On 19 April, an Instagram account named @juulpuppy uploaded a series of images referencing illustrator Roger Hargreaves' Mr Men and Little Miss cartoons, which originated in the seventies, with phrases that sounded very 2022 (among them: ‘Little Miss Neurodivergent Stripper’ and ‘Little Miss SHEIN Haul’, referring to the fast fashion brand). While these weren't the first of their kind, they were the first to pick up traction and led to the meme's meteoric rise. Her memes were liked more than 39,000 times and, by July, everyone from LinkedIn to restaurant chain Nando's had jumped on the trend.
On 18 July, @juulpuppy posted again: ‘Little Miss uncredited creator of this meme format.’
Behind every viral meme that's shared on an Instagram story, remixed into a TikTok trend and eventually ruined by corporations trying to capitalize on something cool, there's a robust internet economy humming under the surface.
For those who break through, there's big money in memes. Top accounts with millions of followers can net hundreds of thousands of dollars per year through sponsored posts and affiliate deals, and even launch their creators into the next level of business. Early meme account holder @thefatjewish could have earned at least six figures per year before he parlayed his internet fame into creating a wine brand, which he later sold to brewing company Anheuser-Busch. But it's tougher for those who originate the trends.
‘Meme culture is one that's built on remixing, so it's expected that someone will find your meme funny and put their own spin on it,’ says Idil Galip, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh focused on meme culture. ‘This becomes a problem when aggregator meme pages with hundreds of thousands of followers start reposting your original memes, making sponsored content and money by stealing someone else's work.’
But it's not all about monetary compensation. Credit for the template is another currency – being known for originating a meme format can lead to more followers and greater recognition for subsequent work. That's what led to @juulpuppy's frustrated Little Miss post – while she created original memes that led to thousands of followers for other creators who were inspired by and reposted her work, she's seen little benefit (@juulpuppy didn't respond to a request for comment).
A viral economy
That doesn't mean there isn't money to be made – if you hit the right tone and algorithmic wave. Nicole Gagliardi, a 22-year-old student in San Francisco, hadn't regularly made memes before this summer, but there was something about Little Miss that resonated. ‘It's like a wave of self-awareness and making jokes about our vulnerabilities,’ she says.
She started posting memes in early July (crediting @juulpuppy for the idea). Originally her Instagram account, @littlemissnotesapp, was just meant to be a repository of her creations – she reposted them to her story and occasionally used the hashtag #LittleMiss – when suddenly it took off. By the end of July, she'd become the de facto source for Little Miss memes on Instagram, with 2 million followers. ‘The business side is wild – I went [from] nothing to having celebrities and brands in my DMs – that's been unreal,’ she says.
Now she's working on brand partnerships, figuring out how to price the value of a meme account. ‘Having an idea of a CPM (cost per thousand impressions) is really important,’ she says. ‘This CPM can range from maybe $10 [to] slightly under $30 – it depends on the account, the audience, the number of posts and the type of posts, as well as other factors. So, that number really varies.’
The platform question
That said, the market for memes was already fickle. The shelf life is typically short and unpredictable, losing a lot of its cache when corporations weigh in – which is happening more quickly than ever before as brands try to reach a younger audience. The platforms where these accounts grow popular are also growing less predictable. Instagram has shut down popular meme accounts without warning and recently faced backlash for deprioritizing posts (it's since backtracked, but the future of the feed is still uncertain).
But, for those who manage to make it big, what could be better than making money from a little self-awareness? ‘I'll keep doing this for as long as I can,’ says Nicole.