Last year was obviously an eventful one right from the onset, but the last few months of 2020 were certainly filled with some key moments that dominated online discourse. From major political events to highly anticipated game releases, nearly all of these trends wound up the subject of countless memes in the last quarter of the year.
So, what can learn about the relationship between these events and their impact on meme culture? To glean some knowledge into how real-world affairs affect memes and how people generally perceive them, KYM Insights conducted a series of polls through CivicScience between October 2020 and January 2021 based on this phenomenon.
We asked the internet how they reacted to memes they saw online based on the following categories: political memes, brand and company memes and video game memes. Of the thousands of respondents we received, here’s what we uncovered.
When it comes to memes, the political variants are easily among the most contentious (as we’ve studied in the past), but digging deeper into the events surrounding their perception reveals additional insight into how many online generally react to them over time.
Between October 4th and January 13th, our poll collected nearly 6,000 responses from participants. The biggest group by nearly double was, unsurprisingly, “Mostly Negative” in their reactions to seeing political memes, with just under 2,800 total. The “Mostly Positive” group came in second at nearly 1,600 responses, and last for “Neutral” at 1,559.
Moving on to the timeview graph for this category of memes, we see that the peak for “Mostly Negative” was right at the beginning of October, its lowest point in mid to late November and another high in late December before dropping down again in recent weeks. The lowest point for “Mostly Positive” bottoms out in early October with the peak coming right after the election in early November and another peak in mid to late November as the group trends downward from there into the new year.
Starting from the peak of “Mostly Negative” and the low point of “Mostly Positive,” this timeframe coincides with many of the U.S. presidential debates and overall campaigning for the election, which was undoubtedly heated and tumultuous (particularly the first unhinged debate). This politically dominated period with the final moments leading up to Election Day, combined with the sheer overload and anxiety many expressed, it’s likely that these events led to negative reactions toward political memes seen in that period.
Interestingly, the peak for positivity coincides with Joe Biden’s initial win over Donald Trump, with another peak around the week of November 22nd and the low point for negative responses coinciding with that spike in positive reactions, likely due to election events and Trump’s continued legal failures to challenge the results. This sentiment is also reflected in a poll from Monmouth University in mid-November that states more Americans were happy about Trump’s loss than Biden’s win.
Brand and Company Memes
Almost as controversial as political memes, the use of memes by brands and companies online has long been a loathed trend overall, despite their increasing decision to do so in recent years. This attitude, though prominently displayed in most meme communities online, depends heavily on who you ask however, as we’ll see below in our poll.
Once again between October and January, our poll collected nearly 4,000 responses from participants in this category of memes. Curiously the largest group here by far was “Neutral” at 2,246 total respondents. The second highest was “Mostly Positive” at just over 1,000 and, lastly, “Mostly Negative” with only 636 responses.
So, on the timeview graph for this category, we can see that early on “Mostly Negative/Positive” flip between each other in mid-October as “Mostly Positive” continues to rise to its peak in mid to late November, which parallels with the trough of “Mostly Negative” during the same timeframe. The two groups then briefly swap in mid-December before returning to their trends seen during the beginning of the study.
For most of the reactions toward brand meme usage we see on this chart, the various shifts in attitude coincide with holidays or observances that corporations so often tend to jump on as part of the growing trend of brand activism, which is becoming increasingly mocked through memes. This is likely the reason we see that initial swap between “Mostly Positive” and “Mostly Negative” around October 11th, which falls on National Coming Out Day and International Day of the Girl, two observances that brands flooded social media with (similar to the Black Lives Matter movement and Pride Month in 2020).
The central portion of the graph that sees the highs and lows of both groups is likely due to holidays such as Thanksgiving, but also political discussion similar to what we observed in the former group. In recent years, companies have become more and more politicized in their social media presence, which can either be well-received or loathed depending on political affiliation or ideology. In the end though, it seems that most people generally have a neutral or uninterested reaction to brand-related memes.
Video Game Memes
Last up, we’ll take a look at video game memes, one of the most dominant categories for meme culture for many years now that are mostly received favorably. Using the same time period, our poll collected just over 3,200 total responses, with the “Neutral” group once again topping out at roughly 1,500 but less significant than the former section’s poll. For “Mostly Positive,” we had 1,166 respondents making up the second-biggest percentage, and “Mostly Negative” far lower at 542 rounding out the smallest group.
Once again taking a look at the timeview graph here, “Mostly Positive” was at its lowest in early October, reaching a high point in mid to late November, and then briefly dipping down in early to mid-December before trending up again more recently to its peak. “Mostly Negative” responses began low initially before hitting a high point around October 11th, dropping significantly in mid-November and then bottoming out in early December before peaking later that month and then trending down again.
Unlike the other two categories which were largely impacted by big political or social events, gaming memes are more so affected by the release of new consoles and titles or the oversaturation of certain topics surrounding popular games. The two biggest events during the course of our poll were undoubtedly the launch of next-generation consoles, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, as well as the release of 2020’s most highly anticipated game, Cyberpunk 2077.
The rise in generally favorable reactions to video game memes between late October and November could be attributed to next-gen consoles dropping in early November, and due to their notoriously low availability that enraged many gamers during that time, this could also explain the shift toward more negative reactions throughout December. Cyberpunk 2077’s release, which was certainly a bit disappointing for many in the gaming community after being hyped for months, could also explain the rise in negative sentiments toward video game memes in December.
In the end, it’s obvious that memes are bound to the happenings of the world around us, so it’s no surprise that they coincide with things like major political moments, holidays or releases in the gaming industry. It is, however, interesting to see how these events also affect people’s attitude toward consuming memes and if they respond positively or negatively to them. As we enter a new year that many are hoping will be better than the last, it’ll be intriguing to see how these perceptions continue to shift in the near future.