ExperimentI tried to make a meme and lost my mind
Hopes&Fears challenged our artist friend Sam Rolfes to attempt making a viral meme every day for a week. This is his story.
My mission was that I was to make a meme or two a day for a week and to make one fulfill its destiny as a true meme by going viral.
Over the last couple of years, I've steadily been trying to take myself less seriously, be a little less fucking earnest with all my work, have a little more fun with it, and just kind of break myself out of the surrealistic meditative stuff that I had been doing. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. I thought, "Oh that should be easy, I like shitty memes and stuff like that." Little did I know just how much it would twist its way around my head.
This was easily one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever had.
On the first day, I spent four or five hours hanging out on the couch, which seemed like the basis for a lot of this stuff. I started researching what a meme is and what motivates people to make them and what's successful and what’s not. By the end, I realized that I'd defeated the whole purpose of the meme by academically analyzing this thing and trying to force it. The whole assignment really set me up for failure.
Sam Rolfes is an artist, designer, experimental electronic music producer, turntablist, writer, and head of the Chicago and Austin based collective, Join The Studio. He has designed promotional materials and other work for numerous musicians and labels, zines, digital endeavors, and a variety of other commercial clients including Louis Vuitton and Dior.
Into the meme world
I had assumed this understanding, albeit cursory, of 4Chan, Reddit, Imgur, etc., and how these things work, but I really didn’t get the scope of how the cultures are just really dense and affecting.
A lot of the recent memes I'd been seeing were from the Cool Freaks Wikipedia Club Facebook group, which is the polar opposite of 4chan, with content and trigger warnings for every post. I spent two or three hours scrolling through a year's worth of Cool Freaks memes and saving the patterns I thought were recurring, visually thinking: "Why are these working, punchline-wise? What kind of jokes work?"
I was looking at all these things, and thinking how can I be part of this? It's like being at a party and there’s a bunch of people hanging out and they’re joking and laughing together. You have your drink and walk over to them and start laughing, trying to slide into the joke when you have no context and don’t really know what they’re talking about. In this subculture that’s known for calling out posers or normies, it was clear that I was an interloper, that I was on some kind of anthropological safari mission into the meme world.
In this subculture that’s known for calling out posers or normies, it was clear that I was an interloper, that I was doing some kind of anthropological safari mission into the meme world.
No more putins
I was trying to prevent myself from jumping into straight-up irony. It’s hard to discern what’s genuine and what’s ironic and whether there’s any difference between the two, or if it’s all wrapped up in this big convoluted self-referential ball.
On the first day, there was an announcement that Putin was cracking down on memes, specifically ones that had to do with him and other public figures. It seemed like an excellent opportunity to jump on hashtags and trends in general.
I made this shitty garish 3D version of Putin. I thought it was funny. A bunch of people though it was horrifying. The caption wasn’t really funny. I like to think I’m a pretty witty guy, but, “ok, now be funny, write something clever about this thing” is paralyzing. I’m not used to working text in with an image. I made the weird image—can’t that be enough? But some of these memes are the image, a box, and text that works with it. Most of the time, it has to do with the tension between the image itself and the text framing it in a different context than intended. But I just wrote some stupid shit and posted it.
I kept seeding in fake other people remixing my meme—some people got really upset about how weird Putin’s face was.
It actually created a pretty long thread on the international forum of 4chan. I kept seeding in other fake people remixing my meme. Some people got really upset about how weird Putin’s face was, but the rest just posted Putin Memes. On Imgur, it got -9 points and the comments were like, “What the fuck is this. You suck.” That’s progress at least.
Most of the other memes were dealing with Ukraine jokes. It was all stock Putin images with stuff like “Mmm…not Ukraine…MYkraine.” But nobody’s Putins were awesome or inspiring me to continue, so I abandoned that.
Then, I tried pandering to nostalgia. I got to thinking, “Ok, if I’m gonna do this stuff in 3D, it would make sense if I were to take a nostalgic, already 3D thing and make a stupid version.” I decided to do something with the '90s Saturday morning cartoon ReBoot.
Meme characters tend to have a juvenile, crude look to them, but not because they're made poorly. They're based on found internet objects. People don’t create the objects that they use in the memes. They find them. Like, Dolan Duck and Gooby, whom I love, are shitty riffs on Donald Duck and Goofy. I couldn’t get a enough of that. This was also when I first started to try to shoehorn in Pepe the Frog, who is like the current hot item in the meme world, especially in Cool Freaks. It’s from 4Chan, but the Cool Freaks kids love it.
They don’t create the objects that they use in the memes. They find them.
There was enough of a cultural reference for you to get it and it’s silly and disgusting, which I thought was great. Some people thought my ReBoot was funny and some people thought, "I can’t believe people put so much time into making this shit. It’s awful." Which was an OK response. I really could have made it funnier, but I was grasping at straws. At least it was better than Putin.
I took notes like, "Stop trying so hard, care less.” I was so wrapped up in forcing things to be funny, which totally goes against how these things are made to be funny. These dudes dash off this shit. They're quick one-liners that they sloppily Photoshopped together. But part of my process is time-intensive. I was building 3D objects. When you do that, it gives too much gravity to the thing. That was preventing me from having fun.
Anime Pepe the Frog
I was looking for frames, punchlines and jokes that were already set up. I like anime, but I couldn’t really think of anything at the time. At this point I had made a few versions of Pepe the Frog in 3D.
There’s this whole subculture of Pepe being rare and it relates to Pokemon cards somehow, so I was like “Oh! I’ll make a holographic 3D one and make it look cool!” but it looked stupid and it wasn’t funny, so I abandoned it. I had all these 3D forms floating in space. That's how I work normally. There will be all these objects colliding with each other and fracturing, and I’ll see if I can find a narrative or a story of some interesting thing. All of this stuff is 3D but it looks like the flat, linear, shaded stuff of the meme. I started trying to flatten it out. I got a lot of things out of this whole flattening series. I made this figure wrapped in a Neon Genesis Evangelion skin. Most people got it. Commenters were like, “People still watch this shit?” If you’re into anime, you’re gonna recognize that one.
This one got removed almost immediately. 4Chan started deleting my shit very quickly.
This one got removed almost immediately. 4Chan started deleting my shit very quickly. But I made the animation thing because people like gifs and it was fun to do. It was a relatively quick thing and that’s a standard digital artist trick. If the meme trick is include Pepe and Feels Man because people will have a little laugh, then, these days, the digital artist thing is "make it move"—throw in a gif and everyone will love it. Or make it pink, gooey, and move around and people will go apeshit regardless of what it is. So I used that in some of the later ones.
Bae come over
Next, I tried something with the “Bae Come Over” meme. I used an already established trope of, "bae says come over and I can’t do it for some reason," followed by a joke. I was super frustrated and sick of it. I was going to make this esoteric and abstract thing that looks nice.
It got a nice response on Imgur primarily. Definitely not on 4Chan. Again, it was deleted immediately. On Cool Freaks, I think it got 12-15 likes, and that was it. Nobody really payed that much attention. On Reddit, I got absolutely zero traction.
The red one
I thought the forms were beautiful and I had Feels Man in there, but I couldn’t find a good container. I had a friend who posted this sappy 420 thing on Facebook. It was good enough to include and I liked the illustration. It didn’t really resound well online, which I understand. It’s a little subtle. The 3D ones are somewhat subtle, but not visually. And then the flat meme ones are dumb conceptually … I don’t think you can really make subtle memes.
The fake one
For the fake one, I was playing with the de-motivational poster trope, and with something that was poorly compressed paired with something that was clean. I took a break and made this body that I liked a lot. It had a movement and linearity to it. It initially had a troll face, which put it in that try-hard category. I was constantly looking like the biggest try-hard in the world. “Look at me guys. I’m a meme guy.”
It received a nice response but it was taken in a different context which was fine. I took a mental break for myself to make a thing that looked good and simply let it be that. I come from this history of making things that look good traditionally. They might be scary or weird but they’re high resolution and they have a nice contrast or whatever, and I’ve been trying to break out of that.
There was almost no chance of succeeding at this and that made me a little more combative with how gross I started making things look. I wanted to take the route of offensive anguished childish drawings. Almost the only response I got was one of disgust. I decided to take that and run with it.
The first fully 3D piece was Relationship Goals. It was really fun to do. At this point I thought I want to do one more, but I thought I might be done. I’d done the best I could. I got some great responses.
I had this image in my head of this abstract warmish dickish phallic thing piercing through a gooey spherical object—keeping it abstract, but then putting “relationship goals” at the top.
This was the more standard artistic route that I normally take. It was more in line with what I was interested in doing, this idea that I could create whatever imagery I wanted, that I didn’t have to relegate it to a character that I didn’t have any claim of ownership over. I could do my own thing and rely on my own visual skills and then make a joke afterwards. It was much more carefree.
It got a big response. People were like, “Oh, that’s disgusting,” and, “Oh, you’re relying on subsurface scattering.” And I just love that because it’s informed as far as 3D tricks go. And it’s totally true. It wasn’t, “Oh, fuck you, you suck.” They actually got a good burn in. They were skilled at getting under my skin.
This was way more fun. It got around 2500 views and 20 down votes.
It got a big response. People were like, “Oh, that’s disgusting,” and, “Oh, you’re relying on subsurface scattering.”
Dolan and Pepe remix
I tried remixing Dolan and Pepe. It was more pandering. People love Pepe and it was close enough. As long as you have the lips and the eye, then most people will recognize it as Pepe. That was me making it a little more esoteric and a little less explicitly spelled out. Why is the amoeba-like Pepe wearing a thong? Why is he looking off to the side? I tried to play with this unspoken weird fan fiction back story and then just do something gross while presenting the characters in different forms.
This was my mental state right here. This fucking comic. That’s really what it was. I was making all these figures that were ripped apart and stuck back together. I was frustrated with these characters and I was smashing them back together and not giving any explanation for why they were having so much violence acted upon them. I wasn’t able to make a fucking meme and I was angry, so I thought was it would be funny if I started making them hurt each other.
I do wish that I’d done more comic things, but with those you have to have a punchline and it’s less reliant on the visuals and I wasn’t confident enough that I was going to be able to write something funny in time.
I don’t think the stuff I make is unsettling, but a lot of other people do. There were some pretty strong responses when I posted this one. Commenters were flipping the fuck out. I thought that was great. There was a lot of, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Ok! Yes! Now we’re getting somewhere.
I tried to play with this unspoken weird fan fiction back story and then just do something gross.
I decided to do some more pandering next and make a 420 meme. It was April 20th, the international weed smoking holiday. I found a bunch of 420 memes where 419 is one way and 420 is crazy. I wanted to take that and switch it up a little bit because I don’t smoke.
I had this little panda guy laying around that I used and it was sad and morose and it was already intersecting with this plane. I was thinking, ok, here’s an easy transition I can make. Very simple and to the point. And people got where it’s going, I didn’t have to spell it out.
It got a pretty good response on Instagram and then I got all these random followers from spam-bot accounts like Dank Trap God. It made me appreciate the culture-jamming even more, where I can jump onto this thing that I’m not even a part of and subvert it a little bit rather than go through the normal channels of hashtagging it with what you would expect it to be. I’m getting my work in places where it would not be normally, which was one of the bigger lessons of this whole thing.
It got a pretty good response on Instagram and then I got all these random followers from spam-bot accounts like Dank Trap God.
My final meme was this “Friend Zone” piece. A turntablist friend of mine had posted this meme where you’re in a friend zone and the girl is like “I’m changing, don’t look.” It had the pug, with a girl bent over behind the sad dog. This was a really fucking ridiculous meme. It was perfect.
I started composing and trying out different legs and an ass and fractured it. The joke was more that it was an abstract ass. But then it actually formed into this body that rendered as if it were undergoing metamorphosis or change. I officially had my pun! She’s changing!
In the end, this was my favorite one and even though it didn’t go viral I feel like it’s a real meme. Puns win out every time.
The whole project was excruciating. These values that I hold dear were being questioned. I was trying to go against the interests that are inherent in my artistic being. I was saying to myself, “No, don’t make that look good, compress that shit.”
Waiting twenty minutes for this beautiful thing to render out and then compressing it into crap was the hardest thing. It was too much for my psyche to bear.
On the other hand, I’ve always put a lot of value in the principle of ignoring the paradigm of the art world and leaving behind established structures. But this really revealed to me how tied to it I still am. I have a newfound appreciation for these modes of disseminating work and an appreciation for the way that an idea can spread given the right seed.
How one can make a compelling image is something I’ve been grappling with all year. I'm trying to embed some sort of additional meta-narrative or commentary in my images and not get caught up in making a very cohesive or tight image. This assignment helped me break out of my comfort zone.
I like to think of myself as someone who does non-traditional work or, at least, who puts his own original spin on this whole digital-media-meets-painting thing, but I realized it's far more conventional that I thought. I’ve got a lot more ground to cover. I didn’t expect to get bothered by this. That tells me that I have some work to do.
Waiting twenty minutes for this beautiful thing to render out and then compressing it into crap was the hardest thing. It was too much for my psyche to bear.
Edited by Rhett Jones. All images by Sam Rolfes.