How Harambe Has Managed to Live On for So Long

While other memes quickly fade away, Harambe perseveres months after his death.

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06 October 2016, 11:05pm

Everyone knows the name Harambe. Those three syllables are iconic, to the point that the mere thought of the gunned-down gorilla will force you to whisper, "Goodnight, sweet prince." Nothing short of a global superstar, Harambe is gone but not forgotten.

In a new age of internet memes – real-life-events-made-meme, rather than stuff like Forever Alone or Scumbag Steve – Harambe the gorilla is unequivocally the biggest yet. Since his death in May, when a young child crawled into his enclosure in Cincinnati Zoo, resulting in an employee shooting Harambe dead, his fame has not wavered. The world has continued to demand #JusticeForHarambe.

So why, when other memes die so quickly, has Harambe managed to survive? "Damn, Daniel" lasted all of a week. You'd probably already forgotten about Sad Ben Affleck until I reminded you literally just now. But Harambe? He lives on, in our hearts, our minds and our Twitter feeds.

Let's start with the basics: after a couple of tweets calling for "dicks out for Harambe", a battle cry was created. Then, in September, a naming contest for a baby ape in a Chinese zoo was derailed by voters who unanimously voted for it to be called Harambe McHarambeface, inspired by a similar contest earlier in the year in which people called for a boat to be called Boaty McBoatface. This made the mainstream news and opened many closed eyes to the cult of Harambe.

Plus, as we wrote last month, the darker or more objectively negative a meme is, it seems, the more chance it has of flourishing. Harambe was a negative meme from the very beginning. A three-year-old got into his enclosure – not Harambe's decision, remember – and he was killed for it. Which is pretty negative, all things considered.

But there must be more to it than that. What has allowed Harambe to transcend the evanescent nature of an internet joke? The answer lies first and foremost in the conditions in which we met Harambe. This year, 2016, has been merciless. From January onwards, the headlines were all Brexit, terror attacks, war, Donald Trump, snaky politics and one significant celebrity death after another – we needed some respite.

Vincent Dignan is a "growth hacker" with such an interest in Harambe that he's putting on an event called "Harambe Live: How to Make an Idea Go Viral". He believes Harambe was what we needed to save us from all that darkness.

"We haven't been able to escape bad news as we have in the past because we're so addicted to our Facebook feeds," he explained over the phone. "Harambe is the one sliver of light entertainment we've been allowed this year, instantly making any morbid story into lols. The events that are happening are so fucking serious, so when you see serious people getting annoyed at something as trivial as Harambe, it's amazing to see."

We clung onto that refreshing amusement desperately. In Swahili, Harambe's name translates roughly to "working together", and thanks to him, that's exactly what we were doing: in face of adversity, we were being brought together under his name.

This has also been the year that social media mourning went into overdrive; the year that it became crucial to let everyone on Facebook know how much you're going to miss that one guy you saw in a film once.

David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, Lemmy, Prince – they all went before Harambe. With social media mourning becoming a performance, it was hard not to criticise. Did you really love Bowie, or did you just hear "Starman" once in a pub and have it saved on your Shazam? Was Prince truly the reason you started wearing purple, or is that just a really weird thing you've now said publicly on Twitter? People were ready for a figure they could use to lampoon these contrived outpourings of grief, and Harambe was that figure.

"The internet loved the mock moral outrage of people who'd never posted anything about gorillas before being furious that one was dead," explained Dignan. "In this case it was literally a gorilla from an obscure zoo no one had heard of. Now that everyone's become addicted to mourning when something bad happens, that's where this meme really took off. Liberals were taken the piss out of for caring too much, and the conservatives for being too uptight."

In other words, both sides could be trolled and everyone could do the trolling. Importantly, big brands stayed away from Harambe – unlike other memes, where they've dived in and destroyed the joke – because none could risk attaching themselves to something so controversial or dark.

Jake Charles Rees, meme lecturer and co-curator of the exhibition "What Do U Meme", believes the ever-flourishing culture of online mischief is central to Harambe's endurance. "People love toying with the powers that be and playing with the generational gap, and that many older people just don't get it," he said over email. "Just look at the Clinton campaign team and how they misunderstood and misrepresented Pepe."

So we got into a trolling cycle of anger and joy – the more people got annoyed by the Harambe meme, the more others took joy in posting it, and the longer it lived on. A large part of why he became so hilarious is because people kept finding him so infuriating. Harambe created meme hysteria.

Once the meme was beginning to reach its apex in August, almost ready to retire to the Know Your Meme graveyard, it was stoked again by an external force. Cincinnati Zoo issued a statement to the Associated Press, saying: "We are not amused by the memes, petitions and signs about Harambe. Our zoo family is still healing, and the constant mention of Harambe makes moving forward more difficult for us. We are honouring Harambe by redoubling our gorilla conservation efforts and encouraging others to join us."

Like telling children to stop doing something, fans redoubled their efforts to give Harambe a second life. If the zoo truly wanted to kill the meme – like they killed the gorilla – they should have resisted interference.

Cast your mind back to 2015 – only one year ago in real time, but light years ago in meme time – and you'll remember the first real bout of internet outrage over an animal's death. Cecil the Lion. An arrogant American recreational big-game-hunter-cum-dentist went to a national park in Zimbabwe and shot a lion, which caused international outrage, which provoked memes and a call for justice for Cecil.

Arguably, if it weren't for Cecil, Harambe never would have taken off as he has. As meme writer Brian Feldman said in his piece "The Dark Internet Humour of Harambe Memes", "When Harambe was killed, there was already an understanding of what would happen next, and how the story would play out over the next several weeks. And so Harambe's ironic meme brigade tore out of the starting blocks like a rocket. Cecil memes happened as a response to Cecil outrage, but Harambe memes happened in anticipation of Harambe outrage."

And yet, although Harambe in many ways recycled Cecil's internet animal death jokes, the consequences of Harambe's death meant he could be enjoyed for far longer than Cecil could. Cecil's death was black and white – there was a baddy: the brash American dentist. But the morals around Harambe's demise were up for debate.

"It captured people's imaginations because there are so many touchy points – were the parents at fault, were the zoo at fault, should the gorilla have been shot?" asked Dignan. "That's literally how we speak to people at house parties: 'Would you have shot the gorilla?' They say one side and then I argue the other. There's no end to it because it's such a moral grey area with Harambe."

Although the tale of Harambe's death is an evergreen fable of biblical proportions, it's also open-ended enough to be adaptable. Rees argues that Harambe has endured in meme form because it's the "perfect container" for anything. "The gorilla is irrelevant, but the reality of the death of Harambe the gorilla – the feelings of loss, grief, anger, and frustration that people felt – give the meme the agility to speak to and engage with a huge array of subjects and emotions from farce to fact," he said. "If you're feeling angry, frustrated or grieving about literally anything, Harambe becomes a vehicle for you to make gags."

Ultimately, you can take almost any decent Harambe meme and find it's ironic, sincere and a total joke rolled into one. There is something very straightforward about them. They aren't overly niche or tied to subculture that requires much prior knowledge. They're simple, and it's the simple memes that take off.

How long does Harambe have left in him? It's difficult to say. Dignan believes at least another three months, but ultimately it depends on what the next big memes are. Memes compete with each other for our attention, so our sweet prince will be replaced naturally – but only when the time comes. And for now, I'm still laughing.

@hannahrosewens

More on meme culture:

Why Sad Memes Live Longer Than All of Us

Know Your Meme Founder Explains What a Meme Is

What Happens To People When They Become a Meme

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