illustration of how meme culture works.
“And I oop” was the reaction drag queen Jasmine Masters had when, during a video rant, she hit a sensitive part of her body by accident, interrupting her train of thought. Masters is a pretty well-known personality among “Drag Race” fans and the wider LGBTQ+ Internet, which is more or less where the phrase stayed until spring 2019, when someone on Twitter used it to react to a tweet:
The video launched “And I oop” as a mainstream reaction meme, appropriate for any situation where you’re shocked into interrupting your own story with a bewildered reaction.
LGBTQ+ culture has long fed the language of online culture more broadly: “Yas” and “Yas queen,” popular stan reactions, come from 1980s ballroom culture in New York, from LGBTQ+ people of color. “Tea” and “shade,” which are now pretty much ubiquitous online, also come from drag.
“And I oop” followed a similar path. And thanks to the rise of TikTok, the phrase is now associated with VSCO girls, a particular subculture of teen girldom that is mostly white and straight.
13) Facepalm/headdesk (circa 2004)
Facepalm, like its companion headdesk, is a reaction that predates the rise of the reaction GIF, back in the ancient times when people used message boards to talk to each other and indicating a reaction meant typing out your actions in words.
An Urban Dictionary entry for facepalm, from 2004, describes the reaction as “the act of dropping one’s face / forehead into one’s hand. Usually accompanied by a ‘thunk’ or a cry of ‘D’oh!’ … Usually written between asterisks in online conversation, to demonstrate an action.”
Facepalm stayed relevant even as technology has empowered Internet users to show rather than tell when something makes them feel like joining their head and hands in a despairing gesture. What was once a word placed between asterisks became a GIF of Star Trek’s Jean Luc Picard.
14) “Deal with it” (2010)
“Deal with it” is a smug dismissal that probably originated on Something Awful, a message board that was once a major incubator of meme culture, before becoming more widely used in the early part of the decade. You can simply tell someone to “deal with it,” or you can use its visual equivalent: a pair of pixelated sunglasses, placed on top of a photograph of a person or animal of your choice to make them look smug.
It may be a spiritual descendant of “Sorry not sorry” from the 2000s or a niece of “talk to the hand” from the 1990s, but “deal with it” doesn’t even bother with insincere apologies or invitations. The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but once the sunglasses are on, the soul is closed for business.
15) The “like” (2009)
Facebook was not the first to introduce the concept of the “like” to the Internet. There already were “diggs” on Digg.com, upvotes on Reddit and likes on FriendFeed, a social media feed aggregator that was later acquired by Facebook.
But Facebook’s like, introduced in 2009, helped to change the Internet by quantifying what it means to go viral. (Instead of just being “popular online,” there was now a universally understood metric.) The like also helped drive the rise of online influencers and propel misinformation around the Internet. Online popularity now had a currency: If something or someone managed to accumulate a ton of likes, it was rewarded with prominence. Crucially, the like was not correlated with truth or accuracy or societal value. It was a unit of measurement for an emotional reaction. You got rich by provoking as big a reaction as you could.
Likes became so powerful that some sites, including Facebook-owned Instagram, are now figuring out ways to minimize their influence by hiding them from users. But undoing the effect of the like will not be a simple task. We will be untangling just what exactly it did to the Web, and to us, for a long time.
16) “What are thooooose!?” (2015)
“Officer, I got one question for you.” The off-camera voice belongs to Brandon Moore, a.k.a. Young Busco. He’s filming a police officer, who is standing on a curb by a patrol car. The officer looks over. Moore then tilts his camera lens up toward the sky, as if winding up for the punchline, before panning down to the officer’s chunky-soled black shoes and screaming, “What are thoooooooooose!?”
A version of the video went viral on Vine, where it was watched millions of times, remixed with the Jurassic Park theme song and repeated in real life to anyone with questionable shoe choices. With “What are thooooose!?” Moore (who died in 2018) showed how fun it can be to dunk on older folks with an idiom extracted from an Internet subculture. Before TikTok had “OK boomer,” Vine had “What are thooooose!?”
17) 😂 (2015)
Emoji have become part of our language. And one of the most popular among them is the “face with tears of joy” emoji, which was named Oxford Dictionaries’ “word of the year” in 2015.
Like any good emoji, “face with tears of joy” has multiple meanings and uses. It can be used to lighten an embarrassing moment or to acknowledge an extremely funny joke. “Face with tears of joy” can become an insult when deployed during an argument to show that your opponent’s point of view is so ridiculous that it’s making you laugh till you cry. It’s used as both a word and a punctuation mark.
18) Nope (2010)
“Nope” as a reaction began on Reddit, according to Know Your Meme, in the hallowed halls of r/WTF, where people post images that make you want to stop existing. “Nope” is a prayer for an eject button, a modern version of waving a crucifix at some unholy presence. You can “nope nope nope” away from a picture of a giant insect. You can nope out of a situation that has become a trap.
On other social platforms, “nope” has taken the form of a GIF of Homer Simpson disappearing backward into a hedge. There’s also the “nope octopus,” a little cephalopod scampering across the seafloor as if fleeing. There’s a Beyoncé nope, a SpongeBob nope — even a secondary “Simpsons” nope, in which Abe Simpson enters a burlesque house, takes off his hat, notices that his grandson is working the door, spins in a circle, collects his hat and walks right out the door again.
19) “Lol nothing matters” (2013)
The cheerful, spinning letters are a throwback to the Internet’s GeoCities days, when GIFs mainly existed to make your personal website ugly and chaotic. Now it’s the world that looks ugly and chaotic, and the nihilistic mantra “lol nothing matters” (rendered in that same Web 1.0 style) feels like a breath of fresh air.
“Lol nothing matters” captures the bleakness and joy of giving up, the feeling of panic and nervous laughter that you can’t hold back when you realize the viral story you shared with all your friends about a bride who stole $30,000 in donations from her wedding guests was just a marketing stunt for a “social media drama” website.
The GIF, created by Cat Frazier, was part of her Animated Text project on Tumblr (the project now lives on Twitter as well). In 2013, Gawker celebrated the GIF as the “GIF to end all GIFs,” the one GIF that was “an appropriate reaction to 99% of things one sees on the Internet."
20) “Delete your account” (2015)
Hillary Clinton tried to use memes when she was running for president. She succeeded once: In 2016, Clinton’s account quote-tweeted then-candidate Donald Trump and wrote, “Delete your account.”
“Delete your account” is the new “go fly a kite.” It’s a retort that means you’ve said something so dumb or bad that you should leave the room and maybe never come back.
Know Your Meme notes that “delete your account” probably goes back to at least 2008. But it became a major meme in 2015, when the New York Times’s Twitter account suggested putting peas in guacamole. People online met that suggestion with one of their own.
As of this writing, the New York Times still has an operational Twitter account, as does Donald Trump.
21) “We were all rooting for you” (2005)
At this point, reality TV exists basically to generate reaction memes. One of the most famous of those is Tyra Banks’s passionate criticism of a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model.”
“I was rooting for you,” Banks told Tiffany Richardson in a 2005 episode. “We were all rooting for you, how dare you.” The moment endured online as a GIF that can help you react when your fave becomes problematic or when someone has an incorrect opinion about pizza toppings.
22) PewDiePie playing Amnesia (2010)
This reaction doesn’t boil down to a specific moment, but it marked a turning point in the gaming industry and the career of the man who would become YouTube’s most popular creator: PewDiePie, a.k.a. Felix Kjellberg.
Back in 2010, he was a guy who filmed his reactions to playing scary games online — particularly Amnesia, a horror game where your player is pursued by powerful monsters, but cannot fight them and instead must run or hide.
PewDiePie was one of the early creators to find success off “let’s plays,” or videos where you can watch a gamer of varying skill play through a game and react to it. You wouldn’t have Ninja without YouTubers like PewDiePie and their talent for turning playing video games, and reacting to them, into popular content. Video game companies are now making games that are designed not only to be played, but also reacted to.
23) Squee (circa 2000-2005)
In online culture, a “squee” is an expression of joy, particularly in the fandoms of the early 2000s Internet. You “squeed” over the new Harry Potter book, over the fictional characters you “shipped,” over a particularly good piece of fan art.
When Oxford English Dictionary added the Internet version of “squee” in 2016, its lexicographers traced the origins of the word back to a 1998 Usenet post from an excited Star Wars fan. But it wasn’t until after the turn of the millennium that its popularity took off.
Like anything associated with how young women express themselves online, “squee” has been derided by many adults as cringe-y and silly. But regardless of how you feel about the word, “squee” and the fandoms that popularized it helped to shape the culture of the modern Internet.
24) “Leave Britney Alone” (2007)
Back in the mid-aughts, YouTube culture was rougher, weirder and more personal — less a platform for brand-building celebrities, more a sandbox for freewheeling fans. This was the environment in which teenager Chris Crocker posted a tearful video in which he asked the world to leave Britney (Spears) alone, after her lackluster performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.
At the time of the video, Crocker had a growing Myspace and YouTube following — one built, he later said, on his desire to be his true self on the Internet when he didn’t feel he could do this in real life. But the “Leave Britney Alone” video went as viral as Spears’s performance, resulting in an unprecedented amount of attention, during which, on and offline, his emotions, words and gender expression were ruthlessly mocked.
The attention cycle that followed Crocker’s infamous video is one that should also be familiar to us today. An audience, hungry for a person to destroy, turned a kid into a viral joke, with little regard for the pain and distress that becoming an online laughingstock can cause. Back in 2007, we had the excuse of newness to mitigate the enthusiasm of the cruel feeding frenzy. That excuse no longer exists.