Choose your quarantine meme house
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Choose your quarantine meme house

An illustration in purple of houses on a street.Zac Freeland/Vox

A taxonomy of the pandemic’s greatest meme hits.

Transferring much of our lives indoors for the foreseeable future has put even more pressure on internet culture to entertain and support us than usual. Which means memes, the default mode of communication online for many, now stand in for a huge range of quarantine moods, social connections, and concerns beyond just making us laugh.

As people adjust to the new lifestyles mandated by the spread of the novel coronavirus, memes about the pandemic itself have largely faded into the background. The concept of “a meme” has to come feel increasingly obsolete as the internet becomes the main way through which many connect. Living within a necessary online bubble means that memes represent not just passing jokes or fads, but an experience of reality itself: They are the conveyances of everything from social distancing woes to the perils of online education to breakout TV shows that have kept us distracted during these complicated times.

It’s pretty hard to imagine a true summation of This Quarantine Life without taking the multifaceted role of memes into account. But because memes are doing so much heavy lifting right now, it’s implausible to generalize or reduce them all into one broad theme. Rather, Vox is offering up our own version of the “Which quarantine house are you?” meme — because why not focus on just one quarantine meme to explain the broad range of quarantine memes, when you could use a quarantine meme that incorporates many of the others?

 Zac Freeland / Vox

The quarantine house meme is a variant of the popular “lunch table” meme, born directly out of the advent of social distancing. It collects an apparently randomized assortment of items in a category, like famous authors or celebrities. Its groupings are typically nonintuitive and unlabeled, thus inviting you to pick which one of these unruly, unlikely houses you’d rather wind up trapped in. Its chaotic setup reflects something about, well, the unpredictability of being stuck in one place during a pandemic with people you didn’t necessarily choose to be stuck with. The quarantine house meme intentionally reflects where you’re actually staying for the quarantine — in your house. It’s not really all that abstract.

And in another, more practical sense, the Quarantine House meme format — it’s pretty much just a list of lists — can provide an overview of the kinds of memes that have made the most cultural impact as the pandemic continues. It can even be used to distill the collective experience into something digestible.

In this case, we came up with these lists of quarantine memes, based on general observation and a little crowdsourcing of what constituted a representative quarantine meme. We’re defining “meme” a bit loosely here, in part because quarantine-era memes themselves are less confined to specific meme templates and more about capturing a particular mood, idea, or moment. So join us, choosing which quarantine house you’d be most okay with occupying, and take a tour of through a virtual neighborhood transformed by Covid-19.

House #1

Remember, there are no “themed” quarantine houses, but perhaps you might espy your own theme, or manage to draw your own meaning from this Rorschach test of the imagination. (And if you do notice specific themes in any of these creations, let us know!)

For my part, even though I arranged these houses in a completely random order, I also immediately found distinct meanings, or at least a general mood or attitude, in almost every one of them. So, for what it’s worth, I imagine House #1 to be full of the lively sounds of families bonding over art, creative schoolwork, and ’90s feminist rebellions.

Zoom backgrounds

We’ve already rhapsodized about Zoom backgrounds, for good reason. It’s arguable that no other meme better encapsulates the experience of the pandemic as a profound, global cultural reset. (This is not to be confused with the “cultural reset” meme.) The Zoom background has become ubiquitous, both a new regular part of reality and as a form of personal expression.

The vision of a lone person, on camera, in a video chat, with a striking background behind them, whatever it might be has already become its own simple but enduring part of history: a plain representation of where the world went for several months during the first half of 2020.

Recreating famous artwork

This meme, in which people across the globe recreate famous works of art from whatever household items they happen to have at hand, is as confounding as it is inspirational. It’s both the natural result of having a lot of downtime, and a glimpse at the levels of pure genius that such an infusion of extra leisure time can produce.

I mean.

The recreations often directly play on the themes of quarantine in the pandemic, with copious amounts of repurposed toilet paper and other household objects. Take this ingenious recreated Rembrandt, which utilizes both t.p. and latex gloves.

And sure, these quarantine households aren’t writing King Lear (sorry to this meme). But the beauty and joy of these memes are proof enough that masterpieces are in the eye of the beholder.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters

One of the most unpredictable memes of the moment came from one of the most unpredictable musical moments of the year so far: the release of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, alternative pop icon Fiona Apple’s first album in eight years.

As Vox critic-at-large Emily VanDerWerff points out in her album review, Apple’s longstanding vibe — that of a world-weary girl who is Over Everything — probably reflects the current sociocultural moment better than it ever has before. Because it was mainly recorded not in a studio but at Apple’s home, amid a background of barking dogs, Fetch the Bolt Cutters unexpectedly arrived as the perfect quarantine album. Its huge acclaim helped it reach meme status almost instantaneously, with fans applying physical bolt cutters and song lyrics to pretty much everything, all while celebrating the album’s jaded-but-gentle nature:

The quick success and spread of Fetch the Bolt Cutters made the memes about the album — and the album hype itself — somewhat indistinguishable. As much as Fetch the Bolt Cutters memes touch on something about the zeitgeist, they also are in large part just about how much we love the album itself.

@_bigdaddymaddy_

stream fetch the boltcutters 4 clear skin ✨ #fionaapple #musiclives

♬ original sound – kylejbaird

Distraught students

 Zoom Memes for Self-Quaranteens via Facebook

What is there to say about kids who’ve been sent home for the rest of the school year? At any age, they’re frequently distracted, disappointed, and more than a little overwhelmed by the environment and the challenges of remote learning. Adding to the malaise is that the pandemic robbed millions of students of seminal school moments, from performing in their annual spring musicals to going to their senior proms, to graduating — not to mention depriving many college students of experiencing their final semester of school.

Often this makes for hilarity, and often it makes for a poignant picture of the pandemic as a bringer of countless small everyday calamities, both for students and teachers:

Quarantine memes by and for students are frequently both a necessary expression of frustration and a show of resilience from kids who are, as the youths say, straight-up not having a good time right now. But at least, for once, the rest of us can all relate.

House #2

There’s a lot going on in this house, and you can bet it’s full of excitement. There’s so much to be excited for, after all. Money! Scallions! Education and learning things! Gubernatorial PowerPoints!

Okay, so maybe we’re protesting a little too much, and it’s hard to convincingly pull off being “excited” about anything coronavirus-related. (You know, what with all the massive loss of life, spiraling economies, and not being able to go outside.) But one thing this quarantine house reflects, however inadvertently — because, again, these lists were organized completely at random — is just how many different parts of our lives have been thrown into upheaval by the pandemic, whether or not we’re actually in quarantine.

Stimulus check jokes

In April, President Trump announced that most US individuals would be receiving a $1,200 stimulus check to help jumpstart the economy due to the pandemic shutdown. Ever since, social media has run rife with jokes about the stimulus check, both as a kind of wishful pipe dream and the wryer view that the money is merely a bandaid for much larger economic problems:

 TrumpVirus subreddit

Lit Zoom teachers

The experience of teaching remotely during the pandemic has been a divisive one for many teachers: Lower-grade teachers have often found the requirements challenging, while many professors have fully embraced the idea of “Zoom University,” with often hilarious results.

 Facebook

Teachers getting up close and personal with their pets and/or their favorite drinks has been a sub-theme; students chronicling the struggles of teachers as they adjust to Zoom has also become a huge sub-phenomenon of the Zoom educational experience. Other teachers have resisted the lure of demonstrating that they’re the cool professor during class and have instead turned to other video formats to let their hair down:

@principalmccarter

My dancing is a little rusty…but YOUR PRINCIPAL has a message for you this Friday!!! #tiktokprincipal #somosscotttiktokchallenge

♬ The Drip – kingsamjonesiii

Regrowing scallions

Quarantine has forced a new attitude of frugality upon those of us privileged enough to have never worried about our spending behaviors so much before now. Homegrown food fads like bread-baking and creative use of leftovers have arisen as a means of resisting disposability culture. Among such domestic trends, the act of regrowing scallions in one’s kitchen has become a fashionable way of committing to a lifestyle shift — so much so that the New York Times recently dubbed the lifestyle change “scallion nation.”

Scallions also play a role in the mainstreaming of Cottagecore, a longtime niche subculture of naturalists and pastoral enthusiasts. Cottagecore’s soothing, lush greenery has become broadly relevant thanks to the pandemic, but it’s long been a part of online communities like Instagram and Tumblr. And because the hipster aesthetic is indefatigable, even in times of global crisis, the scallions are growing in perfectly manicured beauty all across scallion nation, no cottage needed.

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Still Life of the Pandemic 3: My Closest Friends.

A post shared by Stella Liechty (@stellaa_lunaa) on

Gov. Andrew Cuomo thirst

New Yorkers, and the rest of the country, may be bitterly divided over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plans for reopening the beleaguered state, but the nation is unanimous about one thing: His PowerPoints are great. A longtime staple of his gubernatorial style, Cuomo’s PowerPoints form the backbone of his popular press briefings, which pundits have lauded for their clarity and transparency.

The PowerPoints themselves feel kinda meme-y on their own, in part because there’s something inherently quaint about PowerPoint itself — after all, it’s a presentation tool that’s been driving many of us up the wall for decades. But Cuomo’s blunt, straightforward style also transfers over to the slides, which means they’re ripe for riffing, a fact of which his staff is fully aware. Naturally, the internet has responded with comebacks and improvements.

Graphic designers have very seriously considered how the slides could be improved, but many of Cuomo’s new fans clearly think Andrew and his thirst trap brother, Chris Cuomo, are already perfect (for memes at least):

House #3

In this house, we respect our quarantine authorities. And who are our quarantine authorities, you ask? Why, food critics, local mayors, and the pig who keeps trying to sell us turnips, of course.

The nice thing about many of these memes, not only in this house but across the whole “neighborhood,” as it were, is that you don’t have to actually be stuck in quarantine to appreciate and enjoy them. The pandemic is affecting everyone to a lesser or greater degree, and many of these memes are as much about distracting all of us from our related anxieties, large and small, no matter what our particular situations might be.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Although we’re still in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, it already seems clear that Nintendo’s new Animal Crossing game is as seminal a part of the moment as Nintendo’s Pokémon Go release was to the summer of 2016. ACNH was designed for Nintendo’s popular Switch console, and its release date happened to coincide perfectly with the sudden movement online and indoors of millions of people — most of whom craved new ways to keep in touch with their loved ones.

The result? Everyone, including your favorite movie star, is playing Animal Crossing, and Animal Crossing memes, ranging from jokes about gameplay to jokes about quarantine to a multitude of crossovers with other media. are absolutely everywhere.

 Jeffreestar via Instagram

Over six weeks after the game’s release, they show no sign of slowing down.

Getting to know your local officials

“Local officials” here is a bit of a catch-all for all kinds of government authorities that have risen to unexpected prominence thanks to the times we live in, from Cuomo to the ubiquitous Dr. Fauci. But it’s undeniable that many people have been getting to know their local officials, and they have started stanning them in the process. Across the country, governments that have developed an increasingly visible presence in their communities are attracting all kinds of attention. For instance, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who used memes to spread PSAs about the pandemic, became a meme herself, inspiring some city residents to put up cardboard cutouts of her likeness across the city:

My own Southern hometown mayor went viral for apparently having very good hair during his Covid-19 press conferences. Up north, Dr. Horacio Arruda, a Quebecois health official, became a minor celebrity with his own Facebook meme page after his daily briefings became a hit.

It’s possible that our fixation on local officials is the result of a dearth of strong national and international leadership; but it could also just be another sign that bored people, trapped at home, will meme anything and everyone.

Depressed but cute

 Facebook
One quarantine version of “self-care”

“Depressed but cute” is how my editor and I describe a specific meme aesthetic that’s taken over our feeds, in which quarantine-related depression gets framed in a saccharine or frilly pastel aesthetic with lots of cute animals and soothing images. Lots of Extremely Online subcultures already rock this vibe — like emocore, gothcore, softcore, or kawaiicore, depending on who you ask. But quarantine has given it a distinctly mainstream flavor, with posts that flirt with existential despair coexisting with memes from normies complaining about schoolwork or social distancing.

Alison Roman

New York Times food columnist Alison Roman is one of the surprise stars of quarantine. This is partly thanks to her already-famous recipes, like her shallot pasta, a.k.a. “the Pasta,” or her salted chocolate chunk shortbread cookies, a.k.a. “the Cookies.” But her celebrity is largely thanks to the confluence of events that means you have a lot of time on your hands and the desire to try new things. A huge part of Roman’s quarantine appeal is her accessibility despite the highbrow tone of her recipes: They’re easy to make, even if the ingredients aren’t always easy to find.

And let’s face it: If you’re the kind of person who’s got a bunch of scallions growing on your windowsill right now, then you’re probably also the kind of person who’d like to caramelize them and then brag about how you made Alison Roman’s famous shallot pasta.

And so, a meme was born.

House #4

Ah, House #4, perhaps the most ambitious house on the block. When you’re not making meticulous obstacle courses or waiting for bread dough to rise, you’re writing literary masterpieces, NBD.

It’s tempting to ask whether this is a house of overachievers or a house of people going steadily out of their mind with boredom. But the nifty thing about this accidental grouping of memes is that they all reflect something of a shared quarantine experience. Maybe you’re someone who’s using this time to complete your memoirs, train at home for your next 2k run, or finally catch up on those 83 volumes of One Piece.

Or maybe you’re one of the people who’s desperate for something new to keep you occupied, like the friend who told me after just a few days of quarantining that they’d run out of things to clean. If that sounds like you, then maybe you’re not alone: “Hmm, I think I’m in House #4,” my Most Annoyingly Overachieving Friend told me after looking the list over. It’s possible everyone in House #4 is my enemy.

Bread

 Reductress

So much has been said about bread-baking during Covid-19 that it’s hard to know what to add — but clearly not enough has been said about bread memes. Sourdough has gotten all the attention, but banana bread has also been a huge quarantine fad — and there’s also some weird rivalry/tension between banana bread-lovers and garlic bread-lovers.

The popular notion of bread-baking during coronavirus is that it’s a rewarding and relatively easy thing you can do to kill time and be productive. But lest we forget that much of this is still some pretty hipster nonsense, there’s always that one person who’s just been waiting to whip out their Hozier-inspired focaccia fanart:

Pet obstacle courses

The best thing about pet obstacle courses is that they not only are time-consuming and intricate ways to occupy your time, they also double as obstacle courses for your kids, too, and we all know your kids need to be corralled and given as many obstacles as possible.

But these kinds of memes — which many pet owners have embraced — also let pets be a part of our pandemic narrative, beyond the discordant confusion and worry many of them showed for us in the beginning. When we were all adjusting to unexpected days at home. Many pet owners active on social media turned their pets’ angst into viral comedy, and while that was relatable, it’s been nice to see a different, more sincere side of human-animal companionship.

Quarantine houses

As you can see, both from the example above and the fact that you’re currently in the middle of a quarantine house meme, there’s no real order to these houses beyond their main theme. The implied theme of the quarantine houses above is “villainy,” or perhaps just “awful people” — sorry to Caroline Calloway and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote Cats.

Although the quarantine house template is sometimes broken down into sub-themes by house, they’re usually just about showcasing the creativity of the list-maker. Unlike its predecessor, last year’s still-popular lunch table meme, or its cohort, the “You can only choose 3” meme, the object of the quarantine house meme is not to align yourself with your true social group, but to rather make your own sense out of the randomness of the universe.

Have fun!

Writing King Lear

This meme involves the idea that some of us will produce a masterpiece while stuck at home for weeks — or that we should at the very least be trying to. It came about because in the early days of quarantine, social media dredged up the longstanding rumor that Shakespeare wrote King Lear amid a pandemic.

Its place in this house is ambiguous. Maybe you’re actually writing your own King Lear — well done! — or maybe you’re ironically rejecting the idea that anyone could or should be aiming for productivity and literary superlatives during the middle of a stressful, time-eating global pandemic. In fact, if there’s a way to make “declining to write King Lear” the new “writing King Lear,” the internet is already on it — just witness those art recreations.

House #5

Between taking Netflix’s trashiest true crime drama as their house sigil, trying to cut their own hair, healing the earth, and trying to do the five or six jobs of a parent in quarantine, House #5 is quite possibly barely holding it together, and that’s okay.

After all, many of the larger cultural constructs holding us together as a society — like regular work hours, human interaction, fashion, shared communal experiences, time itself currently seem meaningless. So if you’re feeling a bit lost or like you ran out of clean laundry two weeks ago because owning a washer in an apartment is a pipe dream and going to the laundromat is hell even without a global pandemic, you’re not alone!

Tiger King

Tiger King, like Animal Crossing, has been absolutely everywhere for much of quarantine. After a month, the public’s craze for Netflix’s bizarre true crime story about two obsessive animal breeders turned bitter enemies seems to be dying down, but the memes are not. And honestly, bless them for that.

Night shift gang

Posted by Stef Riley on Monday, April 20, 2020

“We are the virus”

“Nature is healing. We are the virus” is a delightfully specific meme based on a spate of viral social media claims, many of which were proven to be false, that with everyone staying indoors, a random assortment of wildlife was rapidly “returning” to civilized parts of the globe. The idea promptly circulated that — gasp! — humans were the real virus all along.

The level of ridicule this idea prompted can best be represented through the resulting meme, which remixes the random absurdity of the original idea into a bunch of hysterical images of “nature” “returning” to civilization.

We! Are! The Virus!

Distraught parents

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Just sharing my gifts with the world.

A post shared by Scary Mommy (@scarymommy) on

Parents with school-age kids at home under quarantine have been asked to be teachers, caregivers, homemakers, and workers all at once in this unprecedented time; there’s a giant abyss of distraught parenting memes that reflect just how weird and chaotic that is.

Blogs like Scary Mommy on Insta and Mommy Has a Potty Mouth on Facebook are full of parenting quarantine memes, and they’re all pretty much some flavor of one simple plea: “HELP.”

 MHAPM / Facebook

Quarantine hair

Bad haircuts, or at least jokes about bad haircuts, have become a staple of quarantine life, but thankfully, social media is here to chronicle this ongoing travesty!

The attempts many people have made at cutting their own hair at home tells you how long some of us have been under lockdown, but these brave souls and their terrible decisions have been a true gift to the rest of us.

 Reddit

Even celebrities and their pets aren’t immune to this curse, and the world is a better place for it.

House #6

Oh, wow. Did we accidentally create a relatively chill quarantine house, or is this a house full of people who’ve transcended time and space and are just here to drink smoothies and wander through the various decades of their existence? Is House #6’s chill ambiance actually a deceptive calm verging on numbness? Who can say?

Keep in mind that none of us have ever done this before, so none of us know how to do it. Maybe you’re in a different house altogether, rocking the “depressed but cute” vibe of House #3, or the overachieving ethos of House #4. In any case, there’s no “right” way to quarantine. This is your bizarre surreal quarantine experience: Whatever it is, it’s yours to own, so if you want (and are able) to kick back with your cocktail smoothie and party like it’s 2007, go for it.

The waning concept of time

You can be forgiven for never knowing what day it is anymore. As quarantine has taken hold, things like days of the week have ceased to matter, because we have no larger social structure to build any distinctions around. So every day is just Day. Kinda like how everything on the internet right now is just Meme.

TikTok families

To be clear, TikTok families were always great, but under quarantine, they’ve gone galaxy brain thanks to lots of multi-generational challenges, like J. Lo’s family dance challenge, or this utterly perfect #ImJustaKid challenge, in which families recreate their childhood photos:

@alexboisset

20 años más tarde seguimos todos juntos ❤️ #parati #imjustakid

♬ Ký Ức Trong Tôi – craigtm08

Gossip Girl

Why is Gossip Girl, the deliciously cold, seminal teen drama from the Aughts, suddenly all over our social media timelines? Basically because people like the awkward wordplay they can create from its iconic font. It probably helps that the accompanying picture of Leighton Meester is too great not to be back in circulation — and because we are bored and as previously stated have zero concept of time anyway. Maybe it’s still 2007! Who knows!

Dalgona coffee

@imhannahcho

yes i hand whisked this whipped coffee for like 20 mins bc my mommy wanted to try it she loved it!! (달고나 커피) #korean #fyp #aesthetic

♬ Put your head on my shoulder cover by karlo – karlogutierrez

Few memes have spread more quickly and thoroughly during the pandemic as this yummy TikTok promoting this whipped smoothie made from milk, sugar, and instant coffee mix.

 r/Meme/Reddit
 Makeameme

Dalgona coffee seemed to take all of a minute to travel from its South Korean origins through most of Asian social media and then directly to celebs like Lizzo. Look, you may need a hand mixer to make this work, but at least you’ll be over-caffeinated and awake for quarantine.

The zeitgeist is memes

Whatever house you’re in — whatever quarantine experience you’re having — we hope these quarantine houses remind you that you’re not alone. There’s a meme for every mood and moment. And since our primary lifeline to the outside world is currently through our computers and phones, memes may be the best way we have of making every mood and moment retain meaning. Are memes the true quantifiable metric of quarantine life? The only way to find out is to produce more memes.


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