Dictionary.com says a meme is "a cultural item in the form of an image, video, phrase, etc., that is spread via the Internet and often altered in a creative or humorous way." Merriam-Webster defines "meme" as "an idea, behavior style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture."
But here is where we go full-on galaxy brain. Wikipedia, of all places, has one of the most intense takes on memes, describing them as, "a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution." According to that definition, with every edit and remix, we breathe new life into memes, and when they drop out of circulation, they die. So like living things, memes fight for survival "through processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance."
Black Mirror writers, take note because Wikipedia also says that "memes that replicate most-effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts." So the "best" memes are the ones that go viral, whether or not they're relatable or funny.
When we look back on the year in memes, we find some of the most absurd and twisted content to hit the mainstream internet. When we laughed at memes about World War 3 in January, we didn't expect to also make memes about coronavirus just a few weeks later. We didn't just make memes to lift our spirits, we made memes for attention, we made memes to spread important information, we made memes to find our people and to communicate. Sometimes we're all in on the joke — like with the "Nature Is Healing" and "This is a cake" memes — when we're all riding the same absurd giggle wave together. Sometimes the jokes fall flat or go too far — like celebrities meme-ing themselves or misguided Black Lives Matter memes.
2020 saw the meme reach new heights. Memes aren't just jokes we share online. They document real-life, both good and bad, funny, and unfunny. Yes, they often make us laugh and the best ones surely do.
After a year of documenting viral memes, one month at a time here is the definitive list of the best, most-shared, and most-important memes of 2020.1 of 31
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January: World War III
This is most likely the first meme of 2020 and, in retrospect, it seems to have predicted the range of instability this year has brought so far.
During the first week of January
, we learned that President Trump ordered the assassination of a high-ranking Iranian government official. A general understanding of world history will likely lead you to the realization that such assassinations
have often been cited as catalysts for wars, world wars
to be exact.
So what else are we to do as a society, if not laugh through the anxiety? More than any other meme before it, World War III memes
taught us that we cope best when we laugh.
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January: TikTok's Rosa
Welcome to the Rosa Cinematic Universe. You got a dollar?
Rosa was born a TikTok character as some kind of parody of a Latinx highschooler from Los Angeles. She is lovably loud and anyone raised in a Latinx community knows that there are two kinds of people: those who ask for dollars and those who forfeit them.
This meme started to gain momentum in the very last days of 2019, when TikTok users started dueting Rosa, challenging her request for slushy money, and, with later videos, flirting with the star of the Rosa Cinematic Universe. Then her video about connecting with a gay classmate came out, and it became an instant template for everything from celebrity encounters to viral tweets
But it wasn't until 2020 that this character achieved viral meme status with Irish
, and even Simlish
version of "You got a dollar?"
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February: Bloomberg's Memes
This is the political advertising equivalent of the Steve Buscemi meme that goes, "How do you do fellow kids?" In his bid for president, Michael Bloomberg paid an Avengers-style cohort of meme accounts
to run meme-ads for his campaign. The memes followed an unflattering DM format where the Bloomberg campaign's Instagram account clumsily asks popular memers to, well, meme him.
February: Confused Billie Eilish
Ever the posterchild of Gen Z angst and indifference, Grammy-darling Billie Eilish was deeply confused during this year's Oscars. Behold the face Gen Z makes when millennials start reminiscing about Feist and landlines. 6 of 31
Hand-washing has never been so important. But it took a TikTok collaboration between a dancer and the Vietnamese Health Ministry to get people to take it seriously. Over in America, it was the work of a UK-based developer, who created a website where you can search a song and generate a hand-washing diagram, that got people to commit to their civic duty.7 of 31
March: Zoom Memes
It might just be time to declare that 2020 will be the year of the laugh-to-stop-from-crying meme. The World War III memes set the stage in January, and now in March, we've grown used to the coronavirus memes. These memes point to the absurd and ridiculous realities that make everything so precarious right now. As we reach cruising altitude, we're settling into life made up of Zoom classes, Zoom meetings, and Zoom social lives.8 of 31
April: Gossip Girl Title Meme
If you've watched Gossip Girl, you'll know that little of the show has aged well and it makes even less sense than when it originally aired. The one element of the show that did stand the test of time is Kristin Bell's voice saying, "xoxo, Gossip Girl."
So when this two-paneled template started making the rounds on Twitter in mid-April, it was the perfectly-dumb antidote to a very overwhelming month. It started with a remixed version of "gossip girl." Then, versions of it featuring distorted faces and morphed responses gained popularity. This meme isn't really about anything. In fact, the best version of this meme is the one left blank with Blaire and Serena blankly facing each other.10 of 31
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April: Nature Is Healing
This is easily one of the funniest and aptest memes of our times. It mixes sci-fi with internet absurdity to document this truly unique moment we're experiencing. On the one hand, the human species is fighting a pandemic. On the other, all that time spent inside is lowkey doing the environment some good.
But not that much good: The "nature is healing" meme was first a fake news report gone viral
. Once a lot of the original posts were debunked, the internet got really creative with the memes, and this Lisa Frank one is certainly the best.
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April: Me On March 1 vs. Me On April 1
It has been a long month. And that's referring to both March and April.
After a collective agreement to not celebrate April Fool's
(because these times are cursed enough), we woke up in April dazed but mostly shocked at how much had happened in just a month. On March 1, anything was possible, but by April 1, we had become jaded.
But of course, not everyone was bright-eyed-and bushy-tailed on March 1, so a counter meme emerged where March 1 and April 1 look exactly the same.
May: My Plans vs. 2020
You know shit hit the fan when stating the year is all it takes to make a meme. Especially when it's hardly even June.
This meme is as straightforward as it gets: Two panels. One depicts a before scenario with "my plans" and the second one — simply labeled "2020" — showing the violent and sudden disruption that turned everything upside down. This meme is proof that Twitter is still the dominant meme factory of our time, effectively de-throning Instagram and holding its own alongside TikTok.
It's us versus the year of our Lord 2020. They say that if you want to make God laugh, make a plan.13 of 31
May: X AE A-xii FKA X AE A-12
Welcome the era of the TikTok meme, where it's not just about texts and images, but songs and sounds too. And who better than to usher in a new era of memes — and possible human history? — than Elon Musk's and Grimes' firstborn child.
Their debut as a couple at 2018's Met Gala was a meme-worthy moment, but the memes became so much more when Grimes's pregnancy was announced. Gen Z worked through its anxieties about the future with these memes, anticipating the 2020 birth of the Grimes-Musk baby and imagining him as everything from a robot-alien to a Messiah or even the Angel of Death. This all came to a head when X AE A-xii Musk was born on May 4th, 2020.
The best thing about the X AE A-xii memes is that in 20 years they will become the perfect time capsules of what the internet was going through. If you look at all of them as a whole you'll find a generation struggling to make sense of a pandemic, figuring out an uncertain future, working out its relationship with technology, all while being incredibly funny and absurdly creative.14 of 31
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June: This You?
June was a month of political reckoning. There are always those who grind against oppression with every step they take and they've never stopped doing the work. But a generalized uprising triggered by the death of George Floyd added voices and bodies to the cause. Some voices seemed too eager to chime in and take up space before looking inward and examining how they might be part of the problem. So there came a day when the internet was overwhelmed with disruptive black tiles and all kinds of #BLM virtue-signaling.
Suddenly, it wasn't just politicians and industry giants who were getting called out. Universities, media outlets (including Refinery29
), local groups, and all kinds of institutions we're forced to face themselves and make amends. People started subtweeting past offender's posts, holding them accountable with two words: "This you?"
In a column, Op-Ed staff writer and senior editor of the New York Times
Aisha Harris explained perfectly why this meme carries so much weight
: "Brutally crisp and blatantly rhetorical, the phrase has become a catchall
representing the internet currency of receipts, forcing bandwagon participants to confront things they might have said or done that seemingly contradict their newfound commitment to the cause."
It happened to Lea Michele
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June: Breonna Taylor Memes
No, anti-Black hate groups are not behind the Breonna Taylor memes. These memes are not made by hateful people celebrating her death. Unfortunately, these memes are being made and shared by people trying to hold her killers accountable.
The rise of the Breonna Taylor memes can be taken to signal one of several changes: Maybe the internet, like the "real world" is a cruel and apathetic place. Maybe our online sense of humor has crossed over into the unforgivably-dark side. Maybe, our efforts to remedy our collective forgetfulness reveal just how quickly we can fall out of touch, or how out of touch we were in the first place.
Lili Reinhart recently apologized
for sharing a topless picture of herself with the caption: "now that my sideboob has gotten your attention, Breonna Taylor's murderers have not been arrested. Demand justice." This is the most visible example of the memeification
of Breonna Taylor's death. But it's not just misguided celebrities. It's anyone who has Tweeted or shared a post, like
"Wake up, apply serum, arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor."Breonna Taylor was brutally killed in her own home
. Cries to "go harder for Breonna" and to "arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor," have been a regular part of people's social media interactions. We've committed the ultimate offense of letting her death become just another thing we post and share online. We've let it slip into the nothingness of our routines. And it's doing more harm than good. Black women on Twitter shouldn't have to explain why this dehumanizes Black women
and that this matter shouldn't be treated as a joke.
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July: This is a cake
Considering how old and overdone cake videos are on the internet, you'd think you'd seen it all. And for what it's worth, you likely have. Including Tasty's supercut of a knife cutting through lifelike cakes titled, "These Are All Cake." Knives sliding through red Crocs, toilet paper rolls, and stacks of towels to pry apart layers of cake and frosting. Surprise! The shoe is cake!
But because it's 2020, the memes that followed were born out of distrust. If that shoe is cake, who's to say this phone isn't cake? What if... you
are cake? This year feels so exceptionally absurd and unpredictable, the isolation can be overwhelming, what if it leads up to this?
It's easy for all this cake talk to spiral into existentialism, but it's just a sign of the times
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July: What Image Are You?
It couldn't be simpler: A picture and a name. Maybe its simplicity is what led it to go viral the way it did. In less than two weeks, there were dozens of "what ___ are you accounts
," the most popular of which shattering through 200,000 followers almost instantly.
These accounts made name keychains for those with the kind of non-white or foreign-language names the gift stores never considered. Some did it for free, others accepted donations to their personal favors, while one raised money for Black trans women. But it seems the meme was short-lived: It was that last spurt of creativity before the end of summer — college students with time to kill and a surplus of frog or Guy Fieri images. The biggest account, @what_frog_you_are, made its last batch of name-memes. But while they lasted, they were a reason to feel special and chuckle in the middle of the workday. As the fad dies down, every single name can be remembered for its absurdity.
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August: Trump's Axios Interview
In the first week of August, President Trump sat down with Axios's Jonathan Swan for an exclusive interview
on HBO. To be handed all kinds of papers and charts while the speaker just refuses to engage in reality and to respond with face after face of shock and disbelief — the power of these memes lies in just how perfectly it encapsulates the experience of a Trump administration.
August: Mentally, I'm Here
This is by no means, a uniquely 2020 meme. In fact, this meme first emerged on Twitter in 2008. But, it's a 2020 meme in spirit. Because, mentally, we're all somewhere better.
Some "mentally I'm here" memes are of longing: clubs or amusement parks. Others are escapist: otherworldly realms, video games, children's shows. The mind is going to go wherever it can find some respite.
But then there are the accurate ones that picture minds in post-apocalyptic landscapes, the Midsommar crying scene, and other dreadful scenarios. The "mentally I'm here" meme of August 2020 is about best-describing the dumpster fires our internal lives have turned into.20 of 31
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August: 2020 Photo Challenge
There is something particularly desperate about a celebrity-made meme. Ever since the pandemic thwarted production plans, red carpets, talk shows, the overall unimportance of the rich and famous became glaringly obvious. Without our attention, celebrities join us in the internet's trenches to the point where they actively engage in meme culture. Albeit, in the very-celebrity way that lets them share nine photos of themselves, looking back on the first nine months of 2020. Reese Witherspoon kicked it off
, but Mindy Kailing, Kerry Washington, and even Netflix joined the trend.
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September: Meteor vs. Meatier
Sometimes, a piece of online content is so perfect and powerful that it becomes its own cultural touchstone. Such is the case of @lizemopetey
's, an actual paleontologist, "meatier vs. meteor" TikTok. It's the slow burn of a widening gap in communication, a building realization that there's been a horrible misunderstanding. It's very apt for our times and it's worth the real tears @lizemopetey cried in making this video
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September: First Presidential Debate Memes
There are so many, we wrote a whole story
about it. It could be argued that politics is evergreen meme content, but there is something particularly haunting (and endlessly funnier) about a debate so outrageous and uncontrolled that we became the punchline.
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September: Savage Fenty for Men
When the internet's swelling obsession with women topping men is compounded by Rihanna's BDE, in a time when we're all in need of some human contact, we get the Horniest Meme of 2020. When Rihanna announced that Savage X Fenty is coming out with a menswear
line, there was no shortage of Twitter and TikTok reactions detailing exactly how men want to be treated in their Savage X Fenty's.
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October: Among Us Memes
The 2018 game, Among Us, has grown wildly popular in these later stages of quarantine and reached greater audiences through the memes it has produced. While people are exposed to the game through Twitch and Youtube, it's memes that have appeared on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram to pique the interest of the less-online. In fact, in late October, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined Twitch and broke records by playing Among Us
with some of the internet's most beloved (and lusted after) gamers.
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October: Trump's "October Suprise"
The President contracted a virus that's killed millions in a sweeping and merciless pandemic. If 2020 were an apocalypse movie, this would be the part where the protagonist realizes that nobody will save them and that we have to be our own heroes.
This didn't stop Donald J. Trump from puffing his chest and making an impossibly speedy recovery, only days after the news of his COVID-19 diagnosis broke. Just like there were COVID-memes in March, the internet produced a new body of work to make sense of the President's coronavirus diagnosis
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October: "After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine..."
They might be blissfully unaware, but influencers and celebrities circled the drain in 2020. Hardly any influencers have made a headline this year for doing anything reasonable and there's been no shortage of celebrities missing the mark. (I'm looking at you Gal Gadot
On October 27, Kim Kardashian shared on Twitter how she booked a private island
for her friends and family to get away and pretend things are "normal, just for a brief moment in time." If we didn't know any better, we'd think Kim was mocking the "Summer Fun! *private island all tested negative multiple times wear a mask" meme
from September. But she wasn't. Her tweet was honestly and genuinely that out-of-touch. So it was instantly memed.
This makes us wonder, is there a glitch in the Matrix? Or did these two ultra-rich people get memed for saying the same thing on social media, two months in a row?
November: "I Ain't Never Seen Two Pretty Bestfriends..."
This meme is a perfect example of how TikTok can stretch out a joke. It started with people taking his audio and making fun of his almost unhuman glare and long face with emojis and face filters. It became an inside joke for users with excellently-curated For You pages: "why is this man everywhere?" Then it escalated into videos seeming entirely unrelated only for someone to turn around and say, "I ain't never seen two pretty best friends, always one of them got to be ugly."28 of 31
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November: What's something that ISN'T racist, but still FEELS racist to you?
When Twitter's @abcdrih asked: "What's something that ISN'T racist, but still FEELS racist to you?" it created this whole category of memes where something's vibe and mere essence was so strong it made its own statement. While there's nothing actually racist about drinking Monster energy drinks in public, many will agree that it still feels
racist. Soon, spinoff versions started permeating the internet such as: "What's non-non-binary but feels non-non-binary to you?
" and "What isn't the Twilight saga but FEELS Twilight to you
On TikTok, this turned into, "Tell me you're mentally unstable, without actually saying you're mentally unstable."
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December: They Don't Know
We have 2010's Tumblr to thank for the last viral meme of the year. The "I Wish I was Home" meme made a surprise comeback as did the "They Don't Know I'm X
" meme. On Tumblr, the "I'd rather be at home" meme was about bonding over being introverted, shy, and socially awkward. Only cool main characters hated being in crowded rooms. But after a year indoors, this doesn't make anyone special.
On Twitter, "They Don't Know I'm X" is for those who feel entirely inadequate and self-conscious in public but really want to be in a crowd. It's about really wanting to be noticed for your drip
, or your freak
, or for just showing up.
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Honorable Mention: This Claim Is Being Disputed
It was about time we turned the foundation of fake news and Trump's rhetoric into a meme. When people in power dispute the veracity of climate change, racism, the wealth gap, or the pandemic, it's easy to lose hope. And social media platforms took so long to respond to the spread of misinformation
, that they only started fact-checking the president on the last leg of his term.
This meme has the same energy as the "if you see me doing X, no you didn't" meme. But because it blew up on Twitter, people have also used it to burst bubbles and complain about the state of things.
Honorable Mention: How It Started vs. How It's Going
This meme was everywhere this year. And while the year itself was a goldmine of content, this meme is too obvious to be "best-of" material. It's a meme we've seen many times before but it was made extra special but the dumpster-fire year we all shared.