The anatomy of the niche teen Instagram meme
Not all memes are relatable. In fact, the best ones are the opposite.
The niche meme community has spread like UNIF-brand wildfire on Instagram, with dozens of mostly teenage users posting personalized collage memes every day. (Think starter packs.) These posts aren't meant to make you think "that's me," at least not in the usual way. Instead, they provide highly specific glimpses into the life of a particular memer.
When you spend a lot of time looking at niche teen memes, you begin to notice patterns. Certain objects pop up frequently: Fjällräven Kanken backpacks, succulents, enamel pins, felt berets, Glossier. Maybe Doc Martens, if you're edgy. A lot of the memes also refer to the same vintage-y Polaroid aesthetic (and the same pale pinks, forest greens, warm rusts, and mustards) in their assessment of what's cool.
For people immersed in this meme community, these objects are a clear shorthand. The beauty brand Glossier, for example (which, it should be noted, built its cult following largely on social media), reads as aspirational. One teen, who we'll refer to as Noelle, is 16 and looks at niche memes regularly. She said in an interview that it makes her think of New York City, a place she wants to live someday.
"And shiny skin," she added.
Other items' connotations are, if not outright negative, a little more pointed. For instance, several niche meme fans said in interviews that the Starbucks pink drink reminds them of "basic" or "typical" vloggers. (Two people pointed specifically to YouTuber Haley Pham.) Despite this light critique, though, they acknowledge the pink drink is still part of an aspirational ethos. It's still "aesthetic."
In the niche meme context, the word "aesthetic" is used as an adjective. While idiomatically incorrect, it's a usage that's pretty common, especially if you've spent time on Tumblr.
For example, several niche accounts describe LaCroix as an "aesthetic beverage," one that a particular, trendy type of person consumes. When a user posts a personal meme featuring an "aesthetic" item like LaCroix, they're associating themselves — whether aspirationally or actually — with that vibe.
Noelle's friend Allison, 15, who also follows niche memes, said via text message that when she hears the word "aesthetic," she thinks of "plants, popular clothes from Urban, Free People, Forever 21, etc and having an Instagram feed."
Their friend Tia, also 15, said she imagines "lights & Polaroids & records & poetry. Oh & cute coffee shops." All three girls said the word reminded them of trendy high school-age YouTubers like Marla Catherine and Summer McKeen.
Noelle also mentioned Dote, the mobile shopping app that launched YouTuber Emma Chamberlain's divisive line of merch earlier this year. "We don't stan her anymore," Noelle pointed out.
"Dote girls," or verified Dote users with large followings, often have similar styles to those depicted in niche memes, with many of the same trappings. (As Fashionista pointed out in June, fans can even shop Dote girls' looks through Instagram.)
"[On Dote], they try to fit that [aesthetic] in as much as they can," Noelle theorized. "And I love the aesthetic of it so, so do I LOL."
Surprise, surprise: Retail has, in fact, made its way into the niche meme experience. Riley, 17, who runs the niche meme account @glovestory, says she sometimes partners with brands to showcase their items in her memes.
"Most of the time, I just use certain items or images for the aesthetic," she said over email. "Sometimes I get paid by brands to use their items in my posts. I think that's the only time I care about using a specific brand."
But Riley didn't start her account for the brand partnerships. What she values most about niche Instagram is the deeply personal experience its anonymity allows her. (In fact, the name "Riley" is a pseudonym.)
"When I first made my account, it was just something to do during the summer break before senior year. Now, my account has become a sort of journal for me," she said. "Things I could never talk to my friends about I feel completely comfortable sharing with hundreds of strangers online."
In particular, Riley loves to work on a series called "girls I have a crush on," for which she assembles memes about the qualities she thinks are attractive. "I’m not out to most of my friends, so getting to freely talk about liking girls is really nice for me," she said.
Ironically, this content — some of her most personal — has attracted some of the widest support from her audience, she says. Such is the power of this kind of niche meme: It might not cast a wide net, but the people it does reach? They're going to feel deeply and specifically understood.
Noelle, Tia, and Allison, similarly, see niche Instagram's purpose as twofold. "It's fun to imagine being aesthetic and being like the popular Instagram people," Tia said.
"I think they speak to a whole group of people who do all the same things," Noelle added. "They try to relate to other people and in doing that they form a community of people who can say 'me' in the comments."
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November 1, 2018 at 04:04AM