The 'Is This a Pigeon' Meme Is a Window Into the Internet's Psyche

Is this a meme analysis?

Shit's bleak in 2018 and this year's crop of memes reflects that grim reality. From Evil Patrick to Angry American Chopper, the image macros we share today are telling us much more about ourselves and our world than lol catz did in days gone by.

Case in point: the "Is This A Pigeon?" meme.

The framework for this one is pretty ancient by internet standards. The still image that forms its basis is from a 1991 anime called The Brave Fighter of Sunbird, in which an android, Yutaro Katori, mistakes a butterfly for a pigeon:


According to Know Your Meme, the still shot of Yutaro first appeared on Tumblr in 2011 , where it achieved virality for the first time.

This month, the image reemerged and quickly became a heavily-used format. A good portion of posts use the template to make the sort of pop cultural jokes that practically function as currency on Instagram these days.

Noticeably, however, many Twitter users are using "Is This A Pigeon" to comment on issues of mental health and depression:

I spoke to one meme creator, Twitter user @1malab, about her particularly viral take on the meme:

@1malab made the image after getting into a relationship with a man who treated her like a therapist. When she told her friends about it, she realized she wasn't alone.

"I told all this to my friends and they just started telling me stories about stuff like that that’s happened to them too and we just started to realize how common it was," she told me over Twitter DM. "Because I swear it’s a group chat of 20 girls on Twitter and almost everyone had a story like that."

The insane popularity of @1malab's tweet—it has racked up more than 53,000 retweets and 182,000 likes as of publication—certainly suggests it has hit on something in our collective psyche.

To find out why the meme is resonating so deeply with so many, I spoke with psychologist Schekeva Hall. She suggested that a lot of people struggle to express their feelings in words."Memes [are] kind of like a way to get around that … I think it makes people understand emotion and mental health in a more accessible way," Hall said.


The "Is This A Pigeon" meme may lend itself so well to expressing difficult emotions because of the question posed at the bottom.

"There's like a big mystery around mental health and around feelings and especially at the space where you're acknowledging [that] something might be going on," said Hall.

To Hall, memes are another form of communication; instead of using a knowing glance to let a friend know they're not alone, you may share a meme to achieve the same thing. She said a good thing about these memes going viral, despite how intense they may be, is that they may reassure people that others are going through similar experiences.

"It normalizes the actual thoughts [by getting] shared," she said. "And the more it gets normalized, the more it gets likely to be highlighted and talked about."

So while some "Is This A Pigeon" memes may be downers, they could help demystify the process of dealing with depression and other mental health issues.

Of course, afterwards, you can go back to looking at the dumb ones:

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Anna Iovine on Twitter.

This article was updated on May 16, 2018.