When Spencer Pratt, a star of MTV’s “The Hills,” saw him cast as the Delta variant of the coronavirus in a social media meme, he found it entertaining but also misleading.
“It’s nice for you to be a meme, but if they watch the show again, they’ll really see who the Delta variant is,” Pratt said in a text message on Thursday.
The meme — “my fall plans” vs. “the Delta variant” — combines an image of a fun, carefree, or even neutral scene (fall plans) with an image of a saboteur (the Delta variant). In the case of mr. Pratt’s plans for the fall are the ongoing best friendship of his former castmates Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag (then his girlfriend, now his wife); what makes him the Delta variant is that a feud in which he was involved caused the two women to cut ties.
There have been countless variations on the form, with references to film (the happily engaged couple in “Crazy Rich Asians”/the mother-in-law; Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail”/the chain that bankrupted the independent bookstore), fine art (a devotional fresco of Jesus Christ/the woman who botched the restoration), YouTube videos (Dakota Johnson’s lime bowl/her lime allergy), and, of course, reality TV (the Kardashian-Jenner family/Blac Chyna).
Like the drama between Mr. Pratt, Mrs. Montag, and Mrs. Conrad, the meme, which may seem trivial at first, has a lot of emotion behind it.
“The meme indicates that people are coming to terms with the fact that the upcoming season could seem devastating to the season before,” said Heather Woods, an assistant professor of rhetoric and technology at Kansas State University who has researched memes. . . “It suggests that people are recognizing that the light at the end of the tunnel will be gone for many months to come.” She described the format as a “eulogy for the fall we could have had.”
In addition to providing an outlet for those feelings of loss, the memes help communicate the risk that the Delta variant poses. This highly contagious strain has led to new coronavirus outbreaks in the United States, the worst in areas where vaccination rates are low. And while vaccines are highly protective against Covid-19, breakthrough infections can occur, although they remain uncommon.
“They get the message across that Delta is in our communities and as such we need to prepare quickly and efficiently,” said Dr. Woods on the meme makers. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people creating, seeing and sharing the meme don’t also make pandemic emergency plans given the widespread transmission.”
Over the past 17 months, all kinds of coronavirus memes have taken off online: the 2020 challenge (a compilation of 12 photos, one for each month of the year, each with a different emotion), “my plans/2020” (a precursor to the Delta variant meme) and “don’t worry about what’s in the vaccine” (if you consume questionable stuff). While often lighthearted, they have helped document the turning points of the pandemic.
“Everyone goes through different forms of trauma that connect us as humans at one time or another — death in the family, the experience of a breakup — there are certain experiential things that connect us,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communications and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University. “But Covid is unique because it’s happening now, right now we’re having similar experiences at the same time.” Because the jokes are so widely recognizable, she said, they tend to spread quickly.
In years to come, these memes could serve as historical artifacts, reflecting the frustration and anxiety of this particular moment in the pandemic. Like all memes, the Delta variants “provide an opportunity for a collective, collaborative writing of past, present, and future,” said Dr. woods. And they are effective in part because “they are interactive, iterative and community oriented. They are by definition collective.”
Except maybe in one respect: When did everyone make fall plans?