A few years ago, my 13-year-old son Sam became obsessed with memes. He was a regular on Reddit’s r/memes, where he loved the nitty-gritty discussions about the social and linguistic contexts that give them meaning. He even got himself a moderator role, a rare honor in the subreddit. He was so engrossed in the world of memes that, like an adolescent crush, he would talk about them constantly.
Memes, of course, are a form of mass communication with the power to reshape culture. But they also have an ephemeral nature: Most explode and recede at nearly the same time, a few weeks or months. Despite their short lifespan, some endure, like the flame-licked dog meme, now 10 years old.
It’s a classic example of what Richard Dawkins called a meme: an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person via repetition and imitation. That’s how Grumpy Cat, Socially-Awkward Penguin and the Weeknd running around a gold maze at a Super Bowl afterparty can go viral despite having deeply misogynistic or extremist origins.
But parsing the difference between a meme used unironically to advance liberal causes and one used ironically to further the aims of neo-Nazis is a challenge. And, for a while, trying to do so felt counterproductive: It would have meant delving into a deep intersection of linguistics and culture that a lot of people don’t really understand anyway.
As such, it was no surprise that the men behind the @memesforjesus account decided to close their Twitter and Instagram accounts. Michael Schaffer, who created the meme account in 2014, and Matt Matias, who joined as an admin in 2017, told BuzzFeed News that it was “time to move on.” They declined to comment further on the decision or their future plans.