Contingency is a defining aspect of 4chan. The infamous imageboard is characterised by its ephemerality and anonymity, making the infamous imageboard feel fleeting. The constant surprise of what will appear is enabled by a rapidly-changing order of threads, the id of its anonymous users, and the lack of substantive archival features, forcing users to dwell in ephemerality.
One artefact runs against this contingent current: the meme. As 4chan guru Gabriella Coleman argues, memes on 4chan counter the ever-changing stream of content on the imageboard, since images are often reposted, forming an implicit collective archive. As such, memes “act as the locus of memory” that “[unite] a group of people which are otherwise dispersed and unconnected”.
Because of the fleeting, contingent affordances of /pol/, understanding the nuances of a meme requires to enter the 4chan rabbit hole. The images underneath are an attempt to collectivise the various uses of a meme, and with it, showing which memes are most prevalent and which mutations they can embody. As such, the ‘image walls’ form a collage that remaps 4chan’s contingency to a birds-eye perspective, creating an overview, while retaining the exploratory and ambiguous presentation of the memes.
Each image is derived from a dataset of 4chan/pol/ from January 7th 6AM to January 8th 3AM. Tagging was done collectively and contains some mistakes. Some duplicates will appear because of overlapping datasets. Some images can be considered offensive.
Pepe the Frog
The most prevalent meme, unsurprisingly, is Pepe the Frog. Once a comic book character, it was later labelled as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation league. Indeed, Pepe is often associated with Trumpism and in some cases Nazism. In the recent dataset, there is some Nazist imagery, but overall, it is notable that Pepe seems to have returned to its versatile ‘reaction face’-usage.
Feels Guy shares Pepe’s ‘flexibility’: though some Nazist elements are present once again, it appears to be used as a versatile reaction-face.
Contrasting Pepe and Feels Guy, the Amerimutt a.k.a. ‘Le 56% Face’ embodies a specific, racist agenda. Largely stemming from the European migration crisis, American /pol/ anons have been criticizing Europe for accepting refugees from countries that are ‘non-white’. In that light, the Amerimutt serves to point out the hypocrisy of these American channers by reminding them that their country is itself extremely diverse, with allegedly only 56% Americans categorisable as ‘white’. Indeed, this meme was more likely to be posted by European anons. Unlike other prevalent 4chan-memes such as Pepe or Feels Guy, this meme has fortunately not reached other mainstream platforms as widely.
Le Happy Merchant
Another ‘political’ meme is Le Happy Merchant: a meme embodying a stereotype of a Jewish man rubbing his hands in pleasure. Apart from its obvious antisemitic character, it is an avatar for the conspiratorial thinking so prevalent on 4chan. While the Amerimutt is arguably ‘contained’ within 4chan, what is even more problematic is the off-platform spread of Le Happy Merchant: at the time of writing, Googling ‘Jew’ prominently shows the image in the first row.
A less troublesome and more playful meme is the Australian Shitposter. 4chan anons lament the tendency of Australian users to post the most low-effort or otherwise off-topic posts. Some of the posts portray Canadians (called ‘leafs’), also considered as shitposters. Two images of the left highlight the ‘Day of the Rake’-meme: the thought that one day, globalist Canadians will be annihilated.
While not necessarily ‘memes’, images that were tagged as ‘Historical Imagery’, somewhat unsurprisingly, often relate to Nazi- or war-related imagery.
Another classic example of a reaction face is Biggrin – an image conveying joy and satisfaction, usable in many contexts.
Often, ‘quote-images’ appear on /pol/ as citing philosophers or politicians. However, misquotations are frequent, so, like all of 4chan, these images should be looked at with a healthy dose of scepticism.