It doesn’t take more than a few minutes on the Instagram meme page Journal to figure out the intended audience. The account’s bio reads: “🌈 everything happy 👻 always hilarious.” It’s most recent meme asks, “What’s worse than heartbreak?” (answer: “wearing a good outfit and not getting a pic”). The avatar, a cartoon piece of notebook paper with “journal” doodled in bright pink font, looks like something you could buy at Limited Too. Journal, which has just over 500,000 followers, is the meme-page equivalent of Tiger Beat, targeted directly to “Gen Z teenage girls who like pop culture and influencers,” as one of its developers, 30-something Barak Shragai, put it recently.
Shragai runs IMGN Media, a 3-year-old startup that has been trying to cash in on the world of memes. IMGN is basically a production studio—like HBO, but for memes. They hire teams of “content creators” to write, edit and curate memes, and try to make pages with followings large enough to rival major celebrities.
Though many of the most famous pages like Fuck Jerry and Beige Cardigan started as pet projects, in the past few years, the accounts quickly become profitable. It didn’t take long for investors to jump on board and try to figure out how to “scale” their popularity. These days, memes are very legitimate business. When Shragai and his partner started IMGN in 2015, they raised $1.5 million in seed funding from American and Israeli investors. Earlier this year, they announced they’d grown that number to $6 million.
IMGN’s most well-known page is Daquan, an account based on a fictional young black guy of the same name, which they bought from the page’s anonymous Canadian founder in late 2016. But the company has since launched several “meme brands,” each attempting to replicate followings like Daquan’s, and each publishing material as narrowly targeted as Journal. They have SoccerMemes for soccer fans, TryHard for esports players, Hannabelle for people who like horror, Mateo Says for “latin comedy,” TheSavagePosts for more general pop-culture followers, and Sarcasm Therapy for women slightly older than the Journal crowd, among others.
Part of what originally made Daquan so popular—he currently has 11.8 million followers on Instagram—was that he aggregated memes attached to a single persona: Daquan, a fictional character born out of Black Twitter in the 2010s. Since IMGN acquired the account, the memes have gotten more varied, to include jokes about esports, politics, and a range of pop-culture subjects. That was intentional. Shragai says he doesn’t want his company’s pages associated with a particular individual—which he calls “influencer-style pages”—but to function as generalized publishing pages, because that makes more money.
“In influencer accounts, you see the owners actually showing their face and their identities,” Shragai tells The Daily Beast. “They become influencers who are publishing memes, and people are attached to their personalities. The problem when you are attaching your persona to something, to a publishing brand, is it becomes harder to scale.”
The reason personas are problematic, Shragai explained, is because they make the memes less universally applicable. They “create friction” between the account and the audience. The memes become less universal. Some people might “not relate” to the joke. If they don’t relate, they probably won’t share it.
Instead of aggregating memes in the vein of a specific persona, the company tries to curate according to a specific demographic—like, say, “Gen Z teenage girls who like pop culture and influencers.” Demographics hit the “relatability” sweet spot—niche enough to get users to “identify” with the joke, but broad enough not to alienate too many people. Shragai says that in testing out pages they try not just to appeal to specific demographics but to mimic their voice to a tee.
“Today one of the key editorial things we do with every brand we launch—we always think, how can we mimic our audience’s voice?” he tells me. “How can we speak like the audience? In the way we caption things, we always try to speak like a very specific audience that we find. That results in way more shares and people sending our content to DMs... Memes can be very relatable—they’re about things that just happen to you or your friends.”
A few years ago, the critic Rebecca Mead wrote an article excoriating a metric that had suddenly become central in cultural criticism: relatability. A neologism referring to the experience of seeing oneself reflected in a character or circumstance, relatability allowed the reader or viewer to “remain passive,” Mead wrote, because they expect the work of reaction to be done for them. “If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself,” Mead wrote, “the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.”
What Mead loathed in the relatable—its instant ability to register with readers on a visceral level—is precisely what Shragai, and advertisers broadly, love about it.
“It’s a matter of attention span,” he says. “You can’t go shorter than this. You had Vines, then you had memes. What can be shorter than a meme? In just a few seconds you are sharing content and you can connect with your friends. It can be funny as well. Because of the social feeds and the dynamics they are creating, you see that people are trying to relate around very quick points of view. Memes provide that. It doesn’t matter if it’s funny or if it’s informative. It’s quick. It’s very easily shared. You can share it very easily.”