- “21st Century Humor” memes involve sped-up, distorted visuals and sound effects mashed together.
- Across different hashtags, the videos have amassed over 100 million views on TikTok.
- The surreal video trend follows the “YouTube poop” video format.
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Suddenly, three different sped-up videos – a man pointing at a book, a purple monster truck, and the YouTuber FlightReacts making ridiculous faces – start playing at once. In the background, a frenetic electronic song rings out with random sound effects like explosions splattered throughout.
A new sequence of frantic clips soon takes over and a new song begins. At one point, a waffle falls while a soundbite of someone saying “Oi!” in a squeaky voice is dubbed on top. The video ends with a group of guys robot-dancing around a room to a haunting vaporwave-esque instrumental sound.
This type of video has taken over TikTok in the last year, typically accompanied by hashtags including “Interdimensional Memes,” “s—posting,” and “21st Century Humor.” They’re most frequently referred to as Interdimensional Memes or 21st Century Humor memes.
Across those hashtags, this nonsensical meme format has amassed over 100 million views, with some of the most popular videos racking up over a million hits each. These videos are nearly incoherent and involve mashing together 20 to 30 different clips and sound effects within a breathless 10 to 15 seconds. The videos are as eerie and discomforting as they are addictive.
The meme style is reminiscent of what Vulture dubbed in May as “chaos edits,” or dizzying videos full of superimposed memes that make the viewer feel like they’re “getting an IV hookup of pure internet chaos,” Vulture reported.
Although the videos cull from a variety of source material, there are some recurring themes: explosion, fart, and ringtone sound effects; clips of Dwayne Johnson smoldering; the YouTube personality FlightReacts making wild expressions; and bizarre images, like a picture of headphones made out of microwave ramen packets.
Creators speed up, distort, saturate, stretch, or mutate these pieces of media to maximize the ludicrousness of the clips.
The videos aren’t even that funny at face value. But they’re technologically impressive, hyper-digital spectacles that viewers admire purely because they are so unintelligible.
Surrealist memes have a long lineage
These TikToks follow a long line of brain-shattering meme formats that developed over the last decade and a half.
All versions of these trends can be traced back to “YouTube poops” (YTPs), a chaotic video style that came alive in 2004 and went viral toward the end of the 2000s. YTPs parodied real-life television shows and media by adding strange noises and visual glitches.
During the early 2010s, YTPs began to fade in popularity. Enter “montage parodies,” which also defaced real-life source material like movie clips, but layered blaring dubstep and trap music, flashing rainbow lights, and meme blitzes. Montage parodies retained the irreverence of YTP videos but with a more professional (albeit overwhelming) finished product.
Toward the end of the 2010s, a new absurd meme strain formed on a subreddit with almost a million followers. The page’s title, which uses an ableist slur, originated from a meme shared on the fringe messaging platform 4chan, according to KnowYourMeme, a meme encyclopedia website.
That format focuses on juxtaposing low-quality images with surreal text overlays in an ironic way.
The popularity comes with the return of text-based memes
Absurdist content is reaching a climax in meme culture right now.
In particular, there’s a striking similarity between “21st Century Humor” clips and Instagram text memes, which became popular in early 2020 and feature nonsensical text paired with random images, as The New York Times reported.
“21st Century Humor” videos are like Instagram text memes in motion. Both trends package memes in a low-quality yet nostalgic internet-circa-2005 way and juxtapose contexts in surreal fashion. The two forms also appeal to those who want to edit footage and images with ease, as they don’t require extensive Adobe Photoshop or After Effects knowledge to produce.
They’re also both reminiscent of early internet “image macro” memes made of an image with overlaid text in Impact font.
Over time, image macros became seen as unfunny and trivial: In 2014, the Daily Dot reported that they had “been bled dry of all their novelty.”
But what was once cringe has now become cool again. In recent months, Gen Z-ers have revitalized old fads that were recently seen as untrendy: TikTokers are rediscovering Y2K fashion and SoundCloud musicians are revamping 2000s songs like Big Time Rush’s “Boyfriend” into avant-garde meme music.