Wide Angle

The Bizarre, Secretly Influential Scene Changing Online Culture

Whether it’s French philosophy or reconstructed violins, there’s someone making memes about it.

A phone with several images popping out of it, including an Instagram logo, a blunt, a woman DJing, and album covers.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Eric Feferberg/AFPvia Getty Images, Tumblr, Instagram, Amazon, and Getty Images Plus.

One of the most fascinating creative scenes to emerge in recent years from our long, national nightmare is that of the hyperniche meme account. On Instagram in particular, there now exists plethora of pages dedicated to any kind of meme you can think of, from the outlandish, to the anarchic, hilarious, and extremely nerdy. Name a topic you’re even vaguely interested in, and you’ll find an elaborate, anonymous, dedicated profile full of memes based on it: the band Snail Mail, maintaining work-life balance as an advertiser or architect, reconstructed violins, French philosophy, art-house cinema, Lansing, cloud rap, scenes and dialogue from Twin Peaks and I Think You Should Leave blended together, and even Slate headlines … the list is truly endless.

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Even better are the accounts that don’t have consistent throughlines, simply embracing chaos instead. These pages are often anonymously run, make use of a clever and perhaps esoteric name (juggalofamilyvalues, aquarium.drinker, coincellpro), and feature the strangest memes you’re likely to find on the platform, whether about sex, weed, ASMR, pet ownership, Judaism, digital creator communities themselves, The Bell Jar, and uhhhh whatever this is.

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Meme pages aren’t new, of course. The biggest and longest-lasting of such accounts—most notoriously, Fuckjerry—have spent years churning out text-based images, both stolen and original, to their millions of followers. Both the pages and their owners have scored online fame, profiles in major publications, ad sponsorship, and even TV recognition. Yet the most interesting meme pages are nothing like those glossy moneymakers: They aren’t verified, don’t post as consistently, and have far fewer followers (at most hundreds of thousands, but more often half that). Yet they’ve crafted an online subculture built on riffing on and combining existing meme formats to create something wholly new. Instead of photos with jokey captions, these pages burst with shitposts clashing familiar photos and drawings with one another, text with zany typefaces, exaggerated color palettes, and messages speaking to the hazy lyrics of Cocteau Twins or the temptations of Super Mario 64.

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These accounts’ common throughlines range from the acknowledgement of the horrors of modern times, an openness to people from various marginalized communities, a hatred of the post-globalization world order, and an off-kilter sense of humor that’s deeply relatable to those who just get it. It’s a culture for jokesters and rabbit-hole obsessives, who wish to enjoy and express themselves while the environment and social order collapse.

One creator I spoke with, a recent college graduate who lives on the West Coast and posts memes on the Instagram account @AirportPigeon, told me about what drew her to this style. The answer is more introspective than the content—covering single-family housing, among other topics—might suggest.

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“There were a lot of memes I saw [on Instagram] that made me think critically about being a woman, my relationships with men, my relationships with my body,” she said. “Even accounts that posted stuff that wasn’t relatable to me were cool because when someone creates a meme account, you get to peer into their little life, and I think that’s really fascinating. I just wanted to be a part of that.”

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It’s not that scrolling through Instagram led to @AirportPigeon’s feminist awakening. It was that the style of these memes, she said, connected with her in a way other sources of community and education never could. “There’s a difference between seeing stuff about feminism in the abstract [or] by reading critical theory and seeing people post,” she said. “I saw people talk about the way their identity and their political understanding of themselves also intersect with a personal understanding of themselves.” She eventually started her first account, where she posted about her life and philosophy, in 2017. Since then, @AirportPigeon has gained more than 3,500 followers—her own rather small but engaged community.

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“A lot of the accounts I was looking at in 2016 were the first wave of niche, feminist-leaning memes,” said user @Ada.Wrong, whom @AirportPigeon cited as a major influence on her own memes. Ada ended up launching her account the same year, joining that feminist wave of meme accounts including Molly Soda and GothShakira, racking up tens of thousands of followers, and even starring in the Adult Swim show Bottom Text.

Many of these meme accounts didn’t appear on Instagram out of nowhere, but migrated from other social platforms. Michael Rogers, who posts under the handle @vampire_prototype—combining references to concepts by Mark Fisher and Hunter S. Thompson— moved his meme page to Instagram in 2020; he now has more than 10,000 followers. He shifted to Instagram after a decade on Facebook, where he ran a page meme page known as Michael Rayquaza. The early 2010s, he told me, were the peak of “Weird Facebook,” a time when niche groups and meme pages proliferated. But Instagram became the de facto home for these spaces as Facebook “became inhospitable for sharing memes,” Rogers said. He left for Instagram in part because he refused to attach his real name to the Michael Rayquaza page; Facebook ended up banning it as a result in 2018.

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Outside of Facebook, Tumblr may have been the Instagram meme page’s most influential forerunner. Both Rogers, who was also a big Tumblr user, and AirportPigeon would share Tumblr screenshots on their Insta pages as they built up their followings. “For people my age that were on Tumblr, the format of Instagram memes makes the most sense,” Mina, who runs the @meetmeintranspecos page (named after the Queens indie music venue), said in January to Built In. “The aesthetic aspect of it really clicks for me.”

When I spoke with Mina (a pseudonym) over the phone, I learned that she’s also IRL friends with the people behind accounts like @KateBush.420 and @This.And.A.Blunt, both of whom are regarded as pioneers of the Instagram niche-meme account movement. As Mina told me, befriending such like-minded memesters has been the biggest benefit of staying within the subculture—she’s even managed to “connect with people around the world I never thought I’d be able to, like techno producers in London.”

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What is most special about these specific meme spaces is how open they are to creators from marginalized groups. Many meme-makers reside all around the world and are nonwhite, members of the LGBTQ community, or disabled. Mina noted that many of her friends and followers are trans and nonbinary, for example: The aforementioned @KateBush.420 account has three separate administrators, one who’s gender-nonconforming, one who’s a transgender man, and another who’s a trans woman. All three met after making the jump from Tumblr to Instagram; admin Jamie Doyle told me that the trio only met one another in person months ago—and four years after starting the account. Having grown up in a conservative area, Doyle found early solace in crafting memes about queer nightlife. @KateBush.420 has since become a way to not only express her love for the artist to her page’s mostly gay fan base, but also to post about being trans in the U.S.—even if followers are mostly there for Kate Bush #content.

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Though meme pages can be great outlets for users still figuring out their identities, Instagram itself hasn’t always been a safe space. Multiple creators told me that the environment can be hostile if it’s revealed a woman or trans admin is running a particular account. “When you’re a woman online and you show your face and make a ‘spectacle’ of yourself in any sense, it tends to bring a lot of attention, and you’re often targeted more, because incels online don’t like to see women in any way,” Ana, an art student who posts as @NeoliberalHell, told me. “[Users] reported a selfie of mine and said it was sexual solicitation.” As a result of misogynistic users mass-reporting their posts, female users often get many more strikes on their accounts from Instagram. “If [certain users] think a meme page is funny, they assume they’re a man, and they feel like it’s catfishing if it’s revealed it’s a woman. You get hate for not being a man, and it’s worse if you’re not white,” said @Ada.Wrong, who is Asian American. “People are still arguing if women are funny or not. But that’s part of society in general, and the internet is anonymous.”

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Unwarranted content strikes and account bans have been commonplace on Instagram for a while now. Users will recall the now-infamous Christmas crackdown from 2018, when Instagram cleared away several much-followed meme accounts. Late last year, Samantha Nazzi, who’d originally managed the @soaking_wet_angel account, wrote for Mashable about Instagram banning her account multiple times—even the backup pages, which users often create in response to bans. “Disabled accounts on Instagram are essentially in a limbo period that may never end,” wrote Nazzi. “If your account gets disabled, you can appeal it, but oftentimes those appeals go unanswered. If Instagram decides to delete your account, you cannot get it back.”

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This tracked with the experiences of other meme creators I spoke with. I reached @NeoliberalHell through one of her backup accounts; Michael Rogers has had @vampire_prototype fully banned twice and also maintains several backups. Many users will list these other accounts listed in their bios, just in case anything happens to their current ones. To have this happen to you is to be “Zucced,” creators said. (Indeed, many of the same accounts that have their just-in-case handles in their bios cite their fear of “Zuccing.”)

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But just as harrowing as getting Zucced? Instagram’s algorithm. Every creator I spoke to said it’s much harder these days for their memes to find audience. “The algorithm is geared toward the accounts that are already big being able to promote their stuff,” said @AirportPigeon. “I think it’s a much harsher environment for people who aren’t huge influencers. I would not wanna be starting out right now.” Each account strike increasingly limits the spread of meme posts, and creators believe Instagram is more interested in promoting Reels—its TikTok competitor—instead of text-heavy images, anyway. Due to the pressure of posting constantly to stay on top of the algorithm, and the adverse incentives and abuse on the platform, many accounts have a short shelf life and leave altogether. Some previously big ones, like @climemechange and @literally_noam_chomsky, avoid posting new memes or have scrubbed past images. Fighting against the platform for visibility is part of why users like Ada Wrong are moving away from posting memes and toward other digital projects—like preserving posts and accounts that have been banned by Instagram.

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“Memes are a reflection of our current era and culture,” wrote Anna Mariani, the 19-year-old Brazilian American behind @This.And.A.Blunt, in an email. “In a few years, they will be just as much of a primary historical source as anything else. I strongly believe they should be assigned artistic and intellectual importance.”

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After all, these status quo–flouting meme pages provide a valuable, fun house-mirror perspective on the modern era, where liberty of expression is found in memeage—and then makes its way out to broader culture. Pop stars like Doja Cat are now in the shitposting game. National politicians embrace their followers’ surreal memes and even devote campaign funds to shitposting as outreach. “Meme diplomacy” is now a common media talking point, with managers for entire nations’ social accounts crafting shitposts about other countries. The voices of niche Instagram memes can now be found on different corners of TikTok, on your TV screen, and even in the news. It’s important to take stock of what these meme communities are telling us while they’re still here—and to preserve them before they’re gone.

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