This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
They did surgery on a grape. In fact, as I write this, they're still doing surgery on a grape – but by the time you read it the grape will probably have recovered from surgery and the world will have moved on to some other equally absurd incarnation of viral content. Hopefully "Video/Radio Star", "Don't Say It" and "Not Your Man" will also be over, because they all suck.
Earlier this year, we had moth memes – arguably a highlight of the meme offerings of 2018 – and then we briefly had spin-off beaver memes, but they didn't really take off. Which got me thinking: what makes a meme successful, and is it possible to force a meme to happen?
First: a quick backstory of the surgery on a grape meme. It seems to have originated from @simpledorito, a meme account with 17.4k followers and a permanent story dedicated to his new-found viral fame, which mostly features screenshots of people posting his meme captioned "this is epic" and DMs he's received about his meme doing bits, to which he responds "damn that's epic" or "shout me out". I reached out to @simpledorito for comment but received no response, presumably because his inbox is full of epic shout outs.
The grape meme itself is a play on the repetitive caption style of previous memes such as "Revolver Ocelot" and "My man Kevin on the ledge and shit". Some believe this format to be the absolute pinnacle of humour – but who decides whether a meme makes it or not?
Is there a Meme World Order deciding which memes make it and which fade into obscurity? Do the meme Illuminati – the big accounts with over 1 million followers – decide which memes to push on us, the plebs? Or are memes really the one medium of the people: a truly democratic and "independent medium that exists outside the confines of cultural gatekeepers and media conglomerates"?
"It's weather patterns, man," says Adam Padilla, AKA Adam The Creator, when I ask him whether the meme deck can be stacked, so to speak. "It's too big for business. You can influence it a little bit... you can't start a fire, but you can fan it. Just by the nature of what this is, you can't create it. It's beyond you – it's a beautiful thing that you really can't control. Can a corporation make something visible? Yes. You can definitely spend money to make sure 10 million people on Twitter see a thing... but if they don't like it enough to share it, it's just views. And many agencies get by on that: it's eyeballs, but it's not viral. It's viral when it's willingly passed. I think right now we're in an area where it is sort of free; it's like a meritocracy of memes."
"You definitely can't force a meme," agrees Reid Hailey, Owner & CEO of Doing Things Media, the company behind big meme accounts such as Trashcan Paul, Drunk People Doing Things and Shitheadsteve. What, then, is the secret to success in the meme world? "There's not like a standard formula... it's just one of those weird things that everyone's thinking, but then someone says it and they're like, 'Wait, that's hilarious, I’ve definitely had that thought before,'" he says. "It's kinda like you hit that wavelength that everyone's on, that no one's really put that idea out there, and once it's out there it's like everyone thinks it's funny."
While both men started out as original content creators, Hailey now focuses mostly on curating viral videos and memes made by other people. Padilla, however, has stuck to his guns, and his is now one of few big meme pages to create its own content, rather than repost memes made by other people. "There are only a handful of real meme creators; not because we're so great or anything, but because the very nature of memes is that they're crowdsourced, so you need a sample size of millions to come up with this crazy insanity every day," he explains.
Padilla admits that a lot of big content creators do work together and have group chats where they discuss memes, but he compares it to an improv group where someone shouts out a suggestion and everyone else in the room starts to riff on it, rather than a sinister secret society figuring out how to take over the world one meme at a time. "I think that's how something becomes a meme – the people who are in the practice of making these things every day, often times we just want something to grab onto and use as a suggestion, just for a bit of silliness," he says. "Surgery on a grape? It's very silly. It's internet culture, it's comment culture, it's repost culture, fast news culture – and the absurdism at the centre is this innocuous grape."
Whether or not a meme blows up, though, is down to us. "Obviously there are way more fans than there are creators – that's the way the world goes around," says Padilla. "So the reposters are just as important. Whether you're a repost page or you're just DMing your friend a meme you saw, you're passing it on. You determine whether or not it's a hit, and whether or not 1 million people see it."
Ultimately, it seems that when it comes to success, the stupider a meme, the better it will do and the longer it will last. "I'd say it all depends on the meme and how bad it is," laughs Hailey. "Sometimes the meme is so bad that it goes on forever. Like, Harambe went on forever. That's an old school meme nowadays, but it was so dumb and it was the most widespread meme ever, I think. Some memes you can't really do that many versions of, so it has a smaller shelf life."
Seeing as it's a humble grape at the centre of all this, I also reached out to grapejuiceboys for comment, but unfortunately the people or person behind the account were "not into my questions at all", which suggests that maybe this was in fact all a giant conspiracy and that we're now all in the pocket of Big Grape after all.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.