For an image that embodied the fleeting nature of attraction, the so-called distracted boyfriend meme has proved surprisingly enduring. Despite reaching the highest heights of viral fame in summer 2017, the stock photo remains an amusing social media reference point. (Did you catch its recent reincarnation as a protest sign?) Its staying power may lie in its adaptability and how the internet’s affectionate fixation on it evolved into a grammar all its own, one where the figures in the photo become proxies for commenting on some altogether separate situation. Identifying with an image is a common social media behavior, but the distracted boyfriend is more than an image. What really launched it into the meme stratosphere was the addition of labels, crudely slapped onto the image using white text boxes: Think about the much-passed-around example where the boyfriend is identified as “the youth,” the girl he’s with is “capitalism,” and the girl who’s turned his head is “socialism.” You get it.
In the months since we first met our romantically confused hero and his two lady friends, labels have become something of a meme fixture. Chalk it up to the recency illusion, but it seems like, post–distracted boyfriend, you can’t swing a lolcat without hitting an image that’s been meticulously annotated to a weirdly specific degree. Remember the trumpet boy? In February, an almost too-good-to-be-true picture spread across social media of a boy playing a trumpet to the extreme annoyance of a girl covering her ears and walking away. Meme-makers went to town, labeling the boy things like “vegans” (to the girl’s “everyone else”) as well as more distinctive variations, like one where the boy with the trumpet is “me loudly broadcasting my depression” (depression being oddly reliable meme fodder), and the girl stands in for “the people closest to me making a concentrated effort to not listen.”
These days, I can hardly scroll through my timeline without coming across another example of a painstakingly annotated meme. In February, the Twitter account @astrobebs tweeted a version of this image of Lisa Simpson holding out a coffee mug for every sign of the Zodiac. In one that got hundreds of likes and retweets, Lisa is labeled “scorpio,” and to her left a disembodied hand pours her coffee from a pot, which gets the label “claiming to not be petty but making a list of people not allowed to your birthday party” This particular image is a little hard for the uninitiated to parse—I think it means that Scorpios can’t get enough of snubbing people and holding grudges, even when they pretend otherwise—but that only serves to reinforce how niche these labeled memes can be.
I’ve also noticed a few variations on this one, where a car on the highway swerves away from the main road toward the exit at the last second; in this particular iteration the car represents a “Chopped contestant” who is forsaking “making a simple dessert, executing the basket ingredients well” in favor of “using the ice cream maker.” I don’t watch Chopped or cook many desserts, but I sense that this image signifies a hasty and ill-considered decision.
It turns out this practice has a name, albeit an unexciting one: object labeling. This term comes by way of Know Your Meme, the online repository for meme information and history; Adam Downer, an editor there, was the one who added the entry about a month ago. He told me he started seeing the format midway through last year, here and there around the internet—but then along came that unfaithful guy and his jealous girlfriend. “There were a few before, but I think that one really brought the style to popular culture,” Downer said.
Labeled memes continued to proliferate through the fall of 2017 and early 2018, but it wasn’t until February that it occurred to Downer what tied them all together. (It was the razzle dazzle bird that made it all click, for what it’s worth.) “After seeing a bunch of them come through, I talked to everyone else on the staff and was like, ‘We need a name for this thing. What should we call it?’ And we came up with ‘object labeling,’ ” he said.
It’s a pretty clinical term for describing something as supposedly fun and unserious as meme-ing. (“It’s a little clunky, I guess,” Downer conceded.) The name “object labeling” highlights the specificity of intention it requires to add text to an image to yield a meme. Adding text to images is one of the most basic ways we have of altering them, and words and pictures are the building blocks of everything we see, which means that when you really think about it, it’s strange that some become memes and some don’t.
Object labeling, though, may just be the latest spin on the image macro, Downer explained, a meme term that essentially identifies an image containing text. Image macros used to look a certain way: They featured animals and bold text, usually in the Impact typeface, with white letters and a black outline. Think lolcats and advice animals. “Advice animals were the meme currency at the end of the 2000s, at the dawn of memes,” Downer said. But it seems we’ve evolved past making that kind of macro; now, we object-label. It remains to be seen whether object labeling will have the staying power of the original image macro format, but Know Your Meme makes a convincing case that it might be, if not the meme of our times, possibly the meme format of our times.
Even with a bona-fide Know Your Meme entry, there is still much terrain to be charted and nuances to be unpacked. Reading the “object labeling” entry on Know Your Meme can feel like reading a detailed history of an imaginary place. It refers to the Console Wars of 2012 matter-of-factly, as if everyone knows what those are. It cites political cartoons as a precursor and in particular points to Benjamin Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” snake cartoon from 1754 as an early example of object labeling. This seems like a stretch, maybe because what it doesn’t acknowledge about the way we object-label now is that it’s really all about how the objects relate to each other. It’s the metaphor that makes each iteration feel fresh. How a jilted girlfriend feels about her boyfriend with the wandering eyes is exactly how X feels about Y—that’s what’s surprising and then satisfying. In some cases, the labels don’t even have to be words. In this SpongeBob SquarePants meme, the Spotify and iTunes logos serve as labels.
There are other memes that involve text paired with an image, like MFW (“my face when”) or TFW (“that face when”) or declaring a mood, but object labeling goes an extra step by adding the text to the picture itself. This looks ahead to the possibility that the meme will transcend whichever platform it originated on and end up elsewhere, divorced from context. Still, the hyperspecific label is also part of the joke. Why does this meme need to be labeled like a diagram of the cell for a seventh-grade biology class? Because it just makes it all the weirder and funnier.
Saying such complicated things in a way that manages to be both strictly literal (hence the labels) and totally metaphorical at the same time (your depression is not actually a little boy with a trumpet) is what keeps us coming back. It’s what makes this format work for a generation that finds humor in irony. We can use object-labeling memes to talk about ourselves—most labels include a “me”—in ways that are simultaneously specific and vague. There’s something appealing in the meticulousness of creating each one. The opportunity for endless iteration is also important.
Not to mention, these memes are extremely easy to make. As the layperson’s Photoshop skills advance, we no longer need an online generator to make memes, provided all we have to do is slap some text in a particular place on an image. A simple, often sans-serif typeface is more in line with our current aesthetics than the jarring Impact font of the lolcats era.
If object labeling is indeed the reigning meme format of now, what does that say about now? Mainly, that we need a lot of memes these days. There’s lots of news out there, and accordingly, lots of memes, and in a time when we’re all glued to our phones, we churn through them faster than we ever have before. The current reigning meme is now an action, surrounded by objects to interact with and react to, rather than a flat image. This extends the lives of our memes and enables us to apply them over and over again. Object-labeling is a recyclable meme format for our endlessly memeable times.