It’s week on Mashable. Join us as we take stock of the viral economy and investigate how the internet morphed from a fun free-for-all to a bleak hellscape we just can’t quit.
Today’s internet is an endless buffet of memes. Bountiful GIFs, viral videos, and an innumerable amount of tweets are bestowed upon us on a daily basis. But before that wide and glorious selection was available to us, there was really only one entree on the table: Advice Animals.
Remember Advice Animals? Those early internet memes like Scumbag Steve and the Overly Attached Girlfriend, that consisted of a picture and two lines of text delivering a rudimentary joke. In 2006, these guys started spreading snarky jokes, embarrassing stories, and musings. They positively dominated sites like Reddit, Tumblr, and 4Chan in the late aughts.
Now, however, Advice Animals have largely fallen out of favor. It’s not really surprising, given the short shelf life of a meme in the wild world of the internet these days. What’s more shocking is how long Advice Animals lasted — and how they met their demise.
A brief history of Advice Animal memes
Advice Animals are a category of memes originally derived from the Advice Dog meme — hence the name, though they aren’t just limited to animals.
The Advice Dog meme first appeared in 2006, according to Know Your Meme, an online database dedicated to cataloguing all internet phenomena. Advice Dog’s construction is simple: a goofy dog’s face was placed in the center of a bright rainbow pinwheel, and (typically) terrible advice was superimposed on the top and bottom of the image. The use of the image macro format — a general term for a captioned image — made the meme fairly easy to replicate and expand on.
Soon after Advice Dog’s popularity grew, so did its spin-offs, dubbed Advice Animals.
Some of the most popular Advice Animals: Business Cat, a cat sporting a tie and offering advice fit for feline co-workers; Socially Awkward Penguin, a penguin lacking in self esteem and social graces; Scumbag Steve, a youth known for his sideways cap and flair for getting into precarious situations; and Bad Luck Brian, a braces-clad teen wearing a vest who suffers from perpetual bad luck.
(Know Your Meme has an extensive Periodic Table of Advice Animals if you want to dive deep).
In 2009, Memegenerator.net became one of the first websites to allow users to create memes with their own desired text, according to Know Your Meme, with copycat sites like Memebase and Quickmeme following.
By 2010, Reddit had become a hotspot for sharing Advice Animal memes with the addition of the r/AdviceAnimals subreddit. In 2014, the subreddit had 4.2 million subscribers and was featured prominently on Reddit’s front page, .
And then … people slowly lost interest.
Did Reddit kill Advice Animals?
On May 7, 2014, the r/AdviceAnimals subreddit was removed from the front page. The platform explaining that its old defaults were determined by popularity and that the company wanted to shake things up a bit with some new subs.
Amanda Brennan, a Know Your Meme alumna and current Tumblr employee who has been dubbed the “librarian of the internet,” told Mashable that Advice Animals’ removal from Reddit’s front page could have definitely contributed to a decline in the subreddit’s reach and the memes’ appeal.
“Having something removed from the Reddit front page, you lose that audience that you would get from someone who is logging into Reddit, or who may just come casually,” Brennan explained.
Instead, people would have to intentionally seek out the group in order to see it.
The subreddit brought in 83.7 million page views and 8.3 million uniques one month prior to its removal from the front page. The following year those numbers went down to 29.8 million page views and 3.5 million uniques, according to a 2014 report from Kernel.
Google Trends also point to a decline in “advice animals” searches after May 2014, when r/AdviceAnimals was removed as a default subreddit.
There are a handful of things that could have encouraged Reddit to remove the Advice Animals sub from its front page.
The Quickmeme Scandal
In 2013, Advice Animals faced one of its biggest scandals — the infiltration of Quickmeme.
Quickmeme, a popular meme-generating site, was launched by brothers Wayne and Stephen Miltz in 2010, generating about $1.6 million a month, according to the Daily Dot. Quickmeme links were frequently submitted to r/AdviceAnimals, though other generator sites like memegenerator.net were submitted somewhat regularly.
By June 2011 r/AdviceAnimals began looking for a new moderator to help run the growing subreddit, and Redditor gtw08 was voted into the position. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until 2012, when fellow r/AdviceAnimals moderator ManWithoutModem started to notice that gtw08 was deleting links from Livememe.
Livememe, which debuted in 2012, was one of Quickmeme’s largest competitors due to its ability to support GIFs. It struck ManWithoutModem as odd that only Quickmemes were getting upvoted while Livememe’s were being deleted.
ManWithoutModem’s concerns were dismissed by the other mods, but after talking to suspicious members of the subreddit in a private chat they decided to go some digging. In 2013, it was discovered that gtw08 was actually Quickmeme owner Wayne Miltz, clearly gaming the Reddit system. The Miltz brothers and Quickmeme ended up being placed on a site-wide ban.
Brennan believes that the perceived manipulation of the Reddit subculture could have created a sense of distance.
“Seeing someone try to manipulate it [the subreddit community] and being called out for manipulating it gives that hive mind a, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get involved with someone that’s trying to manipulate our culture for their own personal gain,'” Brennan said.
Advice Animals saw an influx of bigoted content
Like many internet communities, Advice Animals fell victim to racist and bigoted comments and memes.
According to a recent thread dissecting why Advice Animals have become less popular, racism was cited as a big contributing factor.
“Years ago around when the
Racist Unpopular Opinion Puffin was starting to take over the sub and they were starting to build a certain reputation, Reddit expanded the default subs from 25 to 50 and dropped AA as a default,” wrote u/diiejso. “It’s possible that at this point new users weren’t automatically seeing the sub and it started a gradual decline then.”
Racist Advice Animal memes are still found on the subreddit, though the community now has strict rules against using Advice Animals (specifically the Unpopular Opinion Puffin) to make bigoted statements or remarks. The new rules were instated by its moderators July 14, 2015 and have been pinned to the top of r/AdviceAnimals for newcomers and old subscribers to see.
“We’re here to have a laugh; hate speech, bigotry, and personal attacks are not allowed,” state r/AdviceAnimals’ rules in bold.
But with millions of subscribers it’s not easy for unpaid mods to catch every crude meme or remark.
Reddit has had a longstanding struggle dealing with hate speech and controversial communities. So, it’s not a surprise that a subreddit as popular as r/AdviceAnimals got tangled up with the bad side of Reddit.
Brennan explained that often times people will use use popular joke structures (like those of the Advice Animals) and language online to make racist statements to see if others agree with their ideology.
“As Advice Animals get more mainstream, more people are shown that structure of language and it’s like, ‘Oh people are joking about this stuff, maybe let me just test the waters and see if my ideology lands with people and then I can find my racist friends,'” Brennan said.
This can create a kind of snowball effect, gathering more and more people through the use of mainstream language and mainstream attention, according to Brennan.
We can’t blame it all on Reddit
Now in 2018, the still active Advice Animals subreddit has risen to 5 million subscribers, so it seems strange and a little bizarre to hold Reddit solely accountable for the decline of Advice Animal memes.
Though, even with such a high number of subscribers the interest in Advice Animals just isn’t there like it once was. Memes evolve on a daily basis, reaction GIFs became a form of communication, and Advice Animals became tired, and almost juvenile.
Now, memes tend to avoid the goofiness of their predecessors. Instead they’re digestible bites of complex and surreal content, think Change My Mind meme, or the Gym Kardashian memes. They’re in conversation with pop culture, current events, and nuanced human emotions in ways Advice Animals never were. The crude and sophomoric language of Advice Animals just can’t compete with the offbeat and irreverent memes of today.
“It is full of low effort content that just isn’t enjoyable,” said , in a r/TheoryOfReddit thread, a year ago.
Advice Animal memes are played out and unoriginal: the pumpkin spice latte of memes.
Brennan offers an explanation for the subreddit’s continued userbase: “I think that it still has subscribers out of nostalgia, people who are maybe a little older, who really participated in the ‘memey-ness’ of it [the subreddit] in its heyday and don’t want to unsubscribe because they still find them funny.”
The likelihood of Advice Animals seeing a full resurgence is slim, according to Brennan, in large part because the technology we use to view and absorb memes has changed drastically.
“If you think back to 2012 or 2011 and the way that we spoke online and the power our phones had, it was easier to download a photo than it was to download a GIF,” Brennan explained. “And now WiFi is everywhere. Our phones are faster, we can make more videos with our phones. Cameras are getting better.”
Still, there’s a little bit of Advice Animals to be found in all present day memes, says Brennan: “There’s always iterations of Advice Animals that you can find. Like, you can find some evolved version of it [Advice Animals] no matter where you look in meme culture, because all the archetypes are there. It’s all about fleshing out what you understand about these ideas of people through whatever the structure of the language is.”
As far as the future of memes goes, it’s unclear. But Brennan says that she knows one thing to be true: people will always use memes and their language to connect to others, in addition to connecting with themselves.