No One Knows Why This Tweet Went Viral
For the first time in many years, I came across a meme I did not even remotely understand:
Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was funny, but this meme went viral on Twitter for no apparent reason (Crystel here is a good tweeter but does not have a huge following), and many of the replies to it are “why did this go viral?” Because I am in constant fear of falling Out Of Touch, I began performing some digital forensics in order to understand h.
After several hours of clicking around the internet and talking to literal meme doctors, I am happy to report that I now know the true meaning of h. Ultimately it's meme because it's a meme.
Tracing the origins of h wasn't easy. Several close meme sources (nerds at Motherboard) told me that h (not to be confused with g) originated with Brenda, a person who apparently posted this on Target’s Facebook page sometime last year:
That post went viral on Reddit’s r/OldPeopleFacebook in August of last year, but I haven’t been able to find Brenda’s post on the actual Target Facebook page. An r/OutOfTheLoop post from two months ago also points to Brenda as the likely origin for H, though no one was able to explain what the joke is. I am sorry to report to these various memelords, however, that they are WRONG and that ‘H’ predates Brenda by many years.
For instance, this video of YouTuber JONTRON “SAYING H LIVE” was posted on YouTube in July 2014 and has been shared somewhat widely. But where did JONTRON learn about H? I cannot answer that, but I did find a blog post by web developer Christine Dodrill from 2015 that attempts to explain the “The Origin of h.” That blog post points to a video called “Moonbase 4lpha: *****y Space Skeletons” from 2012. This video is of a buggy space video game called Moonbase Alpha in which players spammed the letter ‘h’ over and over again in the chat.
It is possible that ‘H’ predates even this shitty moonbase game, but it is here where I digress: Finding the origins of the H meme would likely not help explain what the H meme means or help us understand why it is currently viral.
The cold, hard fact is that ‘H’ is a meme because it is a meme. And the Gordon Ramsay tweet went viral because it went viral.
“Many memes are memes because they're memes/not because they have a history or resonant backstory,” Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Georgia’s Mercer University who cowrote The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, told me in an email. “Simply liking things (for who knows what reason, maybe no discernible reason even for participants) is an often overlooked explanation for why people do the things they do online, or offline; ‘I dunno I just wanted to’ is, in its own way, an argument, even if it might not be satisfying for cultural critics.”
Phillips’s coauthor on that book, Ryan Milner, an assistant professor at the College of Charleston who also wrote the book World Made Meme, told me in an email that the meme is funny because it is essentially a blank canvas. It means whatever you want it to mean:
“It makes NO sense at face value and so it’s incongruous with normal memetic referencing in a pleasurable way,” he said. “It also has the puzzle (what does this mean?) and jargon (outsiders will not know what this means) elements to it that long made 4chan and other niches rat’s nests of esoterica. The intentions, processes, audiences, and meanings are hard to suss out here but this example is quintessentially memetic in that it’s a shared in-joke that others can make their own as they share it further. That’s true whether the text starts with a viral moment, a captioned Muppet, or random pixels on the screen.”
If you have no idea what’s going on, that’s the point.
Crystel, the person who tweeted the tweet that sent me on this vision quest, intrinsically understood this all along: “It really means nothing, and that’s the joke (at least for me),” she told me in a Twitter DM. “My humor has degraded so much that it has come to a form of a single letter. Also everyone loves Gordon Ramsay food roasting session … it’s just so randomly dumb.”
This does mean, however, that a meme that is funny to you because your name starts with the letter ‘H’ might be funny to someone else because it’s racist, so keep this in mind before recklessly sharing memes: “Maybe, instead, (or concurrently), we're all about to get milkshake ducked, because surprise, The Daily Stormer is going to say tomorrow morning that H stands for Hitler, and then that will become true too, once journalists start writing articles about it,” Phillips said. “Whether or not anybody meant it to point, it’s Poe's Law all the way down.”
I was pretty sure that H hadn’t yet been coopted by the Nazis. But during the editing process, I learned that JONTRON of "FOOTAGE OF JONTRON SAYING H LIVE" fame is followed on Twitter by Richard Spencer and several other prominent members of the alt-right, and that last year he defended the nativist and racist comments of Iowa Rep. Steve King, starting a shitstorm among his fanbase. Does this make H problematic? Who knows!
“The concept of ‘internet/meme culture’ has become so diluted, and in many cases, so hollowed out and filled with Nazis, that it's hard to know what ‘meme/internet culture’ even means anymore,” Phillips said.
The good news is that I learned I am not out of touch and that I understood H all along. And so did everyone else. If you have no idea what’s going on, that’s the point.