the 'tired spongebob' meme captures our cultural exhaustion

Why is ‘Spongebob Squarepants’ so damn memeable?

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Apr 27 2018, 7:55pm

Memes seemingly appear out of thin air. They can pop up and spread across the internet within hours. But who are the people finding these images and repurposing them as deliciously smutty jokes? We’ll never know, as memes have a peak-internet egalitarian quality about them. We ask for zero credit or payment for our contributions, as proven by the "black woman squatting" simply appreciating that her image has inspired a million and one Black Twitter jokes. “To see my picture used to illustrate so many hilarious situations has been the absolute greatest,” she said after the internet tracked her down. Becoming part of the zeitgeist is the real reward.

The latest meme du jour is the Tired Spongebob meme. It features the iconic Nickelodeon character leaning against a rock, huffing out of exhaustion. “Me after having one conversation with someone I don’t know well,” one person wrote. Another version reads, “Me two minutes after clocking in.” There’s something deeper behind Tired Spongebob’s newfound popularity, especially during an era where the 24/7 news cycle and never-ending stream of bad news has us all feeling worn out.

This week alone had me feeling like Tired Spongebob a few times: Kanye calling Trump his “brother,” Congress probing into the Cambridge Analytica scandal, techno producer Avicii’s suicide, the final moments of Prince’s death being shared with the public. Then there were the personal struggles, like New York’s transit system never really working, the rent being too damn high, and getting thirst trapped by Antoni from Queer Eye’s Instagram posts. Tired Spongebob captures how, by Friday, just putting fitted sheets on our beds can feel like an insurmountable challenge.

The meme also helps us see we are not alone in our mental exhaustion. Spotlighting our shared struggles is increasingly important when social media algorithms promote a distorted vision of life. Pics of us relaxing on the beach get far more likes than a picture of us with circles under our eyes. Oh, and memes. Memes get tons of likes. As a result, the Tired Spongebob meme has managed to slip into our feeds and put the world’s fatigue front and center.

Looking at data from Google Trends, the Tired Spongebob meme first entered the world around March 21-31. It then hit peak popularity the very next week. Tired Spongebob’s instantaneous fame illustrates how memes have the power to infiltrate pop culture with an unprecedented speed. Before, jokes use to be limited to regions, cliques, and age groups. Today, they are hyper-specific and open for everyone to participate in. For example: Squidward has become something of a gay icon. Then again, the character has always been a little queer. One of the most popular Squidward memes in the queer community is the character sticking his butt out like a dancer in a Nicki Minaj video. The meme has inspired numerous jokes about being unapologetically flamboyant. One standout touches on queer teens turning their living room into an imaginary pop concert stage when their parents leave.

Spongebob Squarepants has become a never-ending source for meme content. There’s the blurry image of Mr. Krabs used for capturing disorientation; Patrick Star devilishly smiling about our most petty moments; a dehydrated Squidward embodying us at our absolute worst. Tongue-in-cheek cynicism has come to be a defining quality of the internet — especially on sites like Reddit and 4Chan — and there is nothing more cynical than taking a wholesome childhood show and making it lowbrow. Case in point: Arthur memes being used for jokes about everything from one-night stands to Snapchat nudes. PBS, the network Arthur airs on, even had to issue a statement condemning the R-rated memes.

But perhaps this is the point of our reinterpretations. Memes allow us to create a continually shifting relationship to the seminal shows we grew up with, finding a way to carry them over into our sticky adulthoods. These channels would loop us in through contests, marathons, and TV specials — so isn’t our ongoing obsession exactly what they wanted? Nickelodeon appears to be capitalizing on the renewed popularity of its most iconic character. A third Spongebob film is coming out in 2020. We’re guessing plenty of Spongebob memes will be created between now and 2020, and it’s unlikely the Tired Spongebob meme is going to go anywhere soon. Because as long as Donald Trump is president and Kanye is on Twitter and Antoni Porowski keeps posting underwear pics, we’re going to keep feeling out of breath.