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Is Memology the New Climbing Media?

Climbing meme pages are becoming extremely popular, with high engagement and growing follower counts.

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In 2021, social media has taken over as the primary purveyor of news, climbing news included. If you’re reading this article, chances are you came from a Facebook or Instagram post (unless you’re one of those folks that just trawls climbing.com daily). Social media is arguably the hub of the new climbing scene: Climbers learn to build anchors from “How-To” videos on TikTok, and hey watch the latest hard ascents on Mellow’s YouTube channel. 

Social media is how we follow our favorite pros and homies alike, keep our social circle updated on where we’re climbing and what we’re sending, and how we find new climbing media, whether it’s videos or photos or written pieces. 

Social media is also the breeding ground for a new type of climbing media. Memes.

For starters, it helps to understand exactly what a meme is. The word doesn’t just refer to the internet images you might think of (things like “Doge” and “Forever Alone”). British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” way back in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene, explaining a meme as a vehicle for how the transmission of ideas results in cultural evolution, just like how the transmission of genes results in biological evolution.

Merriam Webster defines a meme as an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture. Memes, by this definition, have been around since the dawn of time, with everything from cave art in the prehistoric period to the folktales, jokes, and ballads of the medieval ages to the 21st century’s “Cool S” (you know the one, you drew it all over your middle school notebooks just like I did).

There are memes and meme pages covering almost all niches of modern culture, both domestically and internationally, and climbing is no outlier. 

@rawk_tawk is perhaps the most well-known climbing meme page on Instagram, but in recent years hosts of new pages have popped up. Some are niche, focusing on certain subsets of our sport, such as ice climbing (@dull_ice_screw_memes), while others take a broader approach (@topropetheworld), or run off of an Onion-style spoof news appeal (@summitspray, @belayermagazine). 

Even the most well-known meme pages on Instagram only have a handful of followers compared to the Instagram accounts of mainstay media publications like Climbing and Rock and Ice, but the follower base is often incredibly loyal, engagement is high, and reach is growing. “I guess most accounts are really relying on Instagram anyway, why not just generally be part of it all and be part of the news cycle instead of being a reader?” said the founder of climbing meme page @crispshawarma when we chatted on Discord. 

@crispshawarma is a collective of anonymous memers that sprang onto Instagram last April and have since garnered over 17,000 followers, taking aim at everyone from Daniel Woods to speed climbers to Climbing itself, with a variety of satirical posts. The page’s founder, who has been involved in the climbing scene for 25 years, would not disclose how many members exactly are in the collective, but noted that it is spread across North America, and its members have all been memeing in some respect since age 12 or 13. 

“It seems like we all use the feed as a way to get news … democratically,” they said. “Also, it seems like it’s a take on climbing which is apart from the sponsors, the watering down, the puff pieces, the nature baes, and just pure uncut stuff, even we have to be picky about the memes to not get completely shut down by the algorithm or irate pros.” 

Memes are also incredibly compact and digestible, perfect for a fast-paced digital age where even long-ish Instagram captions (Renan Ozturk, we’re looking at you…) are commonly skipped over. But although memes are undoubtedly a growing force of media, Crisp added that they see the quality of memeing overall taking a slight turn for the worse. “Until the age of deepfrying and post-irony (now) it’s been a steady progression [in quality],” they said. “Basically [post-irony] takes away from the way that this account runs because it doesn’t really play to reality, whereas the memes I make are related to Earth and climbing, with speed climbing being the worst. Gen Z memes are just a coping mechanism for the general malaise of the modern world.”

When searching through Instagram’s climbing meme pages, one finds a high number of memes (both on Crisp’s page and others) about certain climbers in particular. Daniel Woods, Alex Honnold, and Chris Sharma are all common targets, but Crisp added that this isn’t just because they’re well known, at least as far as the @crispshawarma page is concerned. “I think you can tell who has a good spirit about things. Daniel and Sharma seem really into joking around. There are other pros that would really not want to get the jokes on them, so to speak.”

It’s undeniable that in many cases memes and other “humor” posts can turn foul quite quickly, leading to hotbeds of controversy. It’s inevitable, since by nature a meme is almost always poking fun at something or someone. When I asked them how they navigated this terrain and where they drew the line between fair and foul, Crisp’s response was quite simple. “I guess the golden rule sort of applies. Don’t make memes if you feel like the person is being attacked or the issue is being diluted.”

Though Crisp believes it’s important as a meme page to take a stance on some issues, they don’t believe comedy is a viable way to effect true change in the long run. “There is this saying that a free society means that you can make fun of those with the power … but sometimes just making jokes to cancel someone famous or take someone down a peg or make them lose sponsors, that’s not a joke. I don’t know how [we] make the call but so far so good.” They noted that there’s often some deliberation among the collective about what is fair game, and have a slew of “bad” memes that have never been posted. When I mentioned the Onion, asking if they felt its humorous, often politically charged content could bring about positive change, Crisp noted that they feel publications like the Onion are mostly working off of confirmation bias. “You wouldn’t find it funny if you weren’t of that ilk,” they said.

As far as climbing news, they feel much of the reporting is grasping at straws. “I think the last real news we had was the Freerider going free solo. Honestly, everything else has been the slow progression,” they told me. That said, it’s unquestionable that news will always, at the end of the day, be determined by the consumer. The growth of clickbait and fluff pieces was a natural response to the shortened attention spans of the modern reader, just like the rising popularity of memes and other satire is an inevitable response to the growing dissatisfaction with the climbing media of today. The publication (whether a magazine or a meme page) decides the news they wish to report on, but the consumer ultimately decides what news is worthy of consumption.

“So what’s news?” Crisp said. “Is it what you like? If so, that’s really what I read climbing news for.”