In the internet of 2016, amid the fervid political chaos and reactionary nihilism, one confused crustacean went viral: the Mr. Krabs Blur — a screenshot of Mr. Krabs, the capitalist crab of the Nickelodeon show Spongebob Squarepants, wearing a bewildered expression and framed in a delicious radial blur. This image was paired with a range of mundane everyday experiences of confusion: “When you say you take a nap for a few minutes and it’s dark outside when you wake up,” one reads, “When you send a risky text message, and the read thing pops up straight away,” says another.
Tinged with just that little bit of fear, Mr. Krabs’ expression became a visual representation of an apparently widespread and broadly shared confusion. The quotidian captions seemed to reference a general social condition at the level of the strictly personal, without necessarily imbuing it with political overtones. This allowed people offer their sense of personal disorientation for broader validation, for others to like, repost, comment, and otherwise engage with it, affirming that there was still something sociable and sharable about their disarray. In other words, the Mr. Krabs Blur had become relatable.
The more intuitive mimetic content is, the more an audience feels as if they know something without thinking it through, and the more relatable it appears
For most readers, the word relatability needs neither definition nor explanation. Relatable gestures are familiar tokens in contemporary personal, intimate interactions, a bit like clichés in verbal conversation. But relatability now comes up so frequently that it has become a meme in itself, something above and beyond the implicit sympathies that make communication possible.
The term itself is inseparable from mimesis — the processes of reflecting reality — and mimetic content (memes). Relatability is a key feature of mimesis, and thus prevalent in memeing. In their thesis “Mimesis as Relatability,” Mikael Grahn and Niklas Karlsson argue that “mimesis is not merely to imitate and interpret reality but also to jointly seek to achieve a reality that many can relate to.” That is, the reality of what is represented (in mimetic content/memes) hinges on the community that recognizes it as real. And this recognition is not so much cognitive as it is intuitive: In Virtual Worlds as Philosophical Tools, Stefano Gualeni writes that “with a degree of mimesis, the mediated experience becomes more relatable to and can be grasped effortlessly and intuitively.” Relatable content triggers and delineates its audience’s intuitive sense of what is real. The more intuitive content is, the more it makes an audience feel as if they automatically know something without thinking it through, and the more relatable it appears.
But whose intuition does relatability serve in any given meme? Relatability in private conversations, anchored in specific inside-joke memes, can be a way for members of subcultural communities to find commonalities and secure a sense of recognition within the broader communities that can be convened online. Specific memes helped play a role in articulating and sustaining these communities, their circulation helped scattered members find one another. When relatable memes are exchanged in private conversations, they convey a faith that the other people you are talking to can intuitively understand you and accept you. The struggle to otherwise be recognized and belong is suspended, for at least that moment.
As these kinds of memes cross boundaries and circulate through mainstream internet spaces as well — when certain meme structures and catch phrases become viral — they go from being the celebrations of a collective difference that they were generated to signify to symbols of mass similarities. Relatability memes, once a tool against universalizing discourses, can end up being deployed in favor of general participation and reiterating the very discourses that they were once against.
The relatable meme need no longer signal or establish a particular someone “relating” to another particular someone within a definable community. A group can experience flashes of intuition triggered by the same content without necessarily intuiting the same conclusions. Since the reaction is experienced as intuitive, the meaning of it does not even come up for direct examination. Such memes posit a community that is unified by reaction alone and not a shared understanding of what that reaction signifies or a shared sense of recognition for an otherwise marginalized perspective. The more common (or viral) a relatable meme becomes, the more generic the belonging it evokes.
When certain meme structures become viral, they go from being celebrations of a collective difference to symbols of mass similarities, often deployed in favor of general participation and reiterating the very discourses they were once against
Taken conversely, the more generic a feeling of belonging a relatable meme evokes, the more viral it becomes. This makes the relatable meme — the side-eye bird, the Distracted Boyfriend, and other reaction memes come to mind — a winning strategy in the social media attention economy. The viral meme proposes a relatability grounded in the comfortable intuition of seemingly universal minutiae — disliking the sound of your own voice on video, the small agony of waiting for food come out of the microwave. Such universalizing “relatable content” seeks the broadest confirmation of its relatability, configuring “relating” in terms of social media metrics. Insofar as they make relatability countable, social media encourage the viral to infiltrate our conversations and communities.
In the context of metricized social media, resharing a relatable meme gestures toward a collective but generic experience whose universality is presumed, rendered intuitive. Virality appears to confirm the existence of a “community” of those sharing that generic experience without specific content; the moment of contact with a viral relatable meme becomes an ephemeral moment of ersatz belonging that can be experienced in isolation, through metrics and the standardized gestures for broadcasting on a social media platform, rather than through reciprocal communication with anyone else. By relating to the meme’s metrics, we can seem to relate directly to (and form a momentary imaginary community with) the many others who have come in contact with the meme, without engaging anything specific about their individual experiences or revealing anything particular or exclusionary about our own.
And so a culture of relatability gains footing, in which gestures of relation — liking, sharing, resharing content — hold together a matrix of internet users as a community at the moment of their enactment. This community is held together not through a sustained effort to negotiate and maintain a set of shared values over time through a variety of reciprocal social interactions. Instead this species of “relatability” is universal and unilateral, performed by individuals through an interface in discrete, isolated moments. Ways in which experience is not universal across the viral spread of a meme may be obscured.
This kind of relatability culture is perhaps best epitomized by another meme du jour of the past: “It me.” This takes what a particular person found relatable in a particular image, video, or text — ranging from screenshots of children’s TV shows to very sincere confessions from very sincere accounts — and makes that into a meme’s content, a meta-meme of sorts. Unlike with the Mr. Krabs Blur memes, which could attach the relatability of the crab’s confusion to any particular experience, the content of an “it me” meme is specifically the universal desire to be relatable. The meme structure is no longer about shared experiences but a shared set of actions — the act of showing that one relates to something relatable. With “it me,” memes are boiled down to a pure gesture of relatability, an identification with social media mechanisms themselves rather than a community.
The gesture of creating the meme — seizing on a piece of online content and attaching “it me” to it — is the implicit underlying gesture behind any viral relatability meme. As “it me” memes recirculate, those who relate to them are not necessarily relating to their particular content but to the general feeling of relating to something completely random. “It me” is not relatable because of its content but because the response itself — saying the words “it me” — triggers an intuitive sense of recognition. Interpretation is preempted. It becomes an intuition about intuition.
This points toward a condition in which the assumptions of viral relatability culture impose themselves automatically, in which everything shared in metricized social media carries with it an implied “it me,” even if it goes unspoken. In the midst of a tide of viral memes, human interaction can appear as a matter of compulsive relating, facilitated by social media platforms that can seem to confine people’s online interactions to relatable gestures like the like, the share, the double-tap, the retweet, the reblog, the right/left swipe.
“It me” is not relatable because of its content but because saying the words “it me” triggers an intuitive sense of recognition. Interpretation is preempted
That is not to say social media make viral relatability culture irresistible or inevitable. The same structures of social media that promote an attention economy still also offer means for sustaining those other forms of subcultural community that are rooted in particularities or oppositional standpoints. The algorithms that curate and personalize information for users are often rightly criticized for fostering polarization and epistemic closure, but they at the same time, by that same logic, open up points of contact between users that may lead to recognition, identity affirmation, and belonging. They may facilitate forms of sustained engagement that move beyond the suite of streamlined gestures that social media prioritize.
But if we submit to the assumptions of relatability culture that are built into those gestures, our sense of community can be fragmented by them, limited to discrete moments of feeling. The points of contact would be subsumed by the mechanisms of virality, where a gesture of relation is just another point for further dispersion of relatable content, rather than a moment of reciprocal communication. This can allow for users to experience a mere metric as communal, and form their communities at (the unstable) sites of memes competing for their attention.
Social media companies that depend on engagement metrics have an obvious vested interest in making relatability a matter of virality. The more that viral relatability culture dominates sociality, the more dependent we might become on the interfaces that make it possible. Facebook, for example, announced an update to the algorithms that curate users’ News Feeds “to look at both the probability that someone would want to see the story at the top of their feed and the probability that they will like, comment on, click or share a story.” That means Facebook is programming its algorithms to conflate the desire for social connection with the likes, clicks, and comments of viral “relatability.” In this way, the algorithms manufacture the “relatable,” allowing any sort of content to serve that function. Even if it doesn’t appear in the explicit format of a “meme,” these too are points of momentary contact to peruse lightly and then double-tap. This potentially extends the ethos behind viral relatable memes across the entire sphere of digital information.
The algorithms of other popular social media platforms, including Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, function similarly. They rely on the likes and shares of relatabilty culture to manufacture social streams, producing the illusion that sociality itself depends on them and their engagement tools, reinforcing the idea that those tools are necessary to the experience of “relating” to others. It also structures community as a matter of those momentary connections, those ephemeral feelings generated by a metricized content stream.
In this way, these platforms tend to facilitate a kind of drive (scroll) –through culture of relation gestures — liking and sharing as the motions of momentary community. A momentary connection may be created but it is immediately lost; it becomes one more account to follow or be friends with, one more post haphazardly liked and shared during the infinite scroll down the feed, unless users intentionally work against the grain of what is immediately afforded, and make relatability something that is specific and contextual instead of a general broadcast. Relatability for its own sake may seem innocuous enough, but it masks the normativity implicit in trying to say popular things only because they seem popular. Within that context, viral relatable memes signify not so much a comfortable sense that you share an idiom and an intimacy with the friends you are talking to, but the looming shadow of metricized exchange. It will continue to promise that relatability alone is enough, even if it is not at all clear what we are relating for.