If you have spent any time on social media in the past four months, chances are you have encountered not one, but a variety of memes containing the Internet’s favorite gorilla, Harambe. The virality of these memes is admirable; what started as a public outcry has turned into a mainstream phenomenon.
This stream of memes is not only impressive, though. We as digital writers can learn from Harambe. He teaches us a very important lesson about the intermingling of mainstream news and Internet short media, and, if we hope to circulate our own viral messages, we would be wise to listen.
In case you somehow missed the news, here’s the story. Harambe was a lowland gorilla that was shot and killed by the Cincinnati Zoo on May 28, 2016 when a child fell into his enclosure. CNN reported that Harambe dragged the child around, prompting a zoo employee to fatally shoot him with a rifle.
News of Harambe’s death sparked outrage from animal rights activists and parents, with arguments over who was responsible for the gorilla’s death: the child’s parents, the zoo, or neither? News stories and a petition swarmed social media, making the story nearly impossible to ignore and beginning the popular hashtags #JusticeforHarambe and #RIPHarambe.
Due to the wide-spread news and extreme social media outcry, the Internet did what the Internet does best: mock the mainstream. Nobody knows for certain why “Internet trolls” or social media jokesters enjoy turning tragedy into comedy, but people on social media often understand that soon after a public uproar comes a wave of mocking images, GIFs, videos, and text posts.
Jokes about Harambe began as photoshopped images of him next to faces of famous celebrities who passed away in 2016 such as David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Prince, according to Know Your Meme.
Soon after, Harambe memes spread like wildfire, sparking meme threads including changing popular song lyrics, “RIP Harambe,” “Harambe for President,” “Dick’s out for Harambe,” and even original songs like Dumbfounded’s tune, “Harambe.”
(Warning: explicit language)
Not only were original memes of the dead gorilla created, but he was virally incorporated into other major meme types like “Arthur’s Fist,” “Bush Did…,” and “Crying Jordan.”
It seems like Harambe is applicable to nearly any Internet meme, considering the vast sea of original, mimicked, and responsive memes made in his name. An article from Harambe Depot (created in honor of the gorilla) lists 50 of the Best Harambe Memes of All Time—fifty memes in one article, and there are so many more to discover.
So why is Harambe so important? Why did the gorilla’s tragic demise spark one of the most popular memes of the summer? To understand, we need to first examine the characteristics of memes. Meme Documentation on Tumblr defines Internet memes with four basic characteristics:
- A meme is “popular but not too mainstream”: The Harambe incident quickly spread across major news outlets and social media, creating a story a large majority of people were familiar with. However, the memes themselves began as a joke from a few users of Twitter, then growing into an Internet sensation. The trick to Harambe avoiding mainstream powerlessness is the wide variety of memes he is incorporated with—no one meme is circulating too long before a totally different interpretation pops up in its place.
- A meme “possesses the quality to produce derivatives”: This one definitely holds true in Harambe’s case. Considering the meme is only based on the gorilla’s image, it lends itself to an insane number of applications. This is why we see the variety of derivative memes that exist today.
- Memes “occur spontaneously”: Harambe was not the first animal to be killed unjustifiably in Internet history (and most likely will not be the last). In this case, Internet users were probably not expecting as large of an outcry, nor as viral a meme to appear. Harambe memes were not forced into existence; they actually defy what is typically “acceptable” in terms of a public tragedy.
- Memes typically have a “humorous element”: It is no doubt that the Harambe memes are intended to be funny. Obviously, humor varies from person to person, but most of these memes generate at least a small chuckle from their viewers. The original memes were also satirical, which is a form of comedy many online users enjoy.
Harambe: A Vessel
Clearly, Harambe fits the mold of traditional Internet memes. That still doesn’t explain why a simple gorilla became so popular, though. The Atlantic’s article about Harambe memes attempts to explain why Harambe is the “perfect” meme: it claims that Harambe is merely a vessel. He is “capable of carrying any signal without becoming identified with any of them,” seen by the wide variety of memes Harambe has been applied to. Harambe is able to mean something online because he doesn’t really mean anything.
As the Atlantic article states, there is no true villain in the Harambe story; no single person is at fault for the tragedy that caused an uproar. While Harambe’s death meant a lot to people initially, the outrageous uproar was quickly satirized online. The massive blow-up made the Harambe news story lose its true meaning but left a lasting impression on audiences, which allows it to be recognizable, applicable, and humorous in light of itself. Harambe the gorilla and Harambe the meme are now two separate entities: the first, a tragedy, and the other, a joke at the expense of Internet outcry. Harambe the meme doesn’t hold much true value or meaning, which allows us to place him in many other circumstances online.
The Memeablilty Lesson
So what is the lesson that we digital writers can learn from Harambe? In terms of short message circulation, the subject should be a few things:
- Something that almost everyone knows about
- Something simple and easily applicable in a variety of instances
- Something that is essentially meaningless
I would argue that that is it—those are the basic requirements for viral memes. If we learn anything about memes from Harambe, it’s that they can’t really mean anything, or they limit themselves. The Internet took advantage of a fizzling news story and created a vessel for entertainment. Without memes, audiences would have moved on in a matter of days, their attention focused on something else. But now, because of memes, Harambe will live on in our memories forever.