Surreal Memes Are the Last Escape the Internet Has
The best part is that they’re about nothing at all.
Image: Shutterstock Remix by Louise Matsakis
Take a look at this meme:
Don't get it? You haven't missed an inside joke. There was never a joke to begin with. This meme is not based on anything at all. It's surreal.
Unlike mainstream memes, which often comment on or critique popular culture, surreal memes are baseless, abstract creations that make you laugh, but also feel a little strange.
"Surrealism just makes your mind a little uncomfortable, and at the same time is usually unexpected and requires a little more effort on the part of the consumer," Reddit user magicsdevil, the founder and a moderator of r/surrealmemes, told me.
"Surreal memes," magicsdevel added, "are my personal label for memes that can generally get a cheap laugh just like normal memes, but are also a bit disorienting and difficult not because (not just because) of their irony, but because they aren't quite rational or grounded in any particular reality."
For the last two years, surreal memes have slowly taken over pockets of the internet. The genre's dedicated subreddit, r/surrealmemes, now has more than 44,000 subscribers (another surreal joke, maybe: The subreddit's CSS styling shows that it has around 44 million). There's a Discord server, and even several related subreddits like r/surreallore, a place for surrealist humor that is text-based rather than visual.
There's also r/wholesomesurrealmemes, which mixes surreal memes with wholesome memes, a genre focused on expressing supportive or affectionate messages. The subreddit was started by Reddit user frodokun. "I figured it'd be a one-time joke and then disappear into the miasma of dead subreddits," they said.
While the wholesome forum isn't terribly active, surreal memes certainly haven't gone anywhere. They're only growing more popular, and have been since at least 2015, Brad Kim, editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme, told me in an email.
"This is a group of people that are finding their humor in pushing to absurdity the common tropes of internet memes," Ryan Milner, an assistant professor at The College of Charleston and author of The World Made Meme, told me over the phone. "This is a way to kind of take back some of the absurdity that was common in places like 4chan a while ago."
For the most part, surreal memes don't feature any recurring characters, except what looks like a decapitated bald head or mannequin. The blue-eyed bust appears in hundreds of memes and YouTube videos, and serves as one of the only consistent stylistic elements of the genre.
Surreal memes often pay homage to surrealist art, an early 20th century tradition that aimed to "break the mold of what people were expecting to the point of shocking them into alertness," Milner explained. "There's a Salvador Dalí vibe to it."
Posting surreal memes is a way to be strange and weird without referencing current events. In an internet climate where so much of what is being shared on social media is either incredibly partisan or really safe, "this is a way to push those expectations in a way that's not too political, edgy or problematic," Milner said.
Posting surreal content is also a way to distinguish one's self as a more serious consumer of internet culture. "I think 'surreal memes' that we are now seeing are more or less a reflection of the still-emerging metameme culture that wants to preserve itself from the so-called 'normies,'" Kim said.
Reddit user MC_Labs15, a moderator of r/surrealmemes, agrees.
"Surreal memes are also appealing to me because they feel like a protest of the normal 'meme culture' found on the internet," they explained. "While I do enjoy many 'normal' memes circulated on the internet (and have made some myself), they can grow old over time."
Then again, there's always the chance surreal memes could also grow old. The joke could become played out, as the genre becomes more prominent and more people begin making art in the same style.
"Looking ahead this seems really hard to sustain," Milner said. "That absurdity starts feeling normal."
Update: This article has been updated to clarify that the subreddit uses a "style" that makes it look like the subreddit has 44 million subscribers. We had previously noted that recent Internet Archive screenshots showed that it had around 40,000 but the number on the live page is inflated.