Yesterday, Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96. To say it was a big day on the internet would be an understatement. The sheer amount of memes and shitposts generated in the last 24 hours may be more than I’ve ever seen in a single day.
I would divide those who did react to the queen’s passing into two groups: people who believed it was a serious and solemn occasion and those who, uh, did not. And I don’t think people in that first group had a very good time on social media yesterday. In fact, it turns out there were a lot of people on Twitter, in particular, that learned for the first time yesterday that the British royal family is, absolutely, a political institution and may not be as universally beloved as they had assumed.
While much of the social web was taking every chance they could to pop off a viral post, Tumblr was especially active. “Queen Elizabeth” is still the number one trending topic across the whole platform. Before we dig in here, I just want to acknowledge that today’s issue of Garbage Day is a bit dark, but I also think it’s worth pulling apart how the web has been reacting to the queen’s death because, as you’ll see, I think it says a lot about how the internet, as a whole, functions now.
To fully explain the bizarre online forces that turned the death of a 96-year-old monarch into an out of control viral frenzy on Tumblr, I think it's best to break this up into three small sections. So, first, let's talk about Tumblr's relationship to the queen.
Part 1 - Tumblr And The Queen
I was trying trace back exactly when jokes about the queen dying started on Tumblr and it’s hard to pinpoint. Though, I remember seeing memes about Tumblr users wanting to join the Irish Republican Army and create a 74-country Ireland following the Brexit vote. I know that COVID played a role, as well, with many users beginning to joke that the queen could die during the pandemic. And news reports over the last few years about her declining health only seemed to make jokes about the queen dying more frequent. Is this all super morbid? Yeah, for sure. But I can put some high level analysis on this.
There are a few things happening here. First, Tumblr is still very much an ecosystem centered on, oftentimes, extremely juvenile turf wars about social justice. The platform has mellowed out a lot since its peak in 2014, but it’s still a place where users are constantly pillorying each other over leftist and progressive issues. And I think sharing dark jokes about the death of the Queen of England was a way of keeping the peace — “yes, we may be viciously fighting with each other right now, but I think we can all agree that English colonialism is bad,” etc. Also, the Tumblr community’s relationship to news cycles is much different than what you see on Twitter. Content moves more slowly, so jokes tend to build up over time, diverging in confusing ways, and then snowballing into small cultural movements that become very sticky and immediately get mythologized into community lore. And, finally, Tumblr, since the days of Superwholock, has had a very intense anglophilic bent to it. And though it may not feel like it, I think the site collectively cheering for the death of the queen is directly tied to that.
There have been a lot of variations on the general “Queen Elizabeth is going to die soon” meme across Tumblr, but I’d say the main one to be aware of was a series of screenshots from the movie Megamind. The original line reads, “There is no Easter Bunny, there is no Tooth Fairy and there is no Queen of England. This is the real world, and you need to wake up.” So users would cut off the final line as a joke and caption it, “like to charge, reblog to cast,” an allusion to using a magic spell in an RPG.
The meme got very popular after Boris Johnson resigned as prime minister of the UK in July. Now users are postin the full meme.
The site is also currently full of GIFs and uploads of the “Crab Rave” song by Noisestorm, which was first used to celebrate the death of Rush Limbaugh in 2021.
I reached out to Tumblr to see if I could get any data about exactly how big yesterday was for the platform. According to Cates Holderness, the head of editorial for the site, “Queen Elizabeth” had 403% more clicks than the second highest topic, which was Chris Pine.
“In fact, clicks to the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ tag were 518% higher than the average top-clicked tag so far in September,” Holderness told me. “As far as searches go, the top three searched topics yesterday were variations on the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ tag, and combined searches for those tags were 622% higher than the next highest searched tag, which was related to Stranger Things.”
Part 2 - The Tumblr Sexyman Bracket
Right, OK, so you’ve got all that. Let’s move to how the queen’s death is being processed among the wilder parts of the internet. To understand that you need to know about the “Tumblr Sexyman Bracket,” which wrapped up yesterday.
A Twitter account called @sexymanOTD started a bracket earlier this week to decide who was the most popular Tumblr “sexyman”. This is a reference to the platform’s frequent site-wide obsession with unusual (usually) fictional men. The bracket included characters like Megamind (the site is going through a real Megamind phase right now), Loki, The Onceler, Sans from the video game Undertale, and Reigen from the anime Mob Psycho 100. Sans and Reigen ended up being the final two. And a lot of users really wanted to Reign to win because fan art of him is super popular on Tumblr right now. Sans ended up winning, unfortunately.
I say unfortunately because Sans, and the idea that people could find the cartoon skeleton “sexy,” has been a long-running joke on the site for years. Adding gasoline ot the fire, Undertale creator Toby Fox celebrated the win by writing a bunch of fan fiction about it yesterday.
What does this have to do with the queen? Well, ever since the #Destiel ship from Supernatural was made canon on the eve of the 2020 US presidential election, the Tumblr community has been obsessed with the idea of a weird fandom thing happening at the same time as a massive global news story breaks. Users now use screenshots from Supernatural to announce breaking news to each other.
Now, we need to look at how Tumblr trends began to interact with trends happening outside the platform.
Part 3 - The Conspiracy Theory That Princess Diana Was Reincarnated as Jungkook From BTS
As it became clear that queen had died yesterday, internet users also noticed that YouTuber Trish Paytas was giving birth. Immediately, folks on Twitter, TikTok, and Tumblr started joking that the queen would be reincarnated as Paytas’ baby. This is probably the least unhinged example of the memes I’ve seen about this.
Interestingly enough, as pointed out by Twitter user @mitsukileaks, there was already a conspiracy theory on K-Pop Twitter from a while back that Princess Diana was reincarnated as Jeon Jung-kook from BTS.
This is where things get sort interesting from a technical standpoint and also wildly confusing. Because the queen died, Princess Diana also started trending. Which then caused “Jung Kook” to trend, as well. Similarly, because, as I said, Tumblr users make jokes about breaking news events by using screencaps from the show Supernatural, that too started to trend alongside “Queen Elizabeth” on tumblr.
So we end up with this utterly bizarre algorithmic confluence of different, but linked memes happening simultaneously around one news topic: Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana, Trish Paytas, Jungkook from BTS, Sans from Undertale, Reigen from the anime Mob Psycho 100, the movie Megamind, the #Destiel ship from Supernatural, and, of course, crabs are all trending because of each other across Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok via their own community’s memes as well as screenshots of the other plarforms’ memes. And none of this is linear. It’s old memes combining with new memes, which all still currently evolving.
What’s even funnier is that a lot of outlets have done recaps of some of this this morning. So news organizations are trying to explain the Paytas connection or the crab rave thing, but there are a lot of outlets that can’t or don’t want to explain any of this stuff because it’s too dumb or too weird or whatever, but they still want the search traffic. Which is how you end up with the US edition of the British news outlet The Sun having a literal liveblog waiting to find out if Paytas’ baby’s name is Elizabeth or not. Which, if you weren’t on social media in the last 24 hours and didn’t know the whole joke about the queen being reincarnated would be utter gibberish.
Epilogue - This Meme Should Make Sense To You Now
There are a lot of posts like this flying around right now, but I thought this one from Tumblr user tiptapricot was kind of the best example of the general state of the internet at the moment. There’s a few other references in there to just general Tumblr stuff, which, if you don’t get, you can always email me and ask about.
The point with all of these things is that because we have these centralized online feeds like Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, big cultural moments are still getting compressed down into streams of information. But we also have pretty heavily fractured experiences of those centralized platforms. So massive global news stories get filtered through really strange prisms where no one’s really in charge of them anymore.
So, 10 years ago, an event like this would have happened and chances are you would have gone to your favorite news site and read a tweet roundup about it. Or maybe you waited until the evening news or maybe even the next morning’s radio show or something. Now, there’s just simply too much to recap. And too many recaps to parse. Which makes memes the main way we express and process things now. Nothing else can really cut through. And there’s probably no way we ever go back to the way things were. So if you found yourself yesterday — on any platform — wishing for people to be a little more respectful. Or a little less chaotic. Or wanted the headlines to be a little more organized. Or just wanted things to slow down. I kind of have some bad news for you. Regardless of whether this is a good or a bad way of understanding the world around this, this is just how it is how.
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***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***
We will need a lot of MEMEs exegetes to keep up with the pace... It's like studying a famous painting and you have a specialist explaining all the symbols hidden in a masterpiece... except it's not art !? (is it?)
Tumblr is such a weird place to be in that generally it's pretty quiet a majority of the time with people in their little fandom corners doing their own thing and then news like this breaks and suddenly the site is firing on all cylinders, but only for like a day or two before going back to regularly scheduled programming. I forget the post but one post I saw on Tumblr was from someone who heard the news that the queen wasn't looking good and ditched the news sites to go to Tumblr to "experience the news as God intended", which I think is a pretty good example of what Tumblr is for most people who still use it, regardless of regularity. It's one of the few places on the internet where the shared language is consistent and goes back nearly a decade, where you can go back to it and it feels like you never left. It's kinda nice in some ways.