In on the Joke: The Esoteric, Hilarious World of Instagram Memes

Instagram memes are having a moment. Here’s how the people making them are building community offline.

Written by Sunny Betz
Published on Jan. 28, 2022
In on the Joke: The Esoteric, Hilarious World of Instagram Memes

In December 2021, A2B2, a side project run by the experimental hip-hop group Death Grips’ co-producer Andy Morin, hosted a music festival at Brooklyn’s Knockdown Center. Billed as “Night of Fire”, the lineup featured some of the most innovative artists in electronic music. Arca, an experimental electronic producer, DJ and sometimes Kanye-West-collaborator, was billed as the headliner. 

The night promised to be unforgettable for Mina — a DJ herself, Arca is an artist she has looked up to for years. But music aside, she and Arca also shared common ground in an unexpected way: They had the same taste in memes.

“There’s a meme I made that’s this girl with a guy begging at her feet,” Mina said. “There’s a thought bubble above her head and a speech bubble next to his head — she’s thinking, ‘I love Aphex Twin,’ and he’s saying, ‘I love Aphex Twin.’”

It wasn’t the type of universal humor that one would expect to gain momentum online, but to Mina’s surprise, it wound up doing numbers. 

“Then Arca reposted it, and she ended up following me on Instagram,” she said.

Mina runs the Instagram account @meetmeintranspecos (who requested we don’t use her real name because she isn’t ready to do an admin reveal), a New York music scene-focused meme page that posts a hodgepodge of content about everything from Brian Eno to NYU. On Mina’s page, almost anything can get turned into an elaborate inside joke — she even made a meme about the A2B2 show, referring to it lovingly as “non-binary Coachella”

But even though the page has gained over 20,000 followers, Mina says that she’s still surprised by how far of a reach her memes have. Getting noticed by Arca for making jokes on the internet was something she’d never expected, and it felt huge.

“It’s just such a surreal thing to have someone that I’ve respected for years, an artist who’s so groundbreaking, to engage in our meme culture and shitposting world,” she said.

In some corners of Instagram, memes are more than just funny images — they’re pop culture commodities, surrealist art, and a form of comedic expression. It can feel like memes appear out of thin air, but in reality, people work behind the scenes to make each one. The Arca meme reshares show that memes do impart a very real, if sometimes hard to articulate, influence on contemporary culture. They’re also a way for meme connoisseurs to build community over shared interests both online and offline. 

Mina didn’t attend the Night of Fire by herself. She was joined by a crew of fellow New York-based meme makers, many of whom formed connections on the internet that laid the foundation for IRL friendship.

“Before the show, my friends and I were like, ‘Oh my God, imagine being backstage drinking champagne with Arca’,” she joked. “Obviously that didn’t happen, but I did DM her before the show saying I’d be there, and she sent back a bunch of flower bouquet emojis. I think she would have loved to know that we were all there together.”

 

Meme Culture on Instagram Is Taking Off

Instagram is in the middle of a meme renaissance. The New York Times reported that over the last year, many meme pages have more than doubled their followings, with some pages like @epicfunnypage and @sarcasm_only boasting over 16 million followers. But this trend didn’t spring from nowhere — plenty of Instagram meme makers got their start in other corners of the internet first. 

Eva Jenkins, the admin behind the meme page @wipeyadocsoff, was one of the people that joined Mina at the Night of Fire festival. She said that her interest in meme making started on Facebook, where she bounced ideas off her internet friends.

“Facebook had this weird meme page moment, and I ended up finding a bunch of music pages and started making music-related memes there,” she said. “I see a lot of people I know from Facebook groups way back when who also have Instagram meme pages now.”

“Making memes on Instagram feels like this fun kind of bastardization of the platform itself.” 

Mina’s meme-making also started outside of Instagram. She ran a style blog on Tumblr, and in high school spent a lot of time on the site. When Tumblr was bought by Yahoo in 2013, the platform lost its spark for Mina and her friends, and they began to seek out a new platform to create and share their content. Instagram — with its capacity for posting concise, easily shareable images — felt like a promising alternative.

“For people my age that were on Tumblr, the format of Instagram memes makes the most sense,” she said. “The aesthetic aspect of it really clicks for me.”

The popularity of verbose, ultra-meta memes on Instagram can seem somewhat illogical given that the app was built for sharing selfies and candid photos. But Jenkins thinks that just adds another layer to the humor.

“Making memes on Instagram feels like this fun kind of bastardization of the platform itself,” she said.

A screenshot of wipeyadocsoff instagram meme post.
A DJ meme posted by user @wipeyadocsoff on Instagram. | Image: wipeyadocsoff

The app does have its drawbacks. Instagram’s opaque community guidelines often cause meme pages to get shut down or shadowbanned, and some creators feel its algorithm doesn’t favor their text-heavy content. But for Jenkins, whose memes are often purposefully bewildering, her posts’ popularity is inconsequential.

“I made a meme a couple of weeks ago about being stuck inside David Rudnick’s portfolio,” she said. “I do not care how many likes I get at all anymore. The people who think it’s funny will think it’s hilarious, and that’s enough for me.” 

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Memes Are a Growing Part of Pop Culture

When she started her meme page, Mina says that her biggest source of inspiration was a 2017 book by Lizzy Goodman called Meet Me In The Bathroom.

“That book is very much about the early 2000s New York indie scene — LCD Soundsystem, The Strokes, bands like that,” she said. “It was a huge inspiration for me — I was really attracted to the New York music scene. ”

The book became a common reference point between Mina and her former co-admin, who was also attracted to New York City’s alternative music culture. They found themselves asking: If that book had been written today, what would it be like? Their answer to that question was what would eventually become @meetmeintranspecos. The name for the page drew from the title of Goodman’s book, and also references the Queens-based alternative music venue Trans-Pecos.

“We started the page in 2018,” she said. “We constantly made memes about the New York DIY scene and sent them to each other. We would just make fun of it all lightheartedly.”

In the Instagram meme world, niche pop culture interests become fodder for inside jokes, but memes can also be expressions of culture themselves. Joanie Drago, a New York-based comedian, playwright, started the page @joaniedrago_unofficial as an extension of her comedy work.

At first, her Instagram was centered around her regular life — pictures of her cat, vacation photos, or just what she was eating. But as Instagram memes gained steam, she started to recognize the potential they held as a comedic medium. She compared them to haikus — concise pieces of text that are capable of expressing a multitude of meanings.

“She compared them to haikus — concise pieces of text that are capable of expressing a multitude of meanings.”

“I tend to be very verbose, but as my creative life progresses, my plays get shorter and shorter,” she said. “I’ve gotten really into the idea of what you can convey with one image and one piece of text. I love that memes are a single, reproducible unit of comedic information, because they can travel very, very far all across the internet.”

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A New Type of Community

The Instagram meme world doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are real people behind every account, and the A2B2 meme page admin meetup is proof that online communities can lead to offline friendships. 

“I’ve always made memes to just connect with people who have similar interests,” Jenkins said. “That’s one of the cool things about the internet and Instagram meme culture — meeting people that you share common ground with.” 

Mina finds that the more niche her memes are, the more self-referential her community becomes — and the more outsiders want to get in on the joke.

“Most of my followers live in New York, but some of them don’t,” she said. “Sometimes people are like, ‘What the fuck is Myrtle/Broadway?’ I don’t want to have to explain it, but I also think that’s what makes it funnier.” 

A screenshot of meetmeintranspecos meme posted on Instagram.
A regional NYC meme posted by user @meetmeintranspecos on Intsagram. | Image: meetmeintranspecos

Memes can bring people together over shared interests or to bond over music taste, but they also lead to deeper, profound connections. Patia Borja, one of the admins behind the popular meme page @patiasfantasyworld, has spoken about how life as a Black woman inspires her memes, and how that specificity has turned her page into a space for her Black followers to bond over shared experiences. 

As she started her gender transition, Drago began turning more and more to memes as a way to sort through her feelings and experiences as a trans woman. Over time, she realized her memes about transness attracted more and more followers who could relate to the jokes she was making.

A screenshot of joaniedrago_unofficial meme on Instagram.
A trans meme posted by user @joaniedrago_unofficial on Instagram. | Image: joaniedrago_unofficial

“I think the job of the comedian is to tell the truth about the world, so that you can change it for the better,” she said. “Memes have brought so many people into my life, and through the page I’ve made friends all over the world. They’re real connections — there’s real people behind those accounts.”

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The Offline Future of Memes

Talking to Mina, it’s clear how important the New York music community is to her. As a musician and avid club-goer, Mina is not only a commentator on the scene, but also an active participant. When the Brooklyn-based music venue Bossa Nova Civic Club was forced to close indefinitely after a fire in the building’s third floor, @meetmeintranspecos responded in its usual comedic form, but this time sharing a link to the venue’s GoFundMe page, urging those who spent time there dancing or sharing drinks to donate.

Since her memes are so rooted in the New York indie scene, she envisions @meetmeintranspecos becoming a space that supports local music in real life.

“There’s all these ideas that I have,” she said. “The pandemic has thrown a wrench in things, but I would love to have a club night at a local venue where I could book local talent. That would be my ideal way to build community.” 

Mina’s ultimate goal is that, through @meetmeintranspecos, she can participate in the mythmaking of New York, and that the page can help others appreciate it as much as she appreciated Meet Me In The Bathroom

“I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I do like the idea that a meme about a memorable night at the club can encourage people to romanticize their community, or just feel grateful for this endless source of content inspiration that is living in New York.”

“Everyone is lonely right now to an extent, and where else do lonely people go but online?”

Drago shares the hope for her meme page to make its way offline. When many comedy clubs shuttered during the earlier stages of the pandemic, Drago says @joaniedrago_unofficial turned into an alternative to the standup acts she would normally do. With the introduction of vaccines, venues are opening their doors again for live performances — but that doesn’t mean Drago wants to scrap her meme page. Instead, she sees it becoming an integral part of her comedy.

“What I hope is that the community that has formed with this page will feel driven to go see my comedy or other people’s performances in person,” she said. “We can actually meet in real life that way.”

Drago has a theory on why Instagram memes have taken off in the last year. She says that the coronavirus pandemic blurred the barrier between the internet and real life. When the lockdowns rendered traditional, organic connections difficult, her meme page became a saving grace.

“There’s something really beautiful about the way this kind of aching loneliness can lead to communities of support, real friends, and real lovers,” she said. “Everyone is lonely right now to an extent, and where else do lonely people go but online?”

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