I write a lot about memes—the phenomenon, writ large. So it caught me off guard last week when, scrolling through Instagram, I found myself barred from the very thing I was reporting on. Major meme accounts were suddenly private, and left my follow requests dangling—for days and days. I was reduced to trawling through the accounts’ public(!) Facebook pages, wondering if these were even the same memes.
I’ve rarely felt more out of the loop—which is to say, like an Old—until I took to Twitter and saw hundreds of Youths rallying against the privacy cause, tweeting things like “Private meme accounts ruin friendships.”
Large meme accounts are joining a wave of other influencers by switching their Instagram accounts to private—with accounts boasting multimillion follower counts, like Pubity and Shithead Steve, leading the way. On the surface, the trend is a form of simple Instagram gamesmanship: unfollowing a locked account takes two taps instead of just one (just slightly more effort than the average follower can spare); others become more inclined to follow if it feels like they’re joining a secret club; and having a follower count that directly reflects your sphere of influence is a boon in an industry constantly hunting for measurable influence.
But we’re talking about memes here, the bizarre and beloved spawn of the open internet. The web has come to expect this follower-grabbing theater from internet personalities. "Down with the haters. I’m switching to private in 24 hours!" Nevertheless to someone steeped in the internet, asking for permission to view a meme feels like asking for permission to drink at a public water fountain. And, as reported by The Atlantic, many meme fans (and the influencers behind public meme accounts) are deeply annoyed, especially since there’s nothing to stop approved users from screenshotting and spreading the meme anyway.
It’s not just fear of screenshotting, though, that’s driving meme makers to clamp down their accounts—it’s the changing dynamics of the internet economy that compel the most successful users to lock their content behind closed doors. While that doesn’t exactly change your Instagram feed, it changes the meaning of memes.
To someone steeped in the internet, asking for permission to view a meme feels like asking for permission to drink at a public water fountain.
Big Instagram accounts are always in flux. Even those who built their popularity on a particular idea (like travel) or type of content (like dog memes) are under constant pressure to broaden. “There’s a huge movement away from specificity,” says Emily Hund, who studies the influencer economy at the University of Pennsylvania. “People aren’t saying they’re fashion or beauty people anymore—it’s all flattened into a generic lifestyle brand.” You’re not only looking to attract people interested in, say, weight-loss, but also people interested in learning (and buying) food, fitness tracking apps, supplements, makeup, and clothes.
So meme accounts are taking a counterstrategy. Going private is a way of proving you can win without catering to the masses. It means you have a highly engaged, highly specific audience, and you can make niche content just for them. According to Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist studying internet celebrity, “boutique memes” are already on the rise. Rather than ur-characters like the most altruistic guy at the party, Good Guy Greg (or his opposite, the obnoxious bro Scumbag Steve), these memes are now designed to draw lines between the in-group and the out-group. (See every political meme.) Private accounts just amplify that effect.
Still, memes were built to be free-flowing, infinitely remixable, and owned by the internet at large. (Just ask the woman who tried to claim ownership of the phrase “on fleek.”) But the web is constantly restructuring this notion, and users are changing how they consume memes in the first place. “What we’re experiencing is something similar to the cultural shift away from broadcast television and into streaming” says Emily van der Nagel, a social media researcher at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.
A primetime broadcast sitcom must be written for the largest common denominator, but streaming services like Netflix are free to segment their subscribers into ever smaller and more specific audiences. These meme pages are doing the same: They’re not the product of open internet entropy; they’re a highly curated me-magazine made for a tiny slice of the web. And like just about every other online publication, they’re switching to a subscription model.
Limiting your audience pays of in other ways. In a highly polarized world, it’s also easier to restrict your viewers to deflect haters of all stripes. “The incentive to be private is [a way] of protecting oneself against critique,” says Brooke Erin Duffy, who teaches courses about social media and the internet economy at Cornell University. If you don’t have copyright for the images you use, for example, going private will help would-be meme plagiarists avoid lawsuits. It’s also a potential weapon against context collapse. A private account will spare meme creators from having their accounts locked or shadow-banned because someone outside the intended audience was offended by their jokes.
Or at least, that’s what they want you to think: that privacy is a way to recapture the anything-goes spirit of earlier digital eras. Even if no advertising big shot is coordinating this move toward privacy, it provides an unprecedented opportunity for money-making. “Blatant advertising is something we’re used to, and getting good at ignoring,” Abidin says. “But boutique memes are easy for advertisers to weaponize. They can ask an influencer to seed messages in their memes over six months or a year, and over time a country, an animal, a product, a color will start to remix with mainstream memes.”
It’s counter to the original spirit of meme-ing—a mix that ultimately might be toxic for the creative enterprise that advertisers find so valuable. Remember, people like memes because they speak to a social or psychological issue. Once this genuine emotion generates excitement and an influx of followers, it’s seen as a marketable strategy. This traps influencers in an endless cycle of trying to seem authentic to attract fans who will attract sponsors, whose machinations may eventually drive away those fans (which will then drive away sponsors). The benefit for influencers is relationships with large companies that might someday hire them on as consultant when their own meme-ing days are over.
For average users, not even dedicated meme accounts are purely about memes anymore. They’re about native advertising and selling merchandise—a walled garden designed to evoke subliminal desire for millennial pink Starbucks frappes, Swarovski earrings, or Yeezys. But can a meme be a meme when it defies its own definition? Just like influencer authenticity, truthful memes—the ones you send to friends as a summation of a moment, with the trust that someone else on the internet is sharing your feelings—are a poised to be another casualty of the fickle internet economy.
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