Top Memes 2016


Top Memes considers memes used or created by our social movements to challenge the status quo, and the mass memes shaping politics and pop culture.

For us, memes spread meaning through story via symbols and practices. They are transmitted through writing, speech, gestures, images, rituals, and phenomena.

This was quite a year for memes and stories. Our initial list of memes was noticably longer than previous years. Thanks to our trusty criteria, we managed to narrow it down to 10 Top Memes for 2016. It is also important to note that for the last three years Black Lives Matter has been on our Top Memes list. This year we found ourselves noticing that while BLM did not make it directly on the list, its influence and message can be seen throughout it. 

We can't wait to see what 2017 will bring. We will need to wield the power of our imaginations to create the boldest memes to #ChangeTheStory. We are powerful when we imagine. Imagine how powerful we can be.


This last year was one of many conversations and debates. Here at the the Center For Story-based Strategy, we decided to play with an image that could be a starter for deepening our dialogues while also giving us a visual way to mark and reflect on what work for social justice may look like. Our CSS Imagination staff teamed up with our friends at the Interaction Institute for Social Change and we decided to do some Imaginaction work that we called #The4thBox.

It worked like this: we wanted folks to imagine another story and tell us or show us would they would illustrate in #The4thBox. The ideas were endless and came in written and visual form. We added acting the ideas out, and before we knew it things went from a conversation starter to a theory explainer and a tool to visually tell the stories of where we want to go and where we have been. Folks used #The4thBox to imagine a future beyond liberation or to dig deeper into what inequality and injustice look like. No matter where folks went with the story telling one thing was clear, our imaginations are our greatest tool for reflection and designing the blueprint for the future we want to have.


Pokémon Go was the digital interactive game craze of the year, putting people in the streets staring at their phones ignoring everything else around them while being fully immersed in the two-world combo of the game. But the real game changer was what came out of the game being "culture jammed" or hacked. Wokémon, the self described "game of social consciousness," merged the "Stay Woke" movement with the immense popularity of "Pokémon Go" and created something that truly did/does #ChangeTheStory! Check them out HERE & HERE.


2016 in one word: "Lost." While we may not be fans of 2016 overall, CSS does love some really excellent "Show, Don't Tell." So, you can imagine how excited we were when this 2016 Year In Review Meme came out. It just seemed to nail the exact way in which the internet can bring us some much needed comic relief in the mist of such harrowing events this year. Check out some of the Me at the beginning of 2016 vs Me at the end of 2016posts HERE.



 This year's video challenges may not have been about raising money by dumping things over your head but they most certainly were about raising consciousness in the most low-tech of ways: freezing or running.

he first #MannequinChallenge videos that started to trend were pretty simple. Someone records people frozen in action like mannequins while the camera films all around them, usually with the song "Black Beatles" by Rae Sremmurd playing in the background. But then one video started a new wave of stories that froze some of our most critical social justice issues. It wasn't the usual song playing in the background. Instead, it was a poignant compilation of audio from real life scenarios and people confronting police brutality. 

The #TrumpsComingChallenge is based on an earlier challenge called the Andy Challenge, which is based off of the hit movie Toy Story. In that challenge folks yell, "Andy's coming!" and just like in the film people fall to the ground as if they are toys that need to no longer be alive. But this time when people yell, "Trump's coming!" folks (mostly youth) run for dear life. If we were to hack this it would be a video of folks running towards, not away, from the camera and knocking it down. New #ChangeTheTrumpStory Challenge anyone?


When news breaks about a violent attack the story tends to immediately focus on the attacker and their motives. The #SayTheirNames hashtag reframes that conversation to focus on the victims, who they were, and who they were trying to become someday. The aftermath of the horrific attack at Pulse Night Club in June 2016 immediately began a Battle of the Story. Who was Orlando about?

The internet didn't skip a beat and within seconds of the events, posts began to overflow with detailed information about each of those killed that night. The 49 victims of the rampage were named (with ages) everywhere, even on the City of Orlando's webpage. Videos of their faces were hard to miss and videosabout who they were became hard to watch. It was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman and the deadliest incident of violence against the Queer Community (who were mostly Latinx) in U.S. History. They were dancing. They were free. They were not alone. Then they were afraid. Then were held hostage. Then they were gone. We #SayTheirNames to remember for whom we work so hard to #ChangeTheStory.


A year ago our Top Memes list included an image of a 3-year-old Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, who was found in September face down on a Turkish beach. His death became a symbol of the conflicts in Syria and the tremendous loss of life those who fled their homeland faced. This year the genocidal acts we have watched play out on the news has been symbolically captured with the photograph of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh. Omran was injured in airstrikes on the city of Aleppo. 




The year's Top Memes would not be complete without some examples from the U.S. Presidential Election. When we considered the most powerful memes of the campaigns the two that rose to the top were also without coincidence the two most hacked of the season. The Trump campaign expressed its hate through red baseball hats and by calling for building a wall. Naturally, artists and activists used these images to fight back.

First we have Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik's piñata border wall. Then Plastic Jesus' mini wall put around Trump's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Finally, a massive coalition of activists build a mock wall outside the Republican National Convention to "Wall Off Trump."


The hat hacks were far and wide as well, and spanned from the historic to the just plan ridiculous. 


"The most noteworthy part of a national anthem before a sporting event used to be a great singing performance or a riveting flyover. Colin Kaepernick changed that."

One act over and over again did in fact #ChangeTheStory in 2016.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick said, "to me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder. Again, I’m not anti-American. I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better."

For a complete list of all the athletes and groups who took part in the national anthem protests go HERE.


Thank You Beyoncé! Simply put, 2016 would not have been as manageable if it weren't for all the stories of hope, change, resistance, and re-birth that you gave us this year. Artists and social justice storytellers, like Beyoncé, made it a point in 2016 to make not only the personal political, but also make the personal and political professional. Beyoncé changed what the word "Formation" means and turned into a visual for political action. Beyoncé took the 50th Year Anniversary of the Black Panthers and shined a light on black revolutionary resisters during the 50th Super Bowl Half Time Show. Beyoncé then took issues of pain and resistance to a very personal level and created a cinematic experience out of poetry and song and a ton of visual images that captured the state of collective rage and sadness that was felt across the country. Lemonade had such breath and depth that folks created an entire syllabus around the video/movie content. Then Beyoncé took all this to the masses in a world concert tour. Finally, as if she hadn't done enough, Beyoncé's performance at the Country Music Awards show displayed an overwhelming sense of resiliency for us all to follow. In a year with so many musicians and artists passing, Beyoncé lived so hard and gave us so much life




The prolific organizing around Standing Rock and Stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline has to be the year's most inspiring work for climate and social justice. While the fight is not over, the wins from the  unwavering Water Protectors on the ground are worth both uplifting and honoring. Mass numbers of protectors and organizers moved money, supplies, and people directly to Standing Rock to bear wittness and stand in solidarity with a movement and story that actually began hundreds of year before. While earned media had a blackout on the story of Standing Rock, the power of social media and technology became a major source of sharing the news directly to people. #NoDAPL and #StandingRock became capsules for how to share a complicated and layered story about soverighnty and climate justice.

At every step and nearly every day, networks and individuals shared detailed information on how any one person could contribute to the fight. Tackling every Point of Intervention imaginable, the narrative of the battle over the oil pipeline quickly evolved from a story of resistance to a story of protection. What was first "#NoDAPL and #StandingRock" became "#LoveWaterNotOil and #WaterIsLife." So while some may feel that where an oil pipeline is located is debatable, the larger message that Standing Rock was the broader stance that  we can't live without water - but we can live without oil. 

2016 Top Memes Criteria

(may not meet all, but does meet most)

  1. Is a “meme”- a piece of writing, speech, gestures, images, rituals and phenomena

  2. Challenges the status quo

  3. Shapes politics (little “p”)

  4. Shapes culture (little “c”)

  5. Represents a range of critical contemporary issues

  6. “It” has the “IT” factor, has to be viral