Life on the Meme Council: Meet the Internet’s Gatekeepers

Posted December 15, 2017 6:35 p.m. EST

Social networks produce inside jokes at a relentless pace. The best, worst, stupidest and funniest of those jokes become memes, and either you get them or you don’t.

But if you don’t and, like me, you’re a sad nerd desperate to understand the gags you’re missing, there’s a site dedicated to helping.

Over the past several years, the website KnowYourMeme has become what Wikipedia is to information or UrbanDictionary is to esoteric sex acts. The site is a mostly reliable, crowdsourced translator of the internet’s inside jokes.

The site has a home page but, like Wikipedia, it is chiefly useful when looking up specific entries. It is amazingly comprehensive, given that it is run by a skeleton team of six writers and one developer out of a small office in Brooklyn, near the Williamsburg Bridge. But much of the work of the site is done by a group of 38 volunteer moderators.

They’re known as the meme council. These are some of their stories.

Jacob Johnson / Age: 25 / Expertise: Bionicle, “Touhou”

Based in: Oklahoma City

First internet communities: “Jurassic Park” toy and Lego fan websites

Hours spent moderating a week: Between 21 and 28

Johnson grew up on a farm in Oklahoma with a spotty internet connection. That meant that unlike many other council members, the first internet communities he was a part of were not on networks like 4chan, Reddit, Twitter or even Facebook, which could take longer to load.

Instead, he surfed, a website for fans of “Jurassic Park” toys, and, a fan site for the Lego toy line Bionicle (which has a hungry community of fans on social networks).

Much of what Johnson does for the site may seem like busy work: He makes sure images are properly tagged, and edited.

Johnson is an outdoorsman, and he has worked for the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. But online, he said, he has found people who share some of his more esoteric interests, such as Japanese video games like “Touhou,” which he knows a great deal about despite never having played it.

Those shared interests have made the meme council a comfortable place for Johnson, who feels close with several other moderators.

“Some mods I would be more open to telling certain things about my life than my family or real-life friends,” he said.

Steven Tieu / Age: 18 / Expertise: “Miraculous Ladybug,” “Lolirock”

Based in: Oshawa, Ontario

First internet communities: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit

Hours spent moderating a week: “Pretty much all week for any time I can.”

A younger moderator, Tieu was introduced to KnowYourMeme in a little more standard way than Johnson was. He said he was an outsider growing up and that social media platforms — first Facebook and YouTube and eventually Twitter and Reddit — allowed him to make connections more easily.

Tieu found himself gravitating to memes early, hoping to ensure that people understood their source material. He said he was drawn to KnowYourMeme for its value as a database.

“Yeah, I just kind of took stuff pretty seriously,” he said. “And then I just kind of mellowed out.”

Despite Tieu’s change in attitude, he continues as a prolific member of the meme council. He has helped write and edit dozens of pages on the site and created entries for the cartoons “Lolirock” and “Miraculous Ladybug,” a French-Korean cartoon he remains passionate about.

Amanda Brennan / Age: 31 / Expertise: Tumblr Memes

Based in: Westfield, New Jersey.

First internet communities: AOL chat rooms (specifically one devoted to the boy band Hanson), BBS forums

Hours spent moderating a week: Not available

Brennan is not on the meme council. A former staff member at Know Your Meme, she now works at Tumblr, where she works with various fan communities.

But while at KnowYourMeme, Brennan worked as a liaison between the council and the rest of the staff. She said recently that the site skews male and that most of the current moderators are men, something she thinks shapes the kinds of memes that are likely to be given entries (and another quality the site has in common with Wikipedia).

But Brennan said she thought a moderator’s age was as big an influence on on-site behavior as gender. And she praises moderators’ passion and thoroughness.

“I was the one always pushing them to cite their sources, and they’re like, ‘I already did,'” she said.

Chris Turnage / Age: 25 / Expertise: Bronies

Based in: Fort Smith, Arkansas.

First internet communities: 4chan

Hours spent moderating a week: Three or four. (Turnage said he used to spend 20 to 30 hours a week, but changed his habits to focus on school and his personal life.)

Turnage began to interact with internet communities when a college friend showed him 4chan, a sprawling web forum where much of internet culture is spawned.

He was asked to join the meme council in 2014, after writing about 50 articles for the site.

One of Turnage’s main interests is the brony fandom, a community of adult fans of “My Little Pony.” When pushed, he said it would be fair to call him one of the world’s foremost brony historians.

“That’s actually what brought me to the site and started me editing articles,” he said.

Bronies, he said, are “just a real friendly personal community, kind of lighthearted and fun to be around. I had known what had gone on in the fandom and was able to expand on that.”

Like many of his peers on the meme council, Turnage moved frequently as a child and often had to fend for himself socially. One way he found to occupy himself led directly to the work he does for KnowYourMeme today.

“I like research,” he said. “I like to track down the source and kind of have it all there and kind of know the story.”