Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, all corners of the internet have been abuzz like never before. The news cycle, we have all noticed, has been virus-centered front to back. Social media, too, has circled the COVID black hole for the duration of the lockdown.

But what about the memes? Obviously, we’ve seen the coronavirus memes – that’s not what I’m talking about. What about meme culture, as a whole? What about young people’s humor?

I’ll start by saying that we’ve known that Millennial & Gen Z humor has been dark, twisted, morbid, and pessimistic for a while now. That’s nothing new – I'm situated right on the transition between Millennial and Gen Z, so I've seen it from the inside and the outside. Plus, no meme or social trend can be isolated to the degree that allows us to draw distinct causal relationships between, say, COVID-19 and people's interest in dark memes. The “Coffin Dance” or “Ghanaian Pallbearers” meme, for instance, had no relation to the Coronavirus outbreak. But it seems likely that the meme may not have taken off to the degree it has if it had emerged under different circumstances.

I put together 4 infographics detailing the most illuminating statistics about the COVID-19 pandemic and dark meme culture. I used Google Trends as my data source, tracking the Google search volume for various queries over time periods from 16 years to 12 months. What I was looking for varied, but one thing remained constant: during the large-scale COVID-19 public policy & lockdown period from late January 2020-present, what were the search trends relating to memes & online humor, social & mental wellness, and "control" groups of non-COVID search terms?

Most of the infographics rely on comparative data. Which trends reached a peak during the Coronavirus pandemic, and which didn't respond as resoundingly? Which trends have declined notably from their peaks over the course of 2020, and which have stuck around at more consistent levels? They're not comprehensive, but there are plenty of things to learn about the way younger generations’ humor responds to crisis – and plenty of reasons to hope.

1. Memes vs. Mental Health Issues

There's a huge difference in the internet life cycle of memes when compared to their more serious underlying causes. These graphs show that meme trends are just that: trends. Passing fads that wear out soon after they become popular, even if their social conditions remain in place.

The mental health issues that accompany these meme trends, however, showed no signs of decreasing after spiking during the COVID-19 pandemic. "Sadness" reached and remained at near all-time highs, and "Am I depressed" & "I'm lonely" likewise remained near the peak levels to which they rose at the beginning of the quarantine.

2. Stats that have never occurred before

Source: Google Trends, 2019-2020

Apart from the long-term trends, the memes of 2020 were characterized by once-in-a-lifetime Google search events, but not in a good way. The dark, harsh realities of Coronavirus in 2020 have beaten out sunnier meme queries that are unlikely to be dethroned again.

The Coronavirus pandemic has created several Google search trends that have never been seen before. Search queries like "Death memes" and "Sad memes" overtook perennial top terms like "Cat memes" and "Happy memes" for the first time ever – and during its peak, "Coronavirus memes" even beat out "Funny memes."

Source: Google Trends, 2015-2020

Of course internet humor is attracted to whatever is happening in the world, and the COVID crisis is as large and universal a concern as we've ever seen. But what's more, we can see what sorts of topics internet humor attaches itself to more.

I looked into what types of memes responded more dramatically to the COVID-19 pandemic – ones that deal with the events, news, and persons involved with the crisis, or ones that had to do with the negative emotions, and pains of the moment.

What I found was that internet humor showed more involvement with the negative or painful aspects of the Coronavirus pandemic than with other parts of the topic itself. Queries like "Dark memes" and "death memes" had identifiable spikes and all-time peaks in February 2020, while highly topical queries like "doctor memes" and "nurse memes" showed almost no signs of change during the same period.

Source: Google Trends, 2020

Though the COVID-19 pandemic is, obviously, overwhelmingly negative, there are some glimmers of hope. I looked at some arguably positive queries that allow us to reflect on people's response to crisis. Queries dealing with management, health, & wellness have responded resoundingly in 2020 – evidently the internet can be a tremendous resource in dark times.

People have looked up "Memes" far more than ever before, as well. While perhaps not as vital as therapy, humor can provide valuable solace – and the more accessible it is to the world, the better.


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