This is part of an occasional series in which we explain what’s behind a popular meme. We like to call it memesplaining; you might call it meme-ruining. Regardless, if you just chanced upon a joke, tweet, image, app or GIF you don’t understand, we have the answers — insofar as answers can be had.
The meme: The first meme of the decade
On the Internet, as in life, people insist that being first matters, even when it doesn’t. Typing “first” as the first comment on a post was one of the forever memes of the Internet. It didn’t mean anything — except maybe that time was still moving forward, content was still being created and people were still eager to remind whomever might be paying attention that they existed and deserved credit for something.
The first memes of the decade probably happened while it was still 2019 in most of the world. A Reddit post on the r/memes subreddit claimed the honor, earning more than 120,000 upvotes as the sun came up on 2020.
It’s a “Joker” meme, of course, in which “All the Americans, Australians, and Europeans trying to post the 1st Meme of the Decade" are hit by a car driven by u/Dr_K07, a resident of Samoa. In 2011, the nation of Samoa hopped across the international date line by skipping an entire day. Now, it’s one of the first places on Earth to celebrate each new year (the territory of American Samoa remains on the other side of the date line).
There you have it: The first meme of the decade is about being the first meme of the decade, anticipating the first meme of the decade, and dreading the inevitability of getting sick of and hating the first meme of the decade.
But what was the first viral meme of the decade, and who is fit to decide? One surprising contender: Pope Francis, who extracted himself from the grip of an admirer who wouldn’t let go by slapping her hand. (He later apologized for it.)
There’s also a weird meme going around claiming Nickelodeon is going to redesign SpongeBob to look human for 2020 (they’re … not). Despite some tweets decrying it as a bad first meme of the year, the SpongeBob rumor appears to be based on old content that resurfaced in late 2019 as a minor YouTube meme.
Over on r/MemeEconomy (where memes are treated like stocks), users are jokingly trying to “invest” in the first memes of the decade. Or, in this case, identify the entire meme calendar for 2020 — which is itself a throwback to a similar joke from last year about how the seemingly random tides of meme culture have a distinct visual feel that makes future memes easier to foresee than you might think.
How it began
Memes may not be preordained, but this one is more predictable than most. The first meme of the year being about the first meme of the year is kind of a ritual. In 2015, for instance, when Tumblr was at its cultural peak, debating the first meme of 2015 was the first Tumblr meme of 2015.
The life span of the First-Meme-of-the-Year-is-the-first-meme-of-the-year meme is inherently brief: It lasts only in the small window of time during which there isn’t a real first meme of the year to overtake it.
It’s also a way of winking at the fact that the first meme of the year often isn’t great. Some of the first memes of 2018 were: eating Tide Pods, the Ugandan Knuckles meme (which relied on racist stereotypes), and a YouTuber who vlogged a dead body in Japan.
Why does this happen?
There’s always gotta be content online. So when there’s not really a meme to be the first meme of the year, the absence of content becomes the content.
How to use it as if you know what you are doing
Do not use this meme; it is already too late.
Please, I don’t want to start the new year thinking about the void. Is there something smart I can say about this meme?
One of the things the “first meme of the year” meme demonstrates really well is that Internet culture is somewhat unexpectedly traditional in how it relates to itself.
In 2014, according to Know Your Meme, Tumblr users began tracking the “meme of the month,” which basically meant figuring out which meme from that past month most defined the culture on that site Although Tumblr’s influence on the broader Internet culture has since waned, the idea that we are all experiencing “online” together has not, even if that’s not entirely true.
Here’s the good news: You don’t have to participate in this meme. Being first doesn’t count for anything, after all, and there are plenty of more tangible ways to confirm that time is still marching forward and that you are still here.