Colton Underwood jumping over a fence. That, according to the MTV Movie & TV Awards, was the past year’s Most Meme-Able Moment. Don’t remember that one? You’re not alone. But, as a refresher, it’s a clip from ABC’s The Bachelor, in which Underwood, the show’s 23rd Dude Looking for Romance, vaults over a barrier after being jilted. At the time, people shared the clip to express a desire to get the heck out of whatever situation they were in. Since then, well, let’s just say they’ve moved on.
The folks at MTV are aware that “meme of the year” is almost a contradiction in terms. Memes, by their nature, don’t typically have year-long shelf-lives. “We didn’t let ourselves be too precious about being super-super current,” says Vanessa Whitewolf, vice president of MTV and VH1 live events. Instead, they decided to honor moments from television programs within the eligibility period that went on to be meme-ified. The other nominees like Lindsay Lohan’s LiLo dance or Ray J’s mysteriously moving hat are all from six months to a year ago, and feel more like fragments of niche TV fandom than actual memes.
Whitewolf understands this. She says repeatedly that the event is “not taking itself too seriously” and is an example of the MTV team “letting our guard down.” The subtext: We know this is a flawed enterprise, we’re just here to have fun, please don’t come for us. Not ideal, maybe, but still preferable to the way most other award shows honor memes, which is not at all.
Five years ago, it would have been silly to suggest that mainstream awards shows acknowledge memes. In 2014, when Kim Kardashian’s butt was enough to break the internet and macros like Awkward Moment Seal were still a thing, memes were all niche entertainment. Some crusty old-school types probably still think of them as frivolous and odd, which could be why you don’t see meme categories at, say, the Oscars, but, according to Whitewolf, a meme category wasn’t a hard sell, and just about everyone she spoke to internally and externally “got” the importance of memes. As they should. “We’ve always been a show that celebrates movies and television the way the audience sees them,” Whitewolf says. Memes are arguably global culture’s most popular artform, and an important tool for activists and businesses and propagandists alike. Senators share memes. Taco Bell shares memes. So does your grandma, and your baby cousin, too.
Trouble is, memes are extremely difficult to reward. They make mayflies seem long-lived. As Whitewolf points out, a meme that trended last month is about as stale as a meme that trended last year. Plus, in a genre so vast, consensus on what’s “best” is uniquely impossible. Choosing only among meme-able moments within a narrow selection of TV shows is contrived, but imagine trying to compare the ironic fatalist performance art of the Tide Pod Challenge to the trend of saying “thank u, next” to anything you don’t like as inspired by Ariana Grande’s breakup anthem “thank u, next.” The gulf between those memes, among the most influential of 2018, is considerably wider than between Best Picture nominees Black Panther and The Favourite. You’d need myriad subcategories to do them justice: best reaction GIF, best text-only meme, best social movement rallying cry.
Emma Grey Ellis covers memes, trolls, and other elements of Internet culture for WIRED.
But even giving out dozens of meme prizes a year wouldn’t congratulate every bright idea. The internet abhors a vacuum, and thus churns out more #content than anyone could ever acknowledge. YouTuber Cowbelly, who helms the Comment Awards channel, posts Meme Award videos daily. Other YouTubers post meme reviews at a less frantic pace, but no matter what the cadence, the same problem emerges: Because memes so often rely on copyrighted content, these videos, like many memes, are non-monetizable. “I know you guys don’t make any money off of these and you make them out of the pure fun and creativity in your hearts,” Jenna Marbles says in her last meme review video. “So instead of making dollars, I’d like to reward you with my personal laughter … I hope that pays your rent.” Mainstream art gets mainstream awards and mainstream money. So while it’s tempting to praise meme culture for its edgy lack of consumerism, that still means people are working for free. And worse, the people that aggregate or inspire their work are the ones getting the money and recognition.
Considering the economics involved, MTV would have been better off giving their award to a meme creator, not the TV show that wound up spawning a meme. (Whitewolf says the network might consider doing so in the future.) Internet culture frequently fails to hand out credit where it’s due, and having an institution like MTV honor a meme creator could bring a windfall that person might not normally get. The Bachelor doesn’t need awards; the show reportedly already makes upwards of $80 million per cycle.
Honoring a creator, however, can backfire. It happened last April at the Shorty Awards, the only such show to handle memes consistently and semi-seriously. (The rival Streamy Awards don’t seem to have ever featured the category, and the last time the Webby Awards had a meme of the year, the winner was Nyan Cat.) The Shorties’ meme of the year was the Distracted Boyfriend Meme, which, fine. But their winning meme creator was the internet equivalent of Green Book getting Best Picture. They gave the award to FuckJerry, the online avatar of Elliot Tebele, an alleged serial joke thief whose company, Jerry Media, produced not only the marketing for the doomed Fyre Festival but also the Netflix documentary chronicling Fyre’s marketing-fueled meltdown. FuckJerry might deserve an award for making memes into a business, but for providing LoLs in your TL? Not so much.
The FuckJerry account is what happens when memes are rewarded as commodity and not culture. Really, they’re both. Yes, a clip from The Bachelor is a poor excuse for a meme of the year. But it’s still something fans glommed on to and turned into an organic internet moment. So for internet culture, MTV’s meme-able moments, even though they’re late and terrible and corporately dweeby, do represent progress—an odd little baby step toward balance.