We have learned a lot from a year of living most of our lives online. We’ve gone back and forth between treating the internet like a virtual town square on Twitter, revisiting our teenage archives on Tumblr, finding new identities on TikTok, and abandoning old ones on Instagram. Unshockingly, last year’s “top” memes reflect the breadth of this range. From World War III memes in January to coronavirus memes in March to memes about Grimes and Elon Musk’s newborn being some kind of cyberpunk Messiah in May, all struck a chaotic, filthy, and dystopic chord — but they were still funny. For a moment, no matter how bad things were, you could still laugh.
That didn’t hold in June, when Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country. Suddenly, pastel backgrounds and girl-boss slogans stepped in, promoting antiracism as if it were a brand — or worse, a part of our brands. These disgraceful actions eventually got to the point of memeifying Breonna Taylor, showing the power of memes to steer us totally wrong.
Memes are just repetition, but that has a power of its own. A meme groups a few words, images, videos, or sounds, and as more people replicate it and share it, a meme grows stronger, more complex, and harder to pin down. In a way, the “best” memes are the ones that become building blocks for those that come after; they evolve into other memes and live through the ages. Through “dark times” — be they high school or a pandemic — that repetition can make us feel less alone. No matter what, as long as you get the memes, you’re laughing with somebody.
At this point in 2021, viral memes are a cacophony of laugh-crying moments. We were projectiled into 2021 with the same level of messiness that pulled us through 2020. Since we still don’t know where exactly we’ll end up, once again, we’re going to keep a record of the most viral and impactful memes, one month at a time, to help us along on this journey.