Where to start, with the starter pack? Know Your Meme traces the meme back to late 2014, and since then it caught on less as a message than as a format, with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr accounts dedicated to starter packs.
The internet is filled with starter packs. Sometimes they’re about self-loathing or depression. Sometimes they’re terribly true. Sometimes they laugh at social media itself, or distill a familiar experience down to a series of pictures, like communal memory flashing before your eyes. There are starter packs for such niche social segments as men who install door hinges, gainfully employed realtors, angsty geologists, and mid-00s prom attendees.
Sociologists study material culture, exploring the meaning we invest in physical objects. The starter pack takes a similar, if less nuanced, approach, and repackages it as clickbait: each meme is a list of references the viewer ticks off, congratulating themselves if they recognise every item on the list.
It seems likely that with time and effort, one could find a starter pack for every person in the world.
The joke is based almost entirely upon stereotyping people, and—predictably—this can lead into morally dubious territory. Starter pack memes have been called out as racist, and the starter pack subreddit bans starter packs which generalise about race. Some of the most popular starter packs do address ethnicity, nationality, and religion, in a way that’s reductive but not especially malicious. Memes like the “Growing up in a Sheltered Christian Household” starter pack, the “20-something middle-class Hispanic dude from South Florida” starter pack and the “Down and Out Middle-aged Alaskan” starter pack are so specific as to only be entertaining to those they actually describe. A lot of starter pack memes make fun of white people; ‘basic bitches’ (in starter parks, they are invariably white, school- and college-aged girls who go shopping at the mall and drink Starbucks) feature heavily, as do more niche targets like middle-aged successful white male ‘Monocle’ readers, or the “indie ish vaguely artistic 20-26 year old white dude with bad facial hair who preys on girls with emotional issues.”
A picture emerges of not so much a meme but a memosphere; it seems likely that with time and effort, one could find a starter pack for every person in the world. The starter pack ranks alongside the “What People Think I Do” meme and the Dungeons & Dragons alignments system, both tongue-in-cheek ways of “sorting” the internet and our identities. It could also be said to mirror “target markets” decided on by marketers and data scientists who work for social media sites. As they classify us by common traits and interests, so we have learned to classify ourselves.
Over its two-year history, the starter pack meme has developed a certain self-awareness. Each image is a portrait, a tiny life story. Discussion of starter packs often gives way to confessional or revelatory comments, when viewers recognise themselves in the meme. There is also a dedicated meta-category of starter packs about starter packs, which distil the meme down to its basic components (generic caption, watermarked image, or, amusingly, the Twitter logo and a picture of a bandwagon).
That self-reflexivity has come full circle with the arrival of an automated starter pack bot. Created by Ben West and Callum Copley, the bot crawls Wikipedia articles at random, pulling images and links and arranging the resulting collage into a ‘starter pack’ tweeted every two hours.
The results are occasionally baffling, at other times startlingly similar to memes made by humans. The bot shines a light on the humble, the arcane and apparently un-memeable. For every starter pack on an apparently interesting topic (the gay bathhouse starter pack, perhaps, or the starter pack for an “anachitis,” a mythical stone used by the magi for necromancy) there is one on a boring theme, like Arkansas Highway 113, or “agreeableness” (visually pleasant, and for some reason featuring the word “Midwest.”)
Copley explained the project in Twitter DMs: “We wanted to satirise the formulaic nature of the meme, which in itself highlights the formulaic nature of subcultures themselves,” he wrote. “The reductive nature of the meme is the object of humour, rather than the individual targets of the meme. With discussions of automation and the role of creativity, we thought it interesting to comment on the format of a meme that appeared so algorithmic already.”
The starter pack bot touches on how humanity cannot be conveyed, in all its complexity, through social media. If starter packs are “relatable,” then, it’s because they reveal that behind our screens we’re all the same, “faking it” by performing a stereotype. Long before the machines replace us, the bot seems to suggest, we will learn to behave like machines ourselves.
Still, there’s something exciting about the challenge of turning every peculiarity of life into a shareable picture. Turned loose upon the internet, the starter pack becomes a bigger, more mystical project: an attempt to capture every idea in existence and reduce it to a starter pack, assembling a meme-library of Babel.