The top 10 memes of 2012

Features Sarah Dobbs Jan 24, 2013

Sarah Dobbs counts down the memes that defined 2012

What defines 2012 as a year, for you? What kind of cultural object will stick in your head and forever remind you of last year - maybe it’s a song, or a movie, or a political event? If you spend half as much time online as we do, it might also be an internet meme; some kind of widely circulated video, image, or in-joke that’ll always remind us of exactly where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with when we first saw it. Here’s our countdown of the top 10 internet memes of 2012 – a list which, in its own way, sums up 2012 as well, or even better, than any top 10 movie list ever could…

10. Call Me Maybe

In February last year, Canadian singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepson released the ridiculously catchy Call Me Maybe and, all of sudden, the song was inescapable. It got to number one in the charts all over the world - in Australia, France, Ireland, New Zealand, and the USA as well as in the UK - and it felt like it was never off the radio. It was played in every shop you went into, and everyone seemed to be making jokes about the lyrics.

As a pop song, it’s pretty decent: it’s upbeat, with chirpy vocals and a chorus you’ll be able to sing along with by the second time it comes round. It’s not staggeringly original or brilliant, though, so exactly why the internet went so nuts for it isn’t clear… but it really did. YouTube was flooded with lip syncs and parodies, including videos by other pop stars singing along to the previously unknown Jepson’s song. The lyrics to the song’s cutesy chorus (“Hey I just met you/And this is crazy/But here’s my number/So call me, maybe”) got co-opted onto business cards, or altered to make jokey macros. Call Me Maybe was, without doubt, 2012’s answer to 2011’s Friday, with the added bonus that it was actually listenable.

9. Photobombing Stingray

Now that we all take so many photographs all the time - and post them online - the concept of the photobomb seems to have really taken off. Photobombing is the art of crashing someone else’s photo, and spoiling it by pulling a face or doing something else inappropriate in the background. The most loved (and most shared) example of the photobomb from 2012 is kind of a cheat, though it’s still a fantastic picture.

The photobombing stingray shows an apparently smiling stingray rearing up behind three girls as they pose for a photo in the sea. The horrified expressions on their faces, juxtaposed with the daft-looking face of the ray, make it an irresistible photo, and after it was posted to Reddit in September, it hit various online news sources.

Inevitably, the photo attracted captions and Photoshopped variations, and even some Halloween costumes – but, disappointingly, it’s neither a new photo nor a real photobomb. It was taken in 2005, and the ray didn’t pop up in the photo of its own accord, but was actually placed there by the photographer. On the bright side, apparently the girls didn’t know it was going to happen, so their horrified reaction is genuine.

8. NASA Mohawk Guy

In August 2012, NASA landed the Curiosity rover on Mars. The robot’s mission is to explore the surface of the planet, and to collect rock samples that will help scientists learn more about Mars, but when NASA broadcast a live stream of the landing, some of the viewers skipped over the cool science stuff to focus on one striking looking engineer.

Bobak Ferdowski, flight director of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity mission, was sporting a Mohawk with stars dyed into the sides of his hair, and he became an overnight sensation, with Tumblrs being set up to celebrate his brilliant haircut and endless image macros being generated.

It helped, of course, that as well as having a cool haircut, Ferdowski is young and attractive. Add robots and space into the equation and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a geek heartthrob. Ferdowski’s meme status didn’t last long, but since he apparently chooses a different elaborate haircut for every new mission, expect further declarations of love next time NASA does a live broadcast of something he’s working on.

N.B.: The other contender for this place on the list was Zeddie Little, aka Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. He was photographed during the Cooper River Bridge Run in South Carolina and, thanks to his toothpaste advert smile, quickly became a meme in his own right. But running a marathon isn’t quite as cool as landing robots on Mars, no matter how pretty you are, so he lost out.

7. Grumpy Cat

The internet’s passion for putting captions on pictures of cats didn’t go away in 2012, but it did take on a slightly new twist. Grumpy Cat, aka Tardar Sauce, is an unusual showshoe cat owned by Tabatha Bundesen. Due to the shape of its face, the cat appears to be constantly frowning or glowering, which is sort of cute in a perverse way. When her brother posted pictures of the angry-looking mog to Reddit, the image went viral, and soon all sorts of unpleasant thoughts were being attributed to the kitten. Oddly, though, Grumpy Cat memes tend not to use the stylised incorrect “cat grammar” most LOLcat images default to – apparently being grumpy is serious business!

Although there are two or three pictures of Tardar Sauce that get used over and over again by people playing around with the Grumpy Cat meme, there are tons more photos of the cat on a website its owners set up: www.grumpycats.com. The site also features galleries of fan art - pictures and paintings of the cat that people have created to show their appreciation - and even a range of Grumpy Cat t-shirts for sale.

6. The Queen Is Not Amused

Speaking of grumpy-looking faces, 2012 was also the year the Queen went viral. Our monarch was a lot more visible this year: we got an extra bank holiday to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee, marking her 60th year on the throne, and she also made a spectacular ‘entrance’ to the opening ceremony of the Olympics. 

However, after the Queen’s double skydived into the ceremony with James Bond, a rather unflattering photograph of her was taken in which she appeared to be really, really bored with Danny Boyle’s elaborate show. Actually, let’s not mince words - she looked downright disapproving. The image was too tempting for the internet community to ignore, and soon all sorts of witty captions were being slapped all over it (many, if not most, of them probably, technically, count as treasonous).

But although the Queen’s unamused moment was one of the first Olympics inspired memes to take off this year, it was far from the last…

5. Assorted Olympics Memes

If we listed every Olympics meme separately, they’d fill the whole list, so sadly we’ve had to group them together into one entry. But there were some brilliant Olympics-related memes circulating this year. Like the image of Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, dangling helplessly from a zipwire following some kind of equipment malfunction, which soon got Photoshopped into all kinds of places. Or the many iterations of ‘Mo Farah running away from things’, a meme that inserted the British medal winner into all sorts of dangerous situations.

Our favourite, though, is probably the meme dubbed ‘McKayla is not impressed’. After Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney stumbled during her event and narrowly missed out on winning a gold medal, she was photographed making a face which, apparently, begged to be Photoshopped (seriously, 2012 was the year of the grumpy faces). As a result of the popularity of the meme, Maroney was even photographed with Barack Obama, both of them recreating the moment by screwing their mouths up. Amazing.

4. Dogshaming

Although cats are more often the focus of online memes than dogs, there’s still room to make fun of our canine friends from time to time. In fairness, though, dogshaming is more about the ways in which dogs aren’t our friends, at all.
It all started with a Tumblr, launched in August last year. Said site showed only a photo of a dachshund with a ripped up pair of boxers, behind it was a sign reading “I am an underwear eating jerk!”

However, it was soon followed by another photo of a misbehaving dog, again with a handwritten confession in front of him; then another, and another, and another. It turns out that, no matter how much we love our pets, they can still do really, really annoying things - and sharing those thigns with the internet can be pretty hilarious.

Unfortunately, we don’t think dogs actually experience the emotion we call “shame”, and they definitely don’t know what Tumblr is, so it’s unlikely this will have any disciplinary effect on any of the dogs pictured. They are cute though.

3. What People Think I Do

A multi-part image macro, the first version of the ‘What People Think I Do’ meme was created by a science student and posted to Facebook in February last year. It features six pictures, labelled in turn: “how my friends see me,” “how my family sees me”, “how I see me”, “how society sees me,” “how religious people see me”, and “how it really is.”

Judging by the original image, it was made by someone feeling the need to procrastinate a bit, but also wanting to challenge some of the preconceptions that go along with their field of study, and it was an irresistible formula that inspired hundreds and hundreds of copies. There’s even a tech journalist version - which, no, we didn’t make ourselves!

The meme draws on several pre-existing types of internet meme: the combination of an image on a black background with white text is like the faux inspirational posters that have been circulating online since the late ‘90s, while the string of images, each portraying a different false impression, kind of evokes the ‘expectation/reality’ style of image macro that’s been around since at least 2007. By including six images instead of one or two, though, it topped them all, and encouraged an awful lot of people to spend a lot of time looking for just the right image to sum themselves up.

2. The Restoration Of Ecce Homo

In a little chapel in Borja, Spain, a 19th century fresco was looking a bit shabby, and one woman took it upon herself to fix it. Unfortunately, rather than being a professional restorer or even an artist, Cecilia Jiménez was just a well-intentioned elderly parishioner, and rather than restoring the work, she, er, transformed it. Into something that looked kind of like a cartoon bear.

Where once the painting had been recognisably Jesus, wearing a crown of thorns and looking up with a pained expression, it became a blurry mess. The botch job was only discovered when a donation to a local museum led staff to check up on the religious works of art in area, and when photographs of the ‘restoration’ were posted to Reddit, it understandably went viral. It’s hard to believe, looking at the before and after pictures, that anyone could have done so much damage without realising that something was going wrong and stopping, but no-one attributes any malicious motives to Jiménez – it seems like she just made a mistake and, in attempting to fix it, kept making things worse.

The Ecce Homo has become known as “Potato Jesus” online, and it’s not hard to see why. The mangled face has since been Photoshopped onto any number of other works of art, with occasionally hilarious results (though the version of Munch’s The Scream with the new face might actually be an improvement?).

1. Gangnam Style

Call Me Maybe might have been catchy, but if there’s one song that really defines 2012, it’s PSY’s Gangnam Style. The K-pop song was released in July and, seemingly overnight, became a phenomenon - by September, it had become the most ‘liked’ video on YouTube, overtaking LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem.

Actually, that’s a pretty apt accomplishment, since Gangnam Style shares several similarities with Party Rock Anthem. They’re both dance records that verge on being novelty records, for one thing, and they both come with ridiculous dance routines, though Gangnam Style is unarguably more ridiculous. PSY (aka South Korean rapper Park Jae Sung) performs a move that’s hard to describe if you haven’t seen it - it’s kind of like skipping, or miming riding a horse - but unforgettable once you have.

Though most fans of the song and/or video probably don’t really care what it’s about, “Gangnam style” refers to an upmarket district in Seoul, and the song is about finding a girl who encapsulates that style. Judging by the video, though, it’s all a bit of a joke - in a question and answer session on Reddit, PSY said the song is just meant to be fun, rather than anything deeper. And it’s definitely fun. The video, which also features Korean comedian Nong Chul, has inspired endless gifs, as well as the inevitable spoofs and lip-synching and dancing videos.

Gangnam Style is one of those memes that wouldn’t stay confined to the wilds of YouTube and Tumblr, though; it became a full-on international phenomenon. Even Boris Johnson claims to have had a go at the signature dance… which means this meme has now well and truly jumped the shark, but hey, it was fun while it lasted, and 2012 wouldn’t have been the same without it.