The internet has rewired the way we engage with ourselves and others. Granted, it’s not a glitteringly original statement, but just a fundamental fact of existence in 2019. Was life before, as we fear, a bottomless hell of work and productivity, forced conversation and empty commutes?
Now, we at least have limitless means of distraction at our fingertips. Football gossip and novel-length Reddit conspiracy theory threads, plus the occasional social media dopamine hit and the regular administrative email hell-threads.
And of course, there are the memes. The term was coined by the professional atheist and sometimes evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976, as the cultural equivalent to genes- concepts that spread from brain to brain like DNA, through word of mouth or mass media. Often fleeting and always mutating, they represented a “shorthand for a hyper-connected group thinking in unison”, according to the writers of one recent profile on the subject. Long before the modern online era, the meme was born, even if no one could then predict what they have since come to mean. Nothing less than a new form of shorthand communication, for rapidfire digestion and dissemination. Jokes passed along social media platforms, whether skewering a particular social group (think Poundland Bandit’s ‘starter packs’), celebrity ‘reaction’ GIFs, or the disarmingly quaint offerings of the late-boomer generation (‘wine mum’ memes).
As with every boom, there is money to be made. In 2016, it was said that memes surpassed Christ himself in online popularity, according to Google Trends. From the moronic to the bitingly satirical, what was once the preserve of viral email threads and quasi-egalitarian sharing sites like Imgur, has become big business. The obvious names like @fuckjerry and @thefatjewish have made small fortunes, while a crowded field of competitors make considerable livings in a still half-understood universe, full of consultants and strategists offering advice and sometimes barely comprehensible insights on how to crack its opaque codes.
Hester Bates is Head of Brand Strategy at Influencer, a fledgling ‘influencer marketing platform’ founded by the entrepreneur Ben Jeffries and YouTuber Caspar Lee. They work to connect brands with a network of social media content creators to craft branded content at scale, Hester explains. When translated into layman language, it means that, at its core, Influencer is a platform that provides a managed service to brands, who then work with Influencer’s team of in-house experts to manage the campaign for them.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on is our strong industry relationships. With Caspar Lee as our Co-Founder and CMO, and influencers like Joshua Pieters and Joe Sugg as investors, we have fantastic creator relationships. We also have extremely good relationships with social platforms, such as Instagram and YouTube, and with governing bodies like the ASA. This means that we are able to offer the influencers on our platform, no matter what size they are, the best advice and insights, often ahead of industry announcements”.
The relationship is a bridge between figures with individual clout and ‘content’, and brands with deep enough pockets to turn that audience into hard currency. It doesn’t stop there, as Influencer also operate an arm of the business which they call InfluencerMerch, “[which allows] creators of all sizes to produce their own line of merchandise and monetise their following beyond paid collaborations”, Hester says.
Meme accounts are extremely popular with their clients, for a number of reasons. Firstly, they’re extremely good at producing branded content that appears to be organic- at least until you see the #ad perched at the bottom. “[Meme accounts] also build extremely dedicated, niche followings, which they are then able to monetize through their own merchandise and product lines. Josh Ostrovsky, better know as @thefatjewish, is a great example of an account that has successfully done this. “Ostrovsky’s account jokily mocks the very millennials and ‘basic’ girls that follow him, sharing memes about their social media culture”, Hester adds.
Tabloid Art History started life in November 2016 as the brainchild of Elise Bell and Chloe Esslemont, then two art history undergraduates at Edinburgh University. The two had lectures and friends in common, eventually bonding over a shared love for both the Kardashians and the Pre-Raphaelites. After one of them sent the other the classic Tumblr comparison of drunken Lindsay Lohan and Bernini’s Saint Teresa, they started exchanging similar comparisons. They soon created a Twitter page which quickly garnered a substantial following (as of April 2019 it has over 50,000 followers). Juxtaposing fine art with matching images from pop culture- ‘Beyonce meets Botticelli’ runs the headline to The Guardian article on their work- provokes a slightly different, less reverential conversation in a notoriously elitist world. When I speak with Mayanne, the third part of the trio, she stresses that the idea of ‘scale’ and ‘revenue’ aren’t really part of the TAH plan.
“We don’t make a revenue per se off of the page, a) because it’s not what we’re looking for, the page started as a hobby and we’re hoping to continue as such, and b) we re-invest almost everything we make in TabloidArtHistory’s projects. It would be possible for one or two people to make of the page their part-time job, but I think it would look very different: we’d have to do regular commissioned content, maybe write a column for a magazine, or seek out contracts for content production and sponsored posts. Our main ways of making money are: commissions – by both entertainment media and cultural organisations- through talks, and our zine”, she writes to me over Twitter.
Their increasingly prestigious commissions don’t exactly translate into the riches available at the deliberately mass media end of the market. Mayanne points to a recent lecture they delivered at the National Gallery. “It took me more than a week to write our whole paper and prepare our Powerpoint, and then I had to travel to London, and Elise and I practiced and presented the whole 45minute lecture. That’s a lot of labour for one standard speaking fee, which is £150. It’s not much of a problem for us since we’re not seeking out a salary from TabloidArtHistory, but it says a lot about the huge, often invisible, level of labour that is demanded of young creatives today. With the zine, we don’t make money for ourselves, the goal is to make enough profit to fund the next issue. We need around £800 to make an issue with between 10 to 15 contributors”.
After their first commision in 2017, the offers became more frequent, with interest for ongoing collaborations, like potential podcasts or books, as well as talks, podcast guesting, articles, digital content and art direction. Saying yes was borne of curiosity rather than financial gain, “[as there’s] also a pressure for contemporary art producers and young creatives to make of all their side projects and hobbies into jobs. I think that really burned us out, not knowing if we wanted to make a job of it or if we thought we had to make a job off of it, and I don’t know if we have the answer, or are out of this mindset/problem, but I think it’s important to talk about it, because I know a lot of people are struggling with that kind of pressure to monetise each and every of their hobbies, and end up with nothing for themselves”.
It’s something that crops up in my conversation with one ‘content creator’ who also works as a writer and video editor- though he couches it in slightly blunter language. Despite a score of viral hits in the run-up to the 2017 General Election, it wasn’t something that he ever saw as a money-spinner. In fact, in his words, it was nothing more than the urge “to amuse my shithead followers to ever-diminishing returns, I crave that reply from a stranger with a David Brent avi who lives in Dorchester”. After all, not every funny piece of online ephemera has to worry about a marketable afterlife.
And as Mayanne puts it- life can simply get in the way. With a thousand other worries, cares and projects, it isn’t always the case that TAH is the centre of their mutual attentions. “There’s rent to pay, jobs to find and houses to move. Our followers are super understandable and do not in any way feel entitled to the content. Plus, it’s become more of a community than us posting content solely, [so] it feeds itself a lot, but it’s also nice to know the people who like our work also appreciate that we’re real people with real life. We want the page to remain a joy it is and not a burden.”