In July 2019, a Facebook group called for the building of a coalition to storm Area 51 and “see them aliens.” Days later, the meme elicited an official response from the United States military. Celebrities and corporate social media jumped to capitalize on the running joke’s popularity. Then the meme died.
On the surface, the Area 51 meme followed the same ephemeral life cycle as every other meme. It seized our social media feeds with unprecedented vigor, but the joke still grew stale and faded away. However, a posthumous inspection of the Area 51 meme will reveal a unique case study on the forces that drive the evolution of the internet. To fully understand, we must first piece together a genealogy of the web’s users.
The early internet can best be understood as a place of social refuge. It was messy, foreign, unrestricted and most importantly, anonymous. Tech-savvy young people on the fringes of society could find solace amongst other individualists online. As a result, the soul of the Internet was forged within the idiosyncratic culture of youth-run message boards.
In the late 90’s, the rise of internet service providers allowed for widespread internet access beyond universities and government agencies. Parents, business owners and educators began to colonize the web in greater numbers. Nevertheless, many young adults continued to predominantly use the Internet for entertainment. These users pioneered the meme, a new language of comedy written in binary and translated into human laughter.
The invention of meme culture permitted recreational areas of the web to survive and thrive up to the present. Each new generation of users has seized the opportunity to speak a language of humor that belongs entirely to them. As a result, comedic elements of the primordial internet have gradually been phased out by new developments.
Today, the heirs of the internet who fail to reflect their cliquish roots are condescendingly referred to as “normies.” Non-normies, who I’ll call “outsiders,” occupy niche areas of the web that better reflect the bizarre conventions of the early internet. This terminology, although unusual, is required for understanding the significance of the Area 51 meme.
The fake plan to find aliens in Area 51 proved to be one of the most mainstream memes of all time. The meme started on normie Facebook instead of the outsider havens of Reddit and 4chan. The nation’s top media outlets reported on it. The Air Force issued a warning to potential infiltrators. Lil Nas X centered a music video around the raid. References to escaped aliens dominated Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok for weeks.
Most outsiders view mainstream memes with adamant derision. Ironically, the summer’s Area 51 meme was actually a normie adaptation of outsider humor. The original Facebook group referenced the “Naruto run,” an anime-based joke typically used by outsiders. One viral meme focused on sending “Kyles,” an outsider term for angry white men, to rush the base. The Kyles would be equipped with Monster Energy, a drink that outsiders have mocked for years. Several memes focused on suicidal millennials, proving that outsiders no longer have a monopoly on morbid self-deprecation.
Outsider humor remains the last vestige of an old and reclusive internet. However, the Area 51 meme showed that outsider jokes can be repurposed by normies. The idea of rescuing aliens inevitably lost its novelty, but the meme conveyed an enduring message. In 2019, the internet and its humor truly belong to anyone who might claim it.
Of course, prominent websites choose to prioritize popular content. Mainstream meme culture, an industrious click-generator, only dominates because its secured algorithmic hegemony. Thus, no average user possesses the sway to replace outsider humor or control any other aspect of the internet. But what about the internet’s atypical patrons? Can they claim the web?
Some would say they already have. The Internet is real estate, and Amazon Web Services controls nearly 50% of the cloud market as of 2018. Our corporate landlords welcome all onto their property, where influential users can disrupt the natural selection of memes.
For example, companies like Wendy’s pay their PR employees to weasel into your Twitter feed by sharing mediocre memes. These aspiring comics joke about depression to increase their company’s visibility; meanwhile, their own employees feel crushed by meager wages and a lack of mobility. Ajit Pai, the head of the FCC, used memes to argue for abolishing net neutrality. Foreign governments fund the maintenance of bot accounts to spread discriminatory memes in support of demagogues. Clearly, the freedom to meme can be weaponized into the power to reduce the freedom of others.
In an organic sense, meme culture reflects incremental changes in real-world societies. Normies eclipsed outsiders because the internet transformed into a mainstream entity. But perhaps it’s time to embrace the artificial. No average person can open her wallet and launch a digital campaign, but we can replicate that power by rallying ourselves. The Area 51 meme, although unlikely to inspire an actual raid, demonstrated that accessible humor can force ideas into the national spotlight. Memes just might hold the key to protecting the interests of ordinary users — in other words, the people who made the internet so fantastic in the first place.