On Sunday night, a picture of an egg became the most liked photo ever on Instagram. Now second in fame only to Humpty-Dumpty, the egg was posted by the now-verified account @world_record_egg on Jan. 4 with a simple mission: “Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram. Beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner (18 million)! We got this 🙌.” Devoted egg-fluencers could prove their devotion by posting hashtags such as #LikeTheEgg or #EggSoldiers, but the initiation ritual to join the #EggGang was relatively simple: double-tap a photo of an entirely average, speckled brown egg. And as of the time of writing, over 41 million people have done just that, beating Jenner’s previous record holding post—a photo of her newborn daughter Stormi’s tiny hand clutching her perfectly manicured thumb—by a cool 22 million likes.
While it’s easy to write off The Egg and her acolytes as chaos Muppets, mischievous agents intent on spreading confusion, there’s a pretty easy explanation for why more than 40 million people joined in on this game (besides the ease of liking a photo): It’s a weird and nonsensical throwback to the early internet, the sort of charming, organic event that has become increasingly rare as virality becomes tied to carefully honed formulas.*
So much of the viral content that we’re exposed to in the contemporary internet is more likely to lead us into a spiral of existential despair than it is to spark joy. From considering the implications of havoc wreaked by the “move fast, break things” motto of giant unfettered tech companies to the culture of bad-faith argumentation and anonymous harassment that defines so much of online discourse, it’s justifiable to look at the apps and website we’re addicted to with disgust. Rarely does a moment of virality come without a milkshake duck or a series of think pieces and tweets about why this thing is actually bad. The big cow? A liar. Backpack Kid? Not bad yet, but who knows. Perhaps even The Egg will eventually become bad, but because there was no initial promise of the inevitable Egg merchandise, its virality is untainted by the capitalistic undercurrents that define most attempts at going viral.
If viral content isn’t explicitly about the dumpster fire that is our world right now, then it inevitably feels manufactured—because it is. The previous record holder for most liked Instagram post perfectly encapsulates the exhausting sameness of posts or tweets that rack up thousands of likes or retweets. Kylie Jenner and her entire empire are both products of and driving forces behind the Instagram influencer vortex that defines popular culture at the moment. Famous for no particular reason beyond being in the background of a reality television show revolving around her siblings who are also famous for no explicable reason, Jenner’s birth announcement capitalized on at least two different veins rich in viral gold: famous babies and carefully curated “intimate” peeks into the lives of the famous baby’s famous parents. The fact that that particular picture was previously the most-liked surprised no one who has been online in the past decade.
The Egg, on the other hand, is a genuine surprise. It is a phenomenon without explanation, and its existence and subsequent cracking of records raises more questions than it answers. Why now? Who is the mastermind behind The Egg? Why did more people than reside in the entire country of Canada join in on this particular attempt to usurp Jenner’s Instagram supremacy, with an egg as their chaotic mascot? Does the Egg represent a yearning to return to the womb as we face a world ravaged by climate change? Like most things on social media, all those questions are best left unanswered. Instead let us rejoice in what The Egg proves: that even in our dreary spon-con epoch, the internet can still occasionally be a mysterious, outlandish, and giddy place.
Update, Jan. 15, 2019: At this time, more than 40 million people have now liked the egg.