News analysis

Eve Given
The Ever Given beached across the Suez Canal, blocking all traffic. The ship was re-floated on 29 March.
Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies
  • A month ago the news broke that a giant ship named Ever Given had gotten stuck in the Suez Canal.
  • Immediately, memes and jokes flooded the internet.
  • The breadth of the story's virality can tell us a lot about the world we're living in today.
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Before Tuesday, 23 March 2021, only a specific subset of individuals was thinking critically about the Suez Canal - something most people probably came across during high school history. But that changed at around 07:40 local time, when a giant container ship the length of four football fields got wedged across the width of the canal, blocking the path and rendering it completely unusable by other vessels.

This, we would come to learn, was a huge deal. In the subsequent five days that followed, attempts to dislodge the Ever Given proved futile, leading to a backlog of more than 400 ships, driving up fuel prices and holding up an estimated $9.6 billion of trade each day. The scenario quickly became a meme.

Jokes began on Twitter before moving to Instagram - a platform much less known for its current affairs content - where it was memed by retail brands and Dungeons & Dragons fan pages alike. On TikTok, the #suezcanal hashtag has been viewed over 214 million times, where the posts are characteristically chaotic, featuring experts trying to explain the situation, people stanning, impersonating, and posting from the point of view of the Ever Given.

It wasn't long before the memeification of the story began to transcend what's typical on social media - within days the Suez Canal had become a virtual destination on the Microsoft Flight Simulator video game, a parody erotica short story popped up on Amazon, and the URL www.istheshipstillstuck.com was bought by an enterprising developer, and is now available to buy as an NFT.

When the ship was finally freed after six days on 30 March, disappointed onlookers demanded it be "put back". Despite the severe consequences of the event, it seemed most people online wanted to joke about it.

The Suez Canal saga will undoubtedly be one of the most remembered news events of the year, and that's largely because of the extraordinary way in which it dominated discourse in our online spaces. No one could have predicted that a story about international trade would be one of the most far-reaching and enduring internet trends of the year, but the fact that it was tells us a lot about where society's at. It wasn't hot takes or furious debates which kept the conversation going, it was largely jokes, parodies, and memes, and they were everywhere.

One person who saw the funny side is comedy writer Mollie Goodfellow. She has more than 60,000 Twitter followers and frequently posts satirical takes on the news of the day. During the Suez Canal story, she took it to a whole new level. In the first two days of the blockage she posted upwards of 40 tweets relating to the story, from pop culture references to well-worn meme formats, and relatable musings. She told Insider that it was the humorous aspect of the saga which she connected with.

"No-one was hurt or ill and there was nothing horrible about the story," she explained. "It was some much-needed light relief for me and I'm guessing many others, which is why the memes resonated so well. There is just something inherently funny about a boat getting stuck in one of the world's biggest shipping canals."

The Suez Canal was all of us

Unlike Goodfellow, cartoonist Chaz Hutton didn't immediately spot the potential of the story. When he first saw the news, he thought it was a "relatively obscure, slightly amusing story about a boat having a bit of whoopsie." Hutton runs an Instagram account where he posts satirical comic strips to almost 250,000 followers, but it took him until the second day of the blockage to realise it was worth turning into a drawing.

The resulting post was a classic meme format: the Ever Given is labeled "me," while the Suez Canal walls are "procrastination," the water is "workflow," and the tiny excavator trying and failing to dig its way out is Hutton "writing a to-do list." He posted the image to Twitter, not thinking it was particularly remarkable.

"It was pretty early in the morning, I hadn't had a second coffee, there might have been a slight hangover and it was the best I could come up with," Hutton told Insider. Clearly, it resonated though. Hutton's post received over 15,000 retweets and 50,000 likes, and was included in a number of "best Suez Canal memes" roundups in the days that followed.

The "Suez Canal is me" format of memes was widely used across the internet, with the general consensus being that the rollercoaster that has been the past year was represented by the Ever Given.

Bradley E. Wiggins is an associate professor and department head of media communications at Webster University in Vienna, and author of the 2019 book The Discursive Power of Memes in Digital Culture: Ideology, Semiotics, and Intertextuality. He remembers a similar instance of an innocuous news event becoming meme-shorthand for a social mood back in 2018, when a photo was released showing newly discovered skeletal remains of a man who survived the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., only to be killed by a boulder. Much like the Suez Canal interpretation, everyone seemed to identify with the skeleton, while the boulder represented "the relentless news cycle" or "fake news and social media," Wiggins explained. He believes these moments occur when there's a collective need for a "release of tension."

"Memes offer a really concise, succinct, highly shareable way to get in on the joke," Wiggins said, adding that when it comes to stories that begin to flood the internet, a "fear of missing out" comes also into play.

While lighthearted, the Suez Canal story had political undertones

Even when the memes weren't quite as on-the-nose as "Suez Canal = me," they were largely being used to make pointed assertions that centered the creator's identity and place within the broader social issues we're facing. One genre of photo in particular, which showed the vast size of the ship compared to the excavator working to unblock it, proved to be exceedingly memeable, and was used to make points about mental health and systemic inequality, as well as lighter-hearted yet highly relatable ones about the hamster-wheel nature of keeping up in an increasingly digital-focused world.

When Kat Callahan, a Tokyo-based journalist, came across the Suez Canal story, she immediately connected it to sea shanties. Sea shanties saw a TikTok renaissance earlier this year and it seemed obvious to her that the two memes should collide. She created Suez Canal-themed lyrics to the tune of the most popular song, "The Wellerman," and posted them in a lengthy viral Twitter thread. Her creation included subtle nods at the political aspect of the story in lines such as: "the sand is deep, no ship is freed / of unfettered trade do we have need / but here we remain quite trapped indeed / perhaps we'll need a tow."

Callahan believes that it's these political undercurrents that contributed to the popularity of the story. She highlighted that during the pandemic we've become increasingly reliant on things being delivered to us, but many of us haven't given a huge amount of thought to what that means for the world, or whether it's sustainable. Callahan told Insider, "When the traffic gets physically stopped in the Suez, it's almost like a physical representation of this strangling a supply chain."

Others saw politics in the meme as well, using it to argue against the current economic model and suggesting that it was "predicted" by Marx.

Many people who didn't come from a place of social commentary were simply amused by the poignance of the story at a time when a lot of us feel "stuck." Others found pleasure in being a part of something that felt timely and exciting. The Ever Given's blockage of the Suez Canal really did offer something for everyone.

What's unique is that this particular event seemed to resonate in so many ways, and the internet was the perfect space for the individual experiences to collide, creating what we have come to interpret as "a moment."

One month on, the moment has mostly passed, but the memes will be immortalised in internet history as monuments to when the world came together online to giggle about international trade.

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