We all know what happened a year ago.
A boy fell into an animal enclosure and a gorilla died. Right here, at the Cincinnati Zoo.
But what happened since the shooting of a gorilla named Harambe at the zoo is particularly revealing about us.
And that happened everywhere in this wide world, on the web that connects us all.
The real-life moments of May 28, 2016, incited savage online outrage faster than you can type 140 characters.
In just a few summer days, it began to evolve — or devolve, depending on the type of Twitter feed you subscribe to — into the truly original and outrageous modern marvel it is today.
Born of headlines, Harambe the Hashtag garnered more headlines around the world. Some fact and some fiction. As the months stretched on and the headlines piled up, this virtual existence spilled over into the real world.
We saw Harambe on signs waved in the stands during college football games and on minor league team jerseys on a hockey rink. We heard hecklers shout it from the gallery at the PGA Championship, Dave Chappelle quipped about it on the Saturday Night Life stage and a presidential candidate brought it up on the campaign trail.
This long, wild existence is unusual.
Google Trends data proves that.
We’ve typed “harambe ” into that search window many times and over a long period of time, with four distinct searching spikes from late May to early February.
However, #Harambe began as so many other things do online today: Social media outrage. That’s tied to the first search peak you see in the Google graph.
That weekend, everyone everywhere was suddenly an expert about everything – parenting, animal rights, zoos, the food chain. Life and death.
That reaction makes sense to Jay Hathaway. His job is to write about the internet for the internet.
“Harambe’s death started as a tragic news story, a bad situation with no good solution available,” said Hathaway, a senior writer for the Daily Dot. “It was an ethical conundrum, and people would have been outraged at the child’s parents or at the zoo no matter how it was handled.”
Outrage is usually disposable, said Julia Turner, editor in chief of Slate online magazine and a regular on Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast.
It moves in a predictable pattern, she noted.
Turner sees it this way: Things happen. Objection happens. Objection then goes viral. But that usually is over in 24 hours.
“Whenever a large group has an emotional reaction to a tragedy like Harambe’s death, meme kids will find a mocking, ironic way to react to that tragedy,” Hathaway explained. “Some of it comes from a teenage lack of empathy, and some of it comes from feeling bad but not having a socially acceptable outlet for their emotions.”
And with #Harambe, the backlash to the backlash was weird and ironic. Surrealist and nihilist. Funny and not funny, lasting far longer than anyone could have expected.
And then funny because it’s not funny — like something so bad it was good again. Think B-movie cult classics. Junk food. Yacht rock.
“Online, Harambe was jokingly elevated to the status of a hero or deity,” Hathaway said. “In 2016, celebrating him became a kind of game, and dropping his name online was an in-joke that could mark someone as part of the meme community.”
America’s (online) sweetheart
Let’s talk more about that. Harambe is, after all, the No. 1 U.S. meme of last year, according to Google Trends. That basically means that people, all over the country, searched for that meme more than any other meme in 2016.
A meme is pretty much anything – a photo, video, text, whatever new thing is cooking in Silicon Valley right now – that makes a lot of people LOL.
Users will often alter and imitate the concept each time the meme is shared on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and so on. And it has to be shared a lot – and quickly – to achieve meme status.
Adam Downer knows about memes. He literally works for the website Know Your Meme, an encyclopedic record of internet culture.
At the core, all memes, including the Harambe ones, are about “social capital and a way to spend time online,” Downer said.
The Harambe meme first looked like photoshopped images of the gorilla with celebrities who died around that time. And there seemed to be a lot of those high-profile passings then.
“2016 was a year for coping with death, and people coped with Harambe’s death by putting him into a fictional pantheon with other fallen heroes like David Bowie and Prince,” Hathaway said. “He got to ride their superstar coattails into heaven.”
A month after his death, #Harambe continued to morph from sadness, grief and outrage to something else. People rewrote lyrics of popular songs with Harambe infused or inspired lyrics. (Even Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus, an actual writer of popular songs, joined in.)
“Harambe was not funny to begin with,” said Clayton Purdom, the internet culture editor for the A.V. Club. “But it became funny – in quotation marks – through the sheer force of the internet’s will.”
News events don’t normally get meme’d. “I would say there are jokes about events, but they don’t take over the events themselves,” Downer explained. “Harambe became shorthand for I want to show that I am funny, but I am not going to write a joke.”
There was also this certain trend from early July that propelled #Harambe to a new social media stratosphere.
It’s a hashtag that we can’t print here – #—–outforHarambe.
Purdom calls this unprintable thing a “really short, pretty solid, self-contained internet joke.”
“It’s totally absurd, surrealist, nihilist humor,” he said. Those four words emerged as the catchphrase for the ironic Harambe joke, too.
“The really aggressively absurdist anti-memes are shorthand for people online,” Purdom noted. “It’s a secret handshake.”
People are mean
In August, the aggressively absurd mutated into straight-up aggressive. Harambe sympathizers hacked the official Twitter accounts of the zoo and Cincinnati Zoo director, Thane Maynard.
These attacks coincided with the “Harambe” search peak on the Google Trends graph.
Yes, that means the search numbers exceeded interest than those seen during the actual incident.
That data means we cared more about news about the Internet than actual online reports of a news event.
That same month, others sharpened #Harambe into a ruthless weapon.
It punctuated the vile takeover of actress Leslie Jones’s website: Hackers embedded that video of the gorilla and the boy at the very top of her page.
That is just the most famous example of racist #Harambe attacks.
“There wasn’t anything inherently racist about the Harambe meme, but there’s a white supremacist underbelly to a lot of meme communities, and they were happy to use the ape for their own purposes,” Hathaway explained.
Hashtag as stand-in for emotion
#Harambe was now everywhere.
Everyone was using it for everything. So it was beginning to mean nothing.
In November, #Harambe met the real 800-pound gorilla online last year: The presidential election.
He earned 5% in a real presidential poll before Nov. 8. And after the election, there were widely circulated stories that thousands voted for him for president.
There is actually no way to actually confirm write-in ballot totals. But the rumor still prompted a third, small spike in “harambe” Google searches that month.
“The joke had gotten so big that it started influencing other areas of society,” Downer said.
It’s rare that a meme goes mainstream, he noted.
Pepe the Frog also made that leap, but that might be the only other one, he said. (Google that if you don’t know. That’s a whole other story.)
But why did that happen to #Harambe?
“It got sucked into the weird insanity of the present era,” Downer added.
Hathaway sees something else. And it’s a factor that has never changed in the last year.
“When that kid fell into his pen, a sad, inevitable chain of events was set in motion, and it made people feel powerless,” he said.
People coped online in myriad ways, blaming and the shaming, mocking and laughing.
“And Harambe really was a fun meme, at least at the beginning,” he said. “How else do you cope with something so awful?”
Will something ridiculous work? That’s what you’ll find in the final bump in “harambe” searches, back in early February.
Someone sold a Cheeto — one flaming hot Cheeto — that looked like eerily like Harambe on eBay. For almost $100,000. Yes, you read that correctly. There are five zeroes there.
The joke, however, might be on us. Since the shooting, social media has since lost whatever innocence it had left, Hathaway said.
The internet is arguably more politically divided and vicious than ever. And meme creators “are clustering in forums that reinforce their own political views,” Hathaway said.
Love it or hate it, a whole lot of people experienced, engaged #Harambe in last year. There was something familiar that pulled us closer.
It’s a sounds a bit like the English translation of “harambe.”
It’s a Swahili word that means working together.