In November, the surreal meme creator @surrealvault decided to shutter her merch shop, which had existed for only two days. Though she’d originally seen the store as a viable way to monetize her page, she ended up feeling uncomfortable with the idea. “Surrealism exists to confuse, amaze, inspire and entertain,” she wrote on Instagram. “It should not be a medium for me to earn money.”
What constitutes a surreal meme is hard to explain, but once you’ve seen a few, you begin to recognize common signifiers. There’s the Zalgo text, the Clip Art fonts, the recurring characters like Meme Man and Orang. Most importantly, there’s the impenetrable irony. When you look at a surreal meme, you feel a little disoriented even if you think it’s funny, because you’re not sure what you’re laughing at. Don’t feel bad if you don’t quite get it: A concise definition of “surreal meme” does not exist.
Surreal memes are based on a concept called “layers of irony,” which, according to Know Your Meme, stemmed from a four-panel comic on a Facebook page called Special meme fresh. (The page is still active.) The idea deals with a common plight among meme enthusiasts: Marred by brands and diluted by ubiquity, meme culture has become so stupid that there’s no way to enjoy it in its mainstream state. If you want to make a meme that is truly enjoyable for its own sake, you must imbue it with an ironic detachment so advanced that it actually reads as nonsense. It must operate on a plane functionally separate from reality.
It’s this lack of grounding that has helped surreal memes to endure. They contain no explicit cultural references (with a few exceptions), so the genre can’t just be phased out; they’re not overtly political, so they can’t really milkshake duck. They can’t even be problematic, because despite their bizarre-but-weirdly-potent commentary on the human condition, they’re not really about anything. Do they have something to say? Often, yes. But they’re not going to stay in this realm to do it.
Surreal memes, which you’ve probably seen even if you don’t know the term, have enjoyed something rare on the internet: longevity. The subreddit r/surrealmemes, a top destination for the genre, has been around for just under three years, and surreal memes have been popping up on forums and Facebook pages since at least 2015.
On r/surrealmemes, moderators appear to be stricter than many Instagram creators, trying their best to keep content fully separate from modern reality. For instance, there’s a strict rule against using brand names in memes (although fake brands are OK).
When you look at a surreal meme, you feel a little disoriented even if you think it’s funny, because you’re not sure what you’re laughing at.
“We would … like to enforce that these memes are referencing a state of ‘beyond reality’ absurdism, and for this reason we don’t like to see memes that reference real brands, people, or elements of pop culture,” mod Maester_Patrick explained. “Furthermore, we see no reason to allow our sub to be milked [by brands].”
Political references are similarly banned. (“Don’t even use images of politicians,” one of the rules says.) It’s not that surreal memes can’t be political at all; in fact, quite a few have a leftist bent. But, like mentioning brand names, mentioning political figures in a meme anchors it to reality, which instantly precludes it from being surreal. It has lost the “beyond reality” effect.
Even beyond specific subreddit rules, there’s a perpetual push within the surreal meme community to keep the memes as surreal as possible, imposing a divide between purists and the rest of the meme economy. Surreal memers want to occupy a different space than the rest of the meme economy: the obnoxious brands and the people who dunk on brands and the criminal curators and yes, even the world record egg. As Louise Matsakis wrote for Motherboard in 2017, surreal memes often seem like the internet’s “last escape,” safe from co-opting, monetization, and FuckJerry.
You won’t find brands using surreal memes. A few brands recognize some trappings of the genre — Steak-umm recently attempted something surreal-adjacent, for example — but they can’t really participate fully.
This is partially because the surreal meme community is impenetrable (and perhaps a little pretentious), but it’s also because the standards for a good surreal meme are constantly being updated and constricted. Motifs that gain in popularity quickly become old hat, leaving the door open for fresher, even stranger memes to emerge. This creates a twofold problem for mainstream entities looking to cash in: Not only would they have to crack an impossible code, but they’d have to keep pace, too.
“There are many things that have been absolutely done to death, for example: Zalgo text, space or gradient backgrounds, word font art or cooltext, images which are effectively just deep fried memes, and things which are just random,” Maester_Patrick explained. (He admitted that he’s probably one of the stricter mods.) “Of all things we lack originality, and because of the loose definition of what a surreal meme is, it’s very easy to churn out mediocre shitposts.”
And the ideal surreal meme? In Maester_Patrick’s view, it “preserves elements of traditional surrealism.” It engages with the subconscious mind and eschews rational thought in the tradition of artists like René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. (Dalí’s lobster telephone wouldn’t feel out of place on a surreal memes page.) Other enthusiasts, though, favor a more Lovecraftian approach, continuing to embrace the obscure Unicode and oblique Cthulhu references that Maester_Patrick is tired of.
That’s a lot for a brand to keep up with — especially one that, as he says, is “already ideal prey for r/fellowkids (a subreddit dedicated to mocking brands’ bad attempts at participating in youth culture).” It makes sense, then, that brands mostly stay away.
And so surreal memes remain not only deeply weird, but mostly unburdened by capitalism, as if they truly exist in another dimension.
To be fair, there are creators who use surreal memes to make money. On Instagram, several accounts have Redbubble shops where they sell merch based on their creations. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily — people should be allowed to responsibly profit from their work.
“I initially wanted to start [a merch page] because I wanted to make money,” @surrealvault, who is a student, explained. “The account had just taken off and I felt like I could cash in.”
But ultimately, she just didn’t see surreal memes and money as compatible. “The surreal meme community as a a whole … it’s very important for us to stay away from the mainstream meme community,” she explained. “If you start to monetize something, whether you want to or not, you become part of the mainstream.”
She needn’t worry: Surreal memes probably won’t hit the mainstream, at least not anytime soon. The community is too insular, the memes far too bizarre. Most importantly, surreal memes won’t be co-opted because their creators don’t want them to be. Instead, they’ll just keep g̵e̶t̸t̸i̸n̸g̶ ̸w̷e̴i̷r̷d̶e̷r̵.̵