Visitors to Hillary Clinton’s Instagram account over the past couple of days have been treated to yet another instance of the internet run amok. Comments reading “spicy boi” (and all possible variations in spelling and capitalization) had been posted tens of thousands of times under the pictures on Clinton’s account, with some users digging back in the archives to comment on pictures that were more than a year old.
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Google Trends tweeted that “What is Spicy Boi Hillary Clinton” was the top Hillary-related query for the search engine on Monday. Several in-the-know publications (i.e. media outlets with a steady supply of millennial interns) felt compelled to run pieces explaining the meaning behind the “spicy boi” meme, and to settle any remaining concerns that Hillary Clinton might be dead. New York magazine correctly reported in its piece that the meme originated with a petition, addressed to Michelle and Barack Obama (and, inexplicably, Mark Zuckerberg), asking that fire ants please be renamed “spicey boys.” That piece goes on to state that it was this image, posted to iFunny.co, that spawned the idea to bombard Clinton’s Instagram with the term.*
At this point, my fellow meme-loving millennials are raising their eyebrows in skepticism, since memes originate on sites like iFunny and 9GAG about as often as they originate on Facebook (i.e. never). More likely, our suspicions tell us, it’s 4chan, right? What did they do this time? Indeed, friends, it was.
4chan is a site that baby boomer journalists often refer to with eye-glazing terms like “anonymous message board,” and is the home to the hacker collective Anonymous. Compared with the site’s previous exploits, posting “spicy boi” on the pictures of a presidential candidate is relatively innocuous. In 2014, users of the site concocted a hoax to convince owners of the iPhone 6 that the device could be charged in any standard microwave. Later that same year, when Mountain Dew held an open online naming contest for their new soft drink, 4chan struck again, voting names like “Diabeetus” and “Moist Nugget” straight to the top. The contest’s site was quickly taken down.
While many of us think of “memes” as an image with a joke written over it (invariably in the Impact font), this is actually what’s called an image macro, which only becomes a meme once it reaches a certain level of notoriety within a community. Memes as such are “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture,” kind of like an inside joke.
But words and behaviors mean something. The fact that one idea spreads in a community while another doesn’t indicates something about that community. So what’s important about the “spicy boi” meme on Clinton’s Instagram, beyond the humor that, depending on one’s age, may or may not be apparent?
The New York magazine piece concluded, incorrectly I think, that the meme doesn’t actually transcend humor. “It’s just for kicks,” one iFunny user told them. But there is an undeniable political undercurrent to it all. The Twitter handle @OldRowOfficial, an account followed by the unwaveringly conservative demographic of Southern frat boy, was responsible for signal boosting the raid. So was the recently banned conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos. Many comments followed “spicy boy” with references to the email scandal or the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s an oversimplification to say this meme caught on because it was spread by people who like Donald Trump and dislike Hillary Clinton, or that it was any kind of concerted attempt to help him win the presidency. Rather, what memes like this convey, when a hive of internet users rise up to humiliate or confuse a corporation or public figure, is a deep sense that the current systems are not working (ironically, most of the members of these raids are white educated American men, a group for whom the current systems are actually working quite well). These raids point to the power of the same forces that have allowed Donald Trump to get as far as he has in this election: rebellion against the establishment, a desire to shake up the status quo.
Memes like this tap into those forces, and into the earliest, most anarchic days of the internet, when lawlessness and anonymity were among the culture’s most important virtues. These memes are a reminder, an assertion of independence. An act of protest. An attempt to declare, in coded, meme-based language, “How can you control us? You can’t even understand us.”
*Correction, July 25, 2016: This post originally misidentified the website iFunny.co as iFunny.com