For years, we've associated memes with irony and dark humor, mostly encountering image macros with relatable messages about existential dread, day-to-day struggles, and feelings of disappointment, anger and rejection. But early last year, the memosphere took a surprisingly uplifting turn when “wholesome memes” gained traction on Tumblr and quickly became a trend, according to Know Your Meme. Most of the earliest wholesome memes were variations of “I love my girlfriend.” Since then, other themes have emerged in wholesome memes, including making good choices, the importance of friendship and support, and loving yourself.
Seventeen-year-old student Ashlee started a Facebook page dedicated to wholesome memes to counteract the negative ones she saw gain popularity in the beginning of 2016. Though she isn’t the origin of wholesome memes, her page was the first of its kind on Facebook—and it took off.
“I started to notice the large following once people other than my friends and family started liking the page, and really realized how big wholesome memes had become when I saw people I did not know sharing them,” Ashlee tells Complex.
Since launching last May, Ashlee’s page has garnered more than 80,000 followers. Another Facebook page named “Wholesome Memes” popped up in July; In August, a Twitter account for wholesome memes was started, gaining thousands of followers. A "wholesome memes" subreddit came soon after and eventually, the trend was covered by BuzzFeed, The Guardian and New York Magazine.
Alongside wholesome memes, “niceposting” has started gaining popularity. While “shitposting” refers to posts that are purposefully worthless and derailing, “niceposting” refers to posts that are uplifting, positive, and kind. This can include pictures of animals, messages of camaraderie, and, of course, wholesome memes.
Among the heaps of ironic shitposting Facebook groups, one niceposting group called “freshwater all natural niceposting,” shines as a refreshing counterpoint. Group members speak in “snek,” a variation of English ridden with intentional spelling errors. Fresh water—or as they call it, “fress wate”—is the central topic for the group members, who constantly post about the importance of drinking water. Group administrators remind members to keep their posts nice (or “nic”), and that bullying and mean posts are not nice (“nont nic”).
Founder Avery Walker started the group in October 2016 for reasons similar to Ashlee’s—she wanted a positive space on the internet. “A lot of ironic shitposting groups were filled with reactionary and discriminatory memes and comments,” Walker tells Complex. “I wanted a place where we could have the ironic meme type of humor but in a very nice way.” The group now has more than 20,000 members, who lovingly refer to the 16-year-old high school student as “mom.”
This positivity-centric trend of wholesome memes and niceposting hasn’t completely replaced the ironic and self-deprecating memes we’ve seen for many years (which are still prolific). But perhaps this trend is set to take the meme-throne because wholesomeness is the very antithesis of dark humor.
With last year’s Brexit vote, countless celebrity deaths, and the election of Donald Trump, 2016 was a dark year for many. To cope, people often turned to humor, and it’s no surprise that many sought sources that were both funny and affirming.
In some wholesome memes, the link to U.S. politics is very clear, like with ones about Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s friendship. These have been around for a while, but their popularity exploded after Trump’s devastating win. “Prankster Joe Biden” memes situated the Vice-President as Trump’s foil and the petty best friend we all wish Obama had. The mass appeal is easy to see: These memes simultaneously lament Trump’s win but draw on the wholesome concept of Biden and Obama’s friendship.
“There’s a lot of negativity on the internet,” Ashlee says, “Especially now with what the U.S. is entering into.” With the culmination of Obama’s farewell address (and the nod to his best friend Joe Biden) and the state of the world today, we need wholesome memes now more than ever.