Memes are the Internet’s way of helping us remember what happened and how everybody freaked out about them before moving on to something else. So if someone you knew was organizing a Harlem Shake video, you would grab them and say, “No! That was SO last year!”
Memes tend to organize themselves around major events of the year with lots of national and/or international focus. For 2014, those major events included the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia; and the World Cup in Brazil. But then there are also memes that spring out of the ether, like Alex from Target.
So to help you remember the year that was 2014, here’s a quick rundown of the best memes of the year.
The Sochi Olympics — As the world focused on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Russian authorities and IOC brand managers received a swift lesson in how the internet works these days as Russia’s anti-gay policies became a major PR headache, as pro-gay activists hijacked sponsors’ social media campaigns, like McDonalds’s #cheerstoSochi hashtag. American figure skater Johnny Weir protested Russia’s homophobia by wearing the most fabulous outfits he could find. During the opening ceremonies, the fifth Olympic ring didn’t open, spurring lots of photoshopping and another entry into the #SochiProblems hashtag. Figure skater Ashley Wagner’s stink-face to her score became this year’s McKayla Maroney, and Vladimir Putin was generally mocked as a power-mad Bond villain who can’t believe he lost at hockey.
World Cup Brazil — Even before the soccer matches started in Rio, the protests against the FIFA World Cup was generating Internet action, including some very serious hacking. But once the games started, the memes were focused on the play: like the stunning header from Robin Van Persie in the Netherlands’ victory over Spain, and the amazing goalkeeping of Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa and USA’s Tim Howard. But none of that could save Spain from being eliminated, or keep this Brazilian fan from being sad, or prevent Luis Suarez from chomping into opposing players with his big teeth.
Ice Bucket Challenge — The idea was so simple that it went viral: dump a bucket of ice water on your head, and then challenge others to do it so that you donate money to help fund research to fight ALS. Like the Harlem Shake, these videos became increasingly complex as they spread through the internet, attracting celebrities along the way. Also, lots of people did it wrong, and that was funny until a firefighter died during an elaborate ice bucket challenge video. And that was the end of that meme.
Turnip for What — OK, first: “turn up” is a term that can mean getting crazy up to and including sexual business. So when Vine star Alphacat used his President Obama impression to ask Michelle Obama how many calories she burns when she turns up, that was a little crazy. Her response involved a turnip and a fresh cut from “Turn Down For What” was pure internet gold.
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Hollaback! Street Harassment — The nonprofit group Hollaback’s campaign to generate awareness for street harassment against women went viral after they followed a woman around the streets of New York as she was peppered with unsavory comments from random men. Parody videos have included 10 Hours of Walking Around NYC as Princess Leia, as a Jew, as a woman walking around LA, and just a dude in NYC, from Funny or Die. Obviously, street harassment is no laughing matter, but these parody videos demonstrate the impact of the original piece.
Gamergate — This bit of nastiness started in August as an ugly workplace break-up between two people in the tech world and quickly descending into accusations that the gaming community is run by misogynist dudes. It broke into the mainstream in October when Anita Sarkeesian cancelled her appearance at Utah State University after school officials refused to ban guns from the event, even after she had received death threats. Not exactly a meme per se, but is now the template for future culture wars.
Breaking the Internet — And then there are the women perfectly willing to submit themselves to objectification… you know, like Kim Kardashian. Her nude champagne photos on the cover of Paper magazine broke the Internet with the hashtag #breaktheinternet. Now, hopefully, the Internet will stop using the phrase “break the internet” to describe something that receives heavy traffic.
Alex from Target — Guess who was the next target of Internet objectification memes in 2014? Some random teenage boy named Alex, who works at Target, apparently. The marketing firm Breakr took immediate credit for creating the viral sensation (on a LinkedIn post), but then folks said, “not so fast, Breakr.” Two Texas teenage girls are the real marketing pros here. The upside for Alex: instant fame; the downside? Death threats.
Bendgate — On a lighter note, the iPhone 6 Plus might bend a little if you stuff it into the front pocket of your skinny jeans. The hashtag #bendgate got tweeted 37,000 times and this video review of a bent iPhone 6 Plus racked up 7.4 million views in 24 hours. Lots of photoshopping happened, and brands were quick to jump on the hashtag with jokes of their own. Kudos to Kit Kat, LG phones, and Heineken for riding a wave without regretting it later.
Mail Chimp — Mail Chimp, the irresistible ad that has infected the minds of listeners to the run-away hit Serial podcast. How did an ad become a meme? Part of the reason is the simple success of Serial, a true-crime episodic podcast from the makers of This American Life; another reason is how the ad is produced, with the ad copy read by characters from the story, and then edited together to give it a Radiolab-like texture that makes you listen closely. How closely? One woman’s mispronunciation of the brand as “mail kimp” has become its own hashtag (#mailkimp), which gets tweeted hundreds of times a day.
Feeling nostalgic about Grumpy Cat, Doge and twerking? These were the top memes of 2013.